While researching my book, The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, I had the pleasure of poring through letters, diaries, and memoirs of revered women authors of the past, to collect wisdom from their experiences. I felt like I almost got to know each one of them, and gained a dozen wise and trusted friends. And what writer wouldn’t want advice from the likes of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and others of their stature?
I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite from among the twelve Literary Ladies, but I had a lot of respect for Louisa May Alcott’s work ethic and perseverance. Alcott viewed her own talent and achievement modestly, but she expressed simple truths on what it takes to become a good writer, and what, in the end, is the true measure of success. And so, I bring you this interview from the great beyond featuring Alcott’s actual words (gleaned from letters to her mother, readers, and colleagues written in the 1860s and 1870s) as answers to my hypothetical questions.
What are your basic techniques for developing plot and character?
Louisa May Alcott: My methods of work are very simple & soon told. My head is my study, & there I keep the various plans of stories for years sometimes, letting them grow as they will till I am ready to put them on paper. Then it is quick work, as chapters go down word for word as they stand in my mind . . . I never copy, since I find by experience that the work I spend the least time upon is best liked by critics & readers.
While a story is under way I lie in it, see the people, more plainly than the real ones, round me, hear them talk, & am much interested, surprised, or provoked at their actions, for I seem to have no power to rule them, & can simply record their experiences & performances.
What advice would you give a writer wanting to improve his or her craft?
Louisa May Alcott: Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit from criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best ...
Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.
It surprised me to learn that you became the primary breadwinner in your family when you were just a teen, first by writing anonymous thrillers and “sensational tales,” then later, the domestic stories that became your legacy. How did it feel to have made a fortune and cemented your reputation after long years of effort?
I often think as I go larking round, independent, with more work that I can do, and half-a-dozen publishers asking for tales, of the old times when I went meekly from door to door peddling my first poor little stories, and feeling so rich for $10. My first story gave me $5.00 and I felt very rich ... Now I can ask what I like & get it ... I never write a short tale for less than $100. Serials $3000.
After toiling so many years along the uphill road—always a hard one for women writers—it is peculiarly grateful to me to find the way growing easier at last, with pleasant little surprises blossoming on either side, and the rough places made smooth by the courtesy and kindness of those who have proved themselves friends as well as publishers.
People usually ask, “How much have you made?” I am contented with a hundred thousand*, & find my best success in the comfort of my family enjoy; also a naughty satisfaction in proving that it was better not to “stick to teaching” as advised, but to write.
[*A hundred thousand dollars, or anything close to it, was quite a fortune in 1887, when Alcott wrote these words]
The internet and print-on-demand have opened a world of outlets for those who wish to have a voice outside of traditional publishing. Still, many who now have the opportunity to call themselves writers long to become bona fide authors of conventionally published books. What do you say to those seeking that next, often elusive level of success?
I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—there is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long and patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties and trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort and the most enduring.
I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, and quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself and began to do it at sixteen ... But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an early Providence to those we love.
The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life
In The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life, acclaimed author Nava Atlas presents twelve celebrated women authors and draws on their diaries, letters, memoirs, and interviews to show how they expressed their views on the subjects of importance to every writer from carving out time to write, to conquering their inner demons, to developing a "voice," to balancing the demands of family life with the need to write. Atlas provides her own illuminating commentary as well and reveals how the lessons of classic women writers of the past still resonate with women writing today. This beautifully illustrated book, filled with more than 100 archival images, is the perfect gift for anyone who loves to write, no matter where they are on their creative journey.
Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many well-known vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including Vegan Express, Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook, and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet. Her first book was Vegetariana, now considered a classic in its field. In addition, she has published two books on humor, Expect the Unexpected When You're Expecting! (A parody), and Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife. Learn more about Nava's work at VegKitchen.com and NavaAtlasArt.com, in addition to LiteraryLadiesGuide.com, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.