Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ten Lessons for Writers Inspired by American Literary Greats

American Writers at Home by J.D. McClatchy (with photos by Erica Lennard) is my Pick of the List this month.  It’s a collection of biographical vignettes, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Because I read this book cover-to-cover and in minute detail, I noticed patterns in work habits across the twenty-one legendary writers featured within.  Below is a list of Ten Lessons for aspiring writers I compiled based on facts from McClatchy’s biographies.  I included fun examples from the book to show successful (and not-so-successful) behaviors among Great American Writers.

  1. Most excuses for not writing are weak. 
After her husband’s death, Kate Chopin ran his general store, raised six (count ’em, six) children, had an affair with a local planter, had parties and played cards, studied Huxley and Darwin, and still found time to write her short stories and The Awakening. Kate Chopin, spinning in her grave, thinks all of your excuses for not writing are lame.  An aging Ralph Waldo Emerson continued to lecture even though his memory was gone.  When he caught pneumonia, he insisted on dressing each morning and going to his study.  He died a week later.  So, what’s your excuse?  Full-time job? Family?  Laziness?  If you want to write, you’ll find a way.

  1. Routine breeds discipline. 
Washington Irving always sipped coffee or tea when writing in the early morning hours.  Hemingway sat at his desk at 8 o’clock and wrote all morning during his productive Key West years.  Hawthorne wrote four hours each day in his study but took summers off to read and enjoy the outdoors.  Faulkner worked from seven until two every day.  Twain went to his study at 11 A.M. and worked until supper.  He often played billiards to flesh out ideas and untangle revisions.  Edith Wharton always wrote in bed.  Melville rose at eight and fed his cow a pumpkin before breakfasting and setting to work in his study.  He arranged for a member of the household to knock on his door at 2 P.M. to pull him from his writing.  Eudora Welty also preferred to work mornings, saying, “I wake up ready to go, and I try to use that morning energy and freshness.”  Whether early bird or night owl, hatching ideas requires the discipline of routine.  Create a writing schedule and stick with it.

  1. When writing inspiration strikes, don’t delay. 
Louisa May Alcott’s term for her inspiration was “the vortex”, and when she was in the vortex, she’d work up to 14 hours per day.  In this manner, she completed one chapter of Little Women each day.  When inspiration strikes, run with it.  Do not put it off for any reason.  Sit down at the desk and let the vortex sweep you away.

  1. Find space to work and keep it sacrosanct.
Emily Dickinson never left her house and seldom saw visitors.  William Faulkner added potholes to his driveway to discourage drop-ins.  He also took the doorknob of his study with him when traveling lest someone go in during his absence and ‘straighten up’.  Fredrick Douglass had a room he called the “growlery” where he went during bad moods, and Washington Irving had a study he called his “little snugglery”.  A room of your own is good.  If your dedicated space doesn’t prevent every interruption, take a cue from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  When his children burst into his study, he wrote the poem “Children’s Hour” about it.  Life’s little bothers can feed creativity – if you let them. 

  1. If you suffer, your writing suffers.
Frederick Douglass kept up his crusades against injustice by getting adequate sleep and exercise.  His dumbbells still rest by the chair in his bedroom.  Louisa May Alcott was a forced vegetarian – her father insisted on the family eating rough cereals, vegetables and fruit.  I suppose all that healthy eating fortified her during those marathon writing sessions.  Eugene O’Neil had a pool for exercise.  William Faulkner rode horses with his daughter Jill.  Robert Frost loved to walk, his journeys on foot leading him to creative epiphanies as in “The Road Not Taken”. 
By the same token, illness and anguish can cut the flow of writing completely.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, depressed by the havoc of the Civil War and suffering from a wasting illness, had many false starts at the end of his life.  Eventually, the words stopped altogether.  Hemingway became fat and drunk, and wrote little for a whole decade.  Sarah Orne Jewett was in a carriage accident that left her bedridden and unable to write during the last seven years of her life.  Edna St. Vincent Millay worked herself to exhaustion with her overscheduled life.  Although her husband Eugen tried to shelter her, a series of misfortunes and addictions followed.  By 1944, she had a nervous breakdown and was unable to write for a time.  The moral?  To stay productive, take care of yourself.

