Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing. Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there. Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write. Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.
Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection. More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.
In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.
Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.” In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader. Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat. Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.
There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process. Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors. Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there. Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.
A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins. Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers. It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.
Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.
Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading. She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose