12 Fictional Writers Whose Lives Can Teach Us Lessons About The Literary Life, Because It Isn't Just 7-Figure Book Deals

People are always saying that you should write about what you know, so it comes as no surprise that there are a fair number of fictional books that focus on the joys and frustrations of life as a writer. Authors often can't help but write a bit of themselves into their work, and in some cases they just create a literary alter ego. This scenario is fortunate for us, because a writer's fictional doppelganger can teach us a lot about living in the literary spotlight — it's like getting the inside, biographical scoop in an entertaining novel format.

When a writer writes about a writer (say that five times fast), the result is usually a fairly honest account of the ups and downs of the creative process. Which is why fictional books about writers are so fun for fellow wordsmiths to read — the agonies and ecstasies of the craft are pretty universal in some ways. Handbooks and how-to tomes detailing the method to precisely plot your way to a bestseller have their merits, but a well-crafted story can be just as educational and way more fun to read.

Here's a gathering of fictional writers who can teach us a thing or two about the pleasures and pitfalls of being a professional wordsmith. For better or for worse.

Grady Tripp, Wonder Boys

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Technically Grady Tripp's literary journey would probably fall under the heading of "cautionary tale" since he's essentially drowned his writing career in an endless succession of booze-fueled benders. He's kind of old school, like a less aggressive Norman Mailer or less productive Hemingway. True, after being something of a prodigy in his early career, he's now a professor saddled with a 2,600 page magnum opus he can't stop writing. He's also cheating on his third wife with the wife of the chairman of the English department, and she's pregnant. Plus he's kinda got his eye on one of his students. And he's a hopeless pot addict. Basically he's the poster-child for literary bad boys.

What we can learn:

Although it was only nine o'clock he had already gone once around the pharmacological wheel to which he'd strapped himself for the evening, stolen a tuba, and offended a transvestite; and now his companions were beginning, with delight and aplomb, to barf.

Well, if you're super-successful early in your career you might have enough money and credibility to be a total frat boy well into middle age. Tripp is an epic screw-up for sure, but in order to write about life with understanding and integrity, you have to actually experience it. I say if you want to write a truly believable, stylistically gorgeous literary masterpiece, everything in moderation. (Also, the movie adaptation of Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. is awesome.)

Helen Burns, Hungry, the Stars and Everything

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Helen Burns is a food critic, so she's not, like a literary writer, but nonetheless she makes her living composing sentences and I like her so she's on this list. Known for her generally scathing reviews, Helen is ironically underfed, underwhelmed, and unhappy. Over the course of critiquing an elaborate, multi-plate meal, Helen evaluates her life — where she's been, where she's going, why she doesn't love the man who just proposed to her, and why she's never satisfied.

What we can learn:

Hunger is very good for stimulating the imagination.

Please don't take this literally and stop eating on me. This is meant metaphorically — like hungering after beauty, and truth, and love will help stoke your creative fire. Being literally hungry will just make you crabby and unproductive.

Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, Erasure

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Monk is frustrated. After writing several critically acclaimed novels, his latest manuscript is rejected. Seventeen times. A scholar in creative writing and English literature, Monk is fed up with being told his writing isn't "black enough." In retaliation against novels that give stereotypical representations of life as a black person, he writes a satiric story about growing up in the ghetto... and it's an overnight sensation.

What we can learn:

"The line is, you're not black enough," my agent said. "What's that mean, Yul? How do they even know I'm black? Why does it matter?"

Monk's identity is irrevocably tied to the way his books are perceived. People want books, and therefore authors, to be easily labeled, categorized, and filed under a particular genre. Stephen King writes horror, Nora Roberts writes romance, and so on. But your work doesn't have to fit into a neat little box. Write what you want.

Jo March, Little Women

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I think that most aspiring girl authors worshipped Jo growing up, and there's really no need to stop now. Books are a huge part of Jo's life, they fuel her dreams and give her an escape. She takes the power of the written word seriously, turning her back on love in order to devote herself fully to her writing career. This may be slightly melodramatic, but her commitment to her craft is unquestionable.

What we can learn:

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.

Jo knows that when inspiration strikes, you have to be willing to shut out everything else in its service. Hopefully the end result is worth it, and you won't even remember sitting in front of your computer for a week straight without showering or sleeping. Until next time.

The Narrator, Family Furnishings

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The main character and narrator of the title short story in Munro's brilliant collection wants to be, and eventually becomes, a writer. The tale seems to be somewhat autobiographical, and that alone would be enough to make any aspiring writer memorize the whole damn thing. Who doesn't want to be Alice Munro? But it's more than just a reflection on becoming a writer, it's about the emotional distance it takes to write fiction. Sometimes in order to see life clearly, you have to take a step back from it.

What we can learn:

Such happiness, to be alone. I did not think of the story ... but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories ... This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.

Writing is a solitary occupation. And because it's more than just a job, it takes up more of your life than the average 9 to 5. Which means you're going to be alone a lot. Alone with your thoughts, your observations, your work. It sounds a little oppressive, but hey, you'll be busy, and if you have what it takes à la Alice Munro, the social sacrifice will pay off.