  1. To be a great writer, be a great reader. 
Longfellow surrounded himself with all things literary.  His study is full of busts, statues, and portraits of literary greats past and contemporary.  His library contained 14,000 volumes.  Sarah Orne Jewett’s home was the same.  On her walls were keepsake photos of writers she admired, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.  If you wanted sit down anywhere in the Jewett house, you’d have to move a pile of books from the chair.  Robert Frost was fond of giving gifts of books when he went on social calls, telling his hosts to ‘put it down but don’t put it away’.  Learn to write by reading extensively, and cultivate creativity by surrounding yourself with images, books, or people that inspire you. 

  1. Remember the reason you write.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote from a passionate place within.  In a letter to his father, young Longfellow wrote, “I must eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently for it, and every earthly thought centers on it.”  His commitment to the work extended to his readers.  He made sure his poetry was accessible to all classes of society, both in price and popular appeal.  One of his volumes sold 25,000 copies in America in the first two months of release, and 10,000 copies in London on the first day. 
On the flip side of this, Robinson Jeffers’ work became increasingly pessimistic and bitter in his later career, and his readers fell away.  Hemingway’s lost his spark as he aged, becoming more infatuated with his celebrity than with his writing.  He wrote little between 1940 and 1950 – and his later works paled in comparison to the early ones. 
Remember why you are writing.  It’s not to meet a deadline.  It’s not for a publishing contract.  It’s not for fame and fortune.  It’s because your souls burns for it.  It’s because you care about the readers (who give the work purpose).  When the labor of writing gets you down, when setbacks happen, when impatience plagues and work overwhelms, remember to write from a place of love of your story.  Care for your readers so much that you take the time your story deserves.  Don’t insult your readers by pandering to the market place – they can detect a gimmick or a knock-off straining to make money, and they won’t buy it. 
Caring about the reader also means reaching out to them.  A platform isn’t just about generating financial success and garnering the attention of the publishing industry.  It’s ultimately about developing a fan base.  Harnessing the power of word-of-mouth among all types of readers can catapult a book and its author to breakout success. 

  1. Find someone who believes in you and will support you.
Robert Frost had a wealthy grandfather who provided him a home and farmland.  The farm was the place Frost was happiest and accomplished much of his poetry.  Hemingway relied on the wealth of his second wife Pauline, as well as her secretarial skills in typing up his long-hand manuscripts.  Eudora Welty adored her parents, and lived in her family home from the time she was 16 until her death at age 91.  Louisa May Alcott’s parents were similarly supportive.  At a time when girls were discouraged from any sort of mental activity, her father built her a writing desk and her mother gifted her with a steel pen.
Find someone who believes in you and will support you creatively (and financially, if you’re lucky!).  This could be your spouse, a friend, family, a critique partner, a writers’ group, a mentor, a fellowship committee, or some other willing patron(s).  Writing is a lonely business, and it’s tough to go it completely alone.  Sometimes we need to ask or simply allow others to help us.

  1. Writing is creative, but it’s still a business. 
At sixty, Mark Twain was at the height of his popularity, yet he was bankrupt because of his lavish lifestyle and bad investments (sort of a 19th century Elton John scenario).  Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, although published and well-known, had to take day jobs in customs houses to make ends meet.  Melville received a paltry $556 for Moby Dick, and endured a period of financial struggle. 
Other authors were great business men and self-promoters.  Longfellow monitored his sales figures and ensured his poetry was published not only in expensive leather bound editions, but also in broadsides and cheap pamphlets.  In this way, he gained widespread fame.  Walt Whitman wrote three anonymous reviews of his own book, all of them flattering. 
It is important to be savvy about the publishing industry, to be financially responsible, and to self-promote. If you become published, you shouldn’t necessarily quit your day job.  If you get a book deal, don’t blow your advance.  Publication is only the beginning.  Keep working and self-promoting – don’t rest on your laurels, and live within your means.

  1. If you fail, keep writing. 
Many authors found themselves publishing their first works at their own expense: Robinson Jeffers, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne to name a few.  Jeffers’ first book of poems has been called “derivative and fusty”.  Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass was a “commercial failure and a personal humiliation”.  Hawthorne was so discouraged in the beginning that he burned his manuscripts, including his own copy of his first published book – he never mentioned it again.  All of these writers, however, persisted, and now they are American Greats.  Keep going, and you could be, too.

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