It’s fashionable these days to turn to the artists and writers we know and love for advice or wisdom – How to Live like Proust, how navigate the complexities of marriage and morality according to George Eliot*, how to grow up through the novels of Jane Austen. What can the writers and artists who have endured tell us about writing? Below are five tips from some of the best:
1. Isak Dinesen: Don’t wait for the perfect frame of mind to begin writing
“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, without faith and without hope…suddenly the work will find itself.–” Isak Dinesen.
When I searched on-line for the above quote just now, I found that the words “without faith and without hope” had been deleted, as though they detracted from what Dinesen is saying. But to me, those words are what make the quote so heartening. We can get ourselves worked up, stressed out and generally frustrated by trying to achieve the perfect positive frame of mind. It’s reassuring to know that though a positive outlook may be a great addition, it isn’t indispensible. It works just as well to sit down and write, regardless of mood. The positive attitude will follow!
2. Julie Andrews: Persevere
“Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.” Julie Andrews.
I once submitted a children’s book to a major publisher who turned it down on four separate occasions. Among the four who rejected it were the publisher, the vice president, and two senior editors. A third editor accepted the book, and it has gone on to do very well. But think what would have happened if I’d decided that the publisher or vice president was the ultimate authority on what would succeed, or even what to publish.
Failure simply means that things didn’t work out in one particular instance. There is no larger meaning or significance, at least not one you should attach to it.
Of all the elements that make up success, perseverance is the most critical. A writer with a slender talent accompanied by a robust drive will be more successful than one with a rich natural gift and no ambition. Of course, it’s best have both if you possibly can.
3. Toni Morrison: Write the book you want to read
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison
Writers are people who see what is not readily visible to others. They see humor in darkness (the light side of the dark side), the bizarre in the mundane, the possible in the dream. Your memoir is the fullest, richest expression of yourself you can possibly put into words. When you have finished it to your own satisfaction, you’ll find that it’s also the book you’ve always wanted to read.
4. Anaïs Nin: Create your own world
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me… I had to create a world of my own, like a climate.” Anaïs Nin
When you are writing your memoir, deciding what to put in or take out, or searching for the language to reflect your perspective and particular cast of mind, you’re creating your own world. What could be more fun than that? For me writing – the freedom to create my own reality – is the lollipop of life. The rest is what you have to go through to get it.
5. Shakespeare: Tell yourself the truth
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet).
It’s impossible to be truthful to someone else when you haven’t told the truth to yourself. But telling yourself the truth can be tricky. We all have our own internal ministry of propaganda and if you aren’t vigilant, you can start believing your own rationalizations. George Eliot describes a chilling example of self-deception through the character of banker Nicholas Bulstrode in her novel Middlemarch:
“Mentally surrounded with that past again, Bulstrode had the same pleas…his soul had become more saturated with the belief that he did everything for God’s sake, being indifferent to it for his own.”
Once you have told yourself the truth, you can decide with confidence and clarity what to tell your readers.
Note: A version of this post was first published on womensmemoirs.com
*My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead