Illusions Regarding the Literary Life

brittainAs part of my current research on issues related to gender, genre, and the ‘novel of purpose’ (about which more eventually, when it takes on a clearer shape!) I asked our indefatigable Document Delivery staff to bring in a copy of Vera Brittain’s On Becoming a Writer (1947). It turns out to be in large part advice for aspiring authors, and I’ve been amused, reading it, by how familiar a lot of it sounds as well as how practical and discouraging Brittain is. I thought you might be amused as well, so here’s her list of “nine widely-held illusions regarding the literary life,” in her own words, along with some of her blunt recommendations for overcoming these “phantasies.”

#1: writing is easy because the materials are readily accessible

“This, the first illusion, probably leads more aspirants astray than all the rest put together,” Brittain notes; writing’s “very deceptive facility confronts the beginner with pitfalls which require practice and experience to be recognisable as such, and are therefore the more difficult to overcome.”

#2: because writing is so easy, it can be done successfully, without any special training or preparation, in odd minutes during the day

She acknowledges that “some remarkable books have been produced in this way, particularly by women, whose right to regard their literary work as a full-time job, free from those domestic trivia with which no male writer is expected to concern himself, still offers a fruitful topic for social and domestic controversy.” As a general rule, though, she advises writers with other jobs to “work out a careful time-table” that is both “regularand regularly respected” even though “it may involve defying plaintive accusations of unsociability” as well as giving up “hiking, boating, golf, or tennis.”

#3: books and articles can only be written when the author is “in the mood”

“An author who waits for the right ‘mood’ will soon find that ‘moods’ get fewer and fewer until they cease altogether,” she notes; with Trollope-like pragmatism, she explains that “the only way to write is to write” and recommends (again) a firm schedule as well as taking every precaution to remove and guard against interruptions and distractions. When you do have to stop, do it “at some point where it is easy to begin again tomorrow.” “I have found myself,” she confesses, “almost unconsciously doing ‘little jobs’ for an hour or two in order to postpone the bad moment of beginning again”—something too many of us can probably sympathize with—but this trick can help you pick up again “with enthusiasm.”

#4: the “artistic temperament,” and its external expression in terms of peculiar manners, eccentric clothes, and literary “haunts,” are part of the essential make-up of a writer

Brittain has no time for cultivated eccentricity. She goes through a pretty funny roster of writers who “are seldom identifiable as authors at all”: H. G. Wells, for instance, “looked like a genial but peppery bank clerk,” while “for years I myself have resembled any and every shorthand typist.” It doesn’t do the aspiring writer any good to go without haircuts or lead “the literary life”: “there is only one way of becoming a first-rate writer, and that is by hard, persistent, and mainly solitary work.” (Sigh.)

#5: the conviction of many authors that each one’s extreme sensitiveness and the pain it causes is peculiar to himself

She also has no patience for special snowflakes. Sensitivity is indeed, she says, “very frequent amongst authors,” but “the sooner a would-be writer stops being sorry for himself because he is sensitive, the quicker will his work and personality develop those robust qualities upon which achievement so largely depends.”

#6: the belief that sponsorship by some well-known author is a short cut to success

Sorry: it’s still the writing itself that matters. “The most that an author-sponsor can do is to bring the book to the notice of the public,” but if it’s no good, “the introduction is valueless.” What can be valuable is the kind of “frank, uncompromising” feedback she was fortunate enough to receive from “an established and much-respected author” (whom we know from Testament of Youth was Rose Macaulay): “I did not enjoy receiving her sometimes derisive criticisms,” she admits, “but I had enough common sense to accept them.”

#7: that a manuscript by an unknown author will be disregarded unless he is introduced by somebody to whom the publisher dare not be indifferent

Sorry: a publisher’s indifference (including failure to read the whole manuscript) is, once again, about the writing, not your connections: “influence alone, in spite of the widespread illusion to the contrary, has never yet placed a manuscript for anyone.” (Do we really think this is true now, never mind whether it was true then? Books do get published that seem extremely niche to have survived past the initial pitch, but they come out of visible literary coterieswhich then pay lots of attention to them.)

#8: the belief that the sales of his book will largely depend on the extent to which the publisher can be persuaded to advertise it

Brittain has quite a lot to say at the outset of this book about things like paper prices and book distribution in the post-war era, as well as about the effects of war-time circumstances on literary journalism and reviewing. Her conclusions about the value of advertising come from this context: books sold just as well “almost without advertising” during the war which she argues proves that “advertising is seldom, if ever, the reason for a large sale.” She goes on to cite Authors and the Book Trade by one Frank Swinnerton, in which apparently the case is also made that advertising is not worth much but that “talki.e. personal recommendation, discussion, and controversy” is “what really sells a book.” (That’s certainly true for a lot of us on Twitter!)

