If you happened to be a woman in the late 1800s, the only thing you were supposed to achieve in your life was a good marriage.
Back then, a woman’s name was supposed to appear in print 3 times. At birth, marriage and death. It was frowned upon for a woman to write publicly.
As a child, Edith Wharton was forbidden to read a novel until she was married. So she didn’t read novels — she just wrote them.
But it made her mother was so angry, she quit writing stories for a while and wrote poetry instead.
Poetry, at least, was a suitable hobby for a young girl.
She was first published at age 15, and got paid $50 for her writing, even though it had to be published under the name of a male family friend. Writing for publication was frowned upon for women of good social class.
Once she was married off to a man 13 years older than her, she found her first creative outlet in design and started writing how-to guides on home décor.
Not happy to spend her life being a wife and hostess, she made a living and a reputation for herself with her pen, writing over 40 books in 40 years on architecture, gardens, interior design, travel and finally — novels.
First woman to win the Pulitzer
Her novel, The Age of Innocence was the story of a young man torn between his innocent fiancée and her wild and sophisticated cousin. It was published 100 years ago, in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
After her win, the men who comprised the Pulitzer committee wrote an angry letter to declare that they had not chosen a woman as a winner. They had chosen a man, as was customary.
The Pulitzer Board had intervened to declare that her book was the stronger choice. Despite being a woman, she was awarded the prize. Her story was an American tale that would endure, the Pulitzer board said.
Endure, it did. In 1993, The Age of Innocence became an Academy Award winning movie starring Daniel Day‑Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. 73 years after she wrote it.
Her tips for writers pass the test of time as well as her writing did.
7 writing tips from the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize
1. Don’t be afraid to imitate…
“Every dawning talent has to go through a phase of imitation … the great object of the young writer should be not to fear those influences, but to seek only the greatest, and assimilate them so they become [her] stock-in-trade.”
New writers often start writing by imitating the work of writers they admire. There’s no shame in that, she says. Rather, accept it and seek to imitate some the greatest writers you admire. Eventually, your own style will emerge from those you’ve emulated.
2. Know the takeaway for the reader…
“In one form or another there must be some sort of rational response to the reader’s unconscious but insistent inner question: ‘What am I being told this story for? What judgment on life does it contain for me?”
Wharton didn’t believe all novels should preach morals, but she did believe there needs to be something beyond a good story. And emotional connection or an understanding that the reader would find having read it.
3. Originality isn’t a unique way of writing, but a unique way of seeing
“True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision.”
Writing is seeing. Here’s a secret. When people say “write what you know,” that’s what it means. If all writers took that phrase, we would have no books about dragons, no fiction, no fantasy. Only memoir. Developing an original style of your own doesn’t come from finding an entirely “new” way to write. It comes from developing your vision. The way you see and perceive.
4. Find the emotional heart of a subject
In any really good subject, one has only to probe deep enough to come to tears.
There are no boring topics. Only topics we have not dug into deeply enough to find the human element that others can connect to. In psychology, pain and pleasure are known as primal desires. The two emotions that drive everything we think and everything we do. Every situation you write about can be reduced to one of those elements. Strive to find that and you’ll never write a boring story that dulls the reader’s eyes and drags across the page.
5. Be honest about your own abilities…
“More failure than one is aware of are due to lack of proportion between the powers of vision and expression. The remedy is to abandon the larger for the smaller . . . to do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”
Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer winning book, The Underground Railroad, talks about this concept often. When he first got the idea for the story, he knew he wasn’t ready to write it. He didn’t have the writing chops yet. So he wrote simpler stories as he honed his writing skill. Biting off more than you can chew as far as “scope” goes can lead to the inability to create the masterpiece with the skill you’d like to bring to it. Start simple. Work up.
6. Believe in yourself and commit…
“At last I had groped my way to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned story-telling was my job…I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country”
Writers are filled with more self doubt than almost any other pursuit. With any other endeavor, we accept that we must learn and the road may be rocky. But still, we persist. We learn to walk and talk. We learn to drive. We learn to parent, persisting through frustrations. Yet when it comes to writing, we question. Am I really a writer? Should this be so hard? If writing calls you, accept the calling and commit. Call yourself a writer and get on with it.
7. Ignore the critics…
“If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the market, one has sold to the purchasers the right to think what they choose; the novelist’s best safe-guard is to put out of his mind the quality of the praise or blame meted out to him by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that critic who dwells within the breast.”
The key to failure is to try to please everyone. It can’t be done. No matter what you write, some people will love it and others will hate it. Listening to either is a recipe for misery. The praise will go to your head and you’ll want to write the same thing again to get more praise. And the criticism will injure your ego and you won’t want more of it. Better to ignore both and write the story that needs to be told. Again and again. It is only the critic that lives inside you that knows if you’ve written the story you were trying to tell. If you have, your job is done. If not, re-write it until you’ve told the story you intended to.
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. — Edith Wharton