The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas is an “inspiration book.” You could sit down and read it, cover to cover, but it would be equally beneficial to refer to it, from time to time, for a jolt of encouragement, or just to read an anecdote about a favorite author.
[Virginia Woolf, right]
Author Atlas has gathered snippets of writing and biographical material, including items from diaries, journals, letters, memoirs and published interviews, from twelve female writers:
Louisa May Alcott — Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins
Jane Austen — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma
Charlotte Brontë — Jane Eyre, Vilette, The Professor
Willa Cather — My Antonia, O, Pioneers!
Edna Ferber — Giant, Show Boat, Cimarron
Madeleine L’Engle — A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
L.M. Montgomery — Anne of Green Gables
Anaïs Nin — Delta of Venus, Little Birds, The Diary of Anaïs Nin
George Sand — Indiana, La Mare au Diable
Harriet Beecher Stowe — Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Edith Wharton — Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth
Virginia Woolf — Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own
The book is not divided into twelve chapters, focusing on each author, but rather on topics that concern a writer — becoming a writer, finding your voice, writer’s block, making money, etc. — and allows the literary ladies to share their stories and offer advice. Atlas also tells her own struggles as a writer, from her days writing articles about food and cookbooks (Vegan Express, Vegetariana) to her attempts to write a novel. She frames each section with essays about the authors and their struggles, and then includes the source material in a sidebar.
[Louisa May Alcott, right]
She has been incredibly thorough, finding gems about writing from the twelve authors for authors-to-be. Some struggled with the chore of writing. For Louisa May Alcott it was sometimes a burden:
“When I had youth I had no money; now I have the money I have no time; and if I ever do, I shall have no health to enjoy life. I suppose it’s the discipline I need; but it’s rather hard to love the things I do and see them go by because duty chains me to my galley.”
Charlotte Brontë had to struggle to publish her work:
“I offered it [The Professor] to a publisher. He said it was original, faithful to nature, but he did not feel warranted in accepting it: such a work would not sell. I tried six publishers in succession: they all told me it was deficient in ‘startling incident’ and ‘thrilling excitement,’ that it would never suit the circulating libraries, and it was on those libraries the success of works of fiction mainly depended, they could not undertake to publish what would be overlooked there.”
Women writers are frequently mothers as well, as Madeleine L’Engle describes:
“I’m often asked how my children feel about my work, and I have to reply, ‘ambivalent.’ Our first-born observed to me many years ago, when she was a grade school child, ‘Nobody else’s mother writes books.’ But she also said, around the same time, ‘Mother, you’ve been cross and edgy with us lately, and we’ve noticed that you haven’t been writing and we wish you’d get back to the typewriter.’ A wonderfully freeing remark. I had to learn that I was a better mother and wife when I was working than when I was not.”
[Jane Austen, right]
On every page there is something for a writer and reader to enjoy. Jane Austen communicates her excitement and realization that she is, indeed, a writer:
“I begin already to weigh my words an sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room.”
The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is a wonderful book to delve into when you need some inspiration. It may also inspire you to read (or re-read) some of these classic authors’ works. Nava Atlas includes so many photographs and other interesting images that it is an enjoyable read for any bibliophile. Even if you had no literary aspirations before picking up this volume, you may be tempted to start a journal, or a blog, once you’ve finished it, thanks to Atlas and these literary ladies.