Ruth Cole, A Widow for One Year

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Ruth certainly has a lot of personal experience to use as fodder for her novels. Her parents, both authors as well, conceived her in an effort to replace the two boys they tragically lost in a car crash. This, unsurprisingly, failed, and her emotionally detached mother went on to have an affair with a 16-year-old boy and then disappear for 37 years, while her father became an inveterate womanizer and alcoholic. So Ruth has issues. And although they certainly wreak havoc on her personal life, they also help her become a very successful author.

What we can learn:

A writer doesn't choose to be comic. You can choose a plot, or not to have one. You can choose your characters. But comedy is not a choice; it just comes out that way.

This was Ruth's response when a critic observed that "not everything in our lives is comic material,"and that "there are certain tragedies that resist a humorous interpretation," indicating that Ruth profited from turning her family tragedies into bestselling pseudo-comedies. She refuses to rise to the bait because she recognizes her strengths as a writer. Find what your good at and stick with it, because no matter what you do...

Carrie, Sex and the City

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Believe it or not, there was a time when the eponymous Ms. Bradshaw was known only as Carrie. Yep, she got her start as just another thirtysomething New Yorker in Bushnell's original essay collection, looking for love in all the wrong places and hoping to make it big as a writer. As we all know so well, Carrie made it all the way to the big screen, but that's because she wrote about what she knew, and that was sex in the city. Lowbrow? Basic? Maybe. Entertaining? Addictive? Absolutely.

What we can learn:

"It's cute. It's light. It's not Tolstoy."
"I'm not trying to be Tolstoy," Carrie said. But of course, she was.

This is Carrie telling her friend Sam about her new story idea. But here's the thing, Tolstoy wrote about life just like Carrie. Edith Wharton covered the same subjects as Carrie, and she's considered all sorts of serious and literary. Just write about what you know. Maybe your book will become a movie. Or maybe it will become one of the defining works of its era.

Virginia Woolf, The Hours

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The Hours imagines Virginia Woolf's inner monologue as she recuperates from a crippling bout of depression and writes her masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway. What makes the novel even more fascinating is that it also follows the stories of Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown, two women living in different time periods who are both deeply affected by Woolf's work.

What we can learn:

Dear Leonard. To look life in the face. Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard. Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.

Woolf wrote about the quotidian, but she did it with a grace and elegance that gives everyday occurrences a haunting lyricism. This is why her work endures. Never underestimate the power of incredible writing.

Ted Swenson, Blue Angel

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Oh, poor Ted. In typical, lecherous literary professor fashion, he sleeps with a particularly talented, precocious coed, and completely destroys his life. Which was pretty nice (except that the novel he's working on is terrible). And clueless Ted never even knows what hit him. His brilliant student, tired of the coddling and kid-glove criticism doled out by bored professors who are too scared of losing tenure to give a proper evaluation, seduces him in effort to shake things up.

What we can learn:

What I love is how pissed off Jane Eyre is. She's in a rage for the whole novel and the payoff is she gets to marry this blind guy who's toasted his wife in the attic.

Obviously, if you ever become a college professor, do not sleep with your students. Especially one that seems predisposed to anger and/or writes about sexual escapades with cutting wit and unforgiving detail. Also, look for real, honest feedback on your work. You're probably never going to get tired of hearing that your writing is amazing, but constructive criticism will only make it better.

Paul Sheldon, Misery

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Definitely a cautionary tale here. Paul Sheldon writes Victorian-era romance novels featuring the heroine Misery Chastain. He's rescued from a car crash by superfan Annie Wilkes, but when she finds out what he has planned for Misery in his next book, she freaks out and holds him hostage in her house. She literally tortures him into revising his manuscript.

What we can learn:

Because writers remember everything, Paul. Especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he'll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels, not amnesia. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is that ability to remember the story of every scar.

Beware the superfan. And you can turn past traumas, embarrassments, and heartaches into literary fame and fortune. Who needs therapy when you've got a MacBook?

Margaret Lea, The Thirteenth Tale

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Margaret Lea, a well-known biographer, is contacted out of the blue by famous author Vida Winter. In a handwritten letter left on Lea's front porch, Winter reveals that she wants Lea to write her life story. What follows is Lea's descent into a haunting, gothic, world, where she's comes face-to-face with the intense power of the written word and the legacy of personal stories.

What we can learn:

Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so.

Somewhere deep down, every writer realizes that she is immortalizing herself. Whether you publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or stacks of articles, what you create is permanent, and knowing that is a powerful feeling.

Dennis Orphen, The Wicked Pavilion

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The wry, sharply observant Dennis Orphen (alter ego of author Dawn Powell) chronicles the ups, downs, ins and outs of the writing scene in 1940s Manhattan. Everybody who's anybody puts in an appearance at the Café Julien, (aka the wicked pavilion) from a thinly disguised Ernest Hemingway to a jaded Gore Vidal. From a seat in the back Orphen watches the literary luminati live it up.

What we can learn:

I lived, and learned what a fool I'd been. And wise at last, continued to be a fool.

Earlier I mentioned that writing is a solitary occupation. However, the celebrations post-publication generally aren't. Although a reputation as a hard-writing, hard-living writer isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is difficult to write when you're always half-lit. Also, all your shenanigans and/or indiscretions may become public knowledge. Just so you know.

Images: Columbia Pictures; Giphy (8)