Though Nava Atlas is best known as the author of many books on vegan vegetarian cooking, she also produces visual books on women’s issues, most recently The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life (2011). This lavishly illustrated book explores the writing lives of twelve classic women authors in their own words, with commentary on the relevance of their experiences to all women who love to write.
by Nava Atlas
Too much to do and too little time, no room of one’s own, and no willpower to simply sit down and write—those are the Big Three of “why I’m not writing” excuses. Those obstacles were as true for women writers in earlier generations as they are for today’s writers, as I discovered in researching the writing lives of classic authors of the past for The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life.
Sure, you’re busy, but you may feel less overwhelmed when you learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children, and was in charge of all the household duties, aside from being responsible for bringing in at least half of its income. Still, she somehow found the wherewithal to complete Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that’s been credited with shifting public attitude about slavery when it was published in 1853.
In times past, a writer was truly alone with the blank piece of paper. Now, with most of us working on computers, fully wired, a new daily battle is fought against the constant distraction of the Internet, that sneaky demon lurking behind the blank page on the screen. How did writers past, the ones who ultimately succeeded gloriously, find time, privacy, and the will to write? Here are some nuggets of wisdom from several Literary Ladies:
Don’t take an all or nothing attitude. Some of the authors in this book, including Willa Cather (author of My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and many other works), worked a mere few hours a day: “I work from two and a half to three hours a day. I don’t hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn’t gain by it,” she said in a 1921 interview.
Don’t wait until you have the perfect private, quiet place. L.M. Montgomery (best known for her Anne of Green Gables series) got nothing done in her silent room before or after work as a working girl in 1920. But when she snatched odd moments in the bustle of the newsroom where she was employed, “The impossible happened … Every morning here I write, and not bad stuff either.” Similarly, Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I must seize opportunities,” and found that she got good work done on planes, as well as in airports and hotels.
To get work done, think of small chunks. Some authors of the past found their will to stay put and write was aided by just focusing on that day’s work. Edna Ferber (hugely successful in her time for cinematic novels like Cimmaron and Giant), thought it better to think of “any long piece of work as a day to day task,” and not become overwhelmed by the big picture, otherwise, “one can drown in a morass of apprehension.”
So, while today’s writing women might battle the temptations of Facebook and Twitter, it was little different for George Sand, who complained in 1869, “I let myself be distracted by guilty fancies.” No doubt, those were her myriad of lovers, but that didn’t stop her from writing more than seventy novels. See excuses for what they are, and don’t let them get the best of you. The Literary Ladies all found strategies to overcome the very same issues, and you can, too.