#9: that, with the publication of his first book, the author will leap—or has leapt—to fame and reputation

Not likely! In her own case, she notes that “the supposition that Testament of Youth was my first book has been voiced again and again. Actually it was my sixth”and, she later clarifies, she means her sixth published book, while it was the 20th book she’d written. Once again, it’s all about the hard, solitary work. Further, the author who believes his first book has “made his name” is, in most cases, deluded by selection bias, as for a while he is primarily engaging with “only those people … and those critics who are familiar with his work,” forgetting that to the vast majority he remains completely unknown. Especially if his debut was praised, this sets him up for disappointment over the reception of his second book!

woman-writing-1934Having cleared away these sad illusions, Brittain moves on in the next chapter (“First Essentials”) to offer some positive suggestions, though not without one more chastening reminder that your “desire for fame, wealth, and distinguished acquaintances does not in itself constitute a claim to literary success.” There really is something bracing about her Eeyore-like insistence that, while writing may well be worth the effort, it almost certainly won’t be fun, that it’s more likely than not that you aren’t very special or talented, and that the way forward is mostly drudgery. Would a book, not of this type (there are many such) but with this tone get published today? So farI haven’t read to the end yetit is certainly the antithesis of Elizabeth Gilbert’s irritating paean to half-assed creativity Big Magic, and a striking contrast to every other recent “how to write” book I’ve ever dipped into, which seem much more about inspiration than perspiration.

Re-Learning Patience

piggy puddle pictureI wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.

It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.

holtby-woolfSince my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.

These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.


Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.

Penguin YearsI struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .

As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.

The Muddy, Muddy Middle: My Writing Process

Do any of you know the delightful children’s rhyming book The Piggy In the Puddle? For the last couple of days, as I sat at desk or table, staring at my computer screen and messing around with the pieces of what I hope will eventually be an essay on Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, lines from it kept running through my head:

See the piggy in the middle

Of the muddy little puddle.

See her dawdle, see her diddle,

In the muddy, muddy middle.

If you don’t know the book, the gist of it is that the piggy (silly piggy!) is having great fun in the mud while her distraught family tries to persuade her to come out and clean herself up with “lots of soap.” But the piggy is resolute (“NOPE!”) and so in the end they jump in with her, right into “the very merry middle.” Hooray!

In my case, I wasn’t feeling particularly merry — just a bit muddled and very much in the middle, and that was (is) stressing me out. Even though I understand the concept of the “shitty first draft,” I still find the phase of writing in between the taking-notes-and-doing-pre-writing stage and the producing-a-reasonably-decent-draft stage psychologically taxing. At that point I usually have all kinds of material to work with, and often lots of ideas about what to say about it — in this case, in fact, I have too many ideas about what I’d like to include, considering that I’ve only got 1500 words to talk about 3000 pages — but they are all in a kind of virtual heap and I can’t yet see what order to put them in, or how to choose among them, or how to say properly (clearly, eloquently) what in the rough material can be loose or incoherent or inarticulate. At first it all just has to be down somewhere in some form, but eventually it has to be honed and shaped. In between, there’s just so much uncertainty!

I’m learning to trust my own process more: I know from experience that this muddy middle is a phase of its own, one that — because lately I’ve been working on fairly short pieces — doesn’t even really last very long. It’s taking longer this time partly because the task is quite open-ended: a review has a pretty formulaic overall shape, but an essay has to find its own intrinsic purpose and logic. I’m also paradoxically inhibited by caring much more about this piece than about almost any of the other things I’ve written recently: precisely because I cherish and admire Dunnett’s series so much, I really (really) want to do it, and my feelings about it, justice. The stakes feel absurdly high, even though I know this essay only really (really) matters to me, not to anyone else. (I mean, I’m sure the editor who agreed to it will be happy if it’s good, but otherwise I don’t expect he cares much about it.)

Eventually, though, I know I will get out of the mess. Today I actually started to think I had cleaned up some parts of my shitty first draft: I did a bit of new writing, but more important, I cut and compressed what I’d done already so that I have room to keep going with the other topics I want to get to. I can almost see now, too, how the parts will fit and flow together–almost! I didn’t make enough progress to make me “very, very merry,” but today’s work did help me believe in the process again and feel more confident that the next phase will come. I know there are some writers who claim there’s nothing hard about it at all (OK, I know only one such writer, and if I weren’t so fond of him, I’d really hate him for this!). But for mere mortals like me, while writing is certainly sometimes exhilarating and, somewhat more often, is interesting and satisfying, there are times when it is both difficult and profoundly discouraging. I think I might make the piggy in the puddle a kind of mascot for those times. Who could stay scared and cranky in such cheerful company? And really, what’s so bad about the muddy middle?