Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”

In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.

But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.

Questions about deadlines:


Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?

If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.

You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.

So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!

"Writing a War Story" Edith Wharton Random Stuff I Dig Writing Writing Problems writing process

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for this “reading recommendation”. It would seem to be a fascinating read for any would-be author. I haven’t been able to read the story yet but I will, and look forward to the promised future posts.

      • Hi again Jenny. I’ve now read the story. It’s wonderful. In fact if Edith Wharton were still around I’d feel impelled to give her a hug. As it is I’m sending you a hug, albeit virtual. So much good advice, so much to think about, tucked away.
        As someone trying to write a story, now not so short, set in 1960s/70s London this struck home: “She knew so much about the war that she hardly knew where to begin … …”. Eventually I did begin, as suggested by Ivy, in the middle. After shelving the story for about 9 months I’m still happy with the beginning so I’ll stick with it.
        I also loved: “… People don’t bother with plots nowadays.” “Oh, … Then it must be very much easier …”. I still, after 22,000 words, don’t have a plot!
        I’ll maybe do a post myself sometime soon about this ‘discovery’; if I do I will of course acknowledge you.

  2. That was a little stab in a writer’s heart. Much as we think a bit of writing that we’re so pleased to have produced will be liked by others…but we really don’t care what they think, do we? Oh yes, we do. We do. But the skin grows thicker and the writing gets better. Hopefully in the end, our egos don’t get too much in the way.

    • This is a really interesting discussion as I often say I write for me, to get something out of me, so don’t care if others read it. This comment set me thinking and I’ve concluded it’s not quite true, particularly on WordPress. I rarely use the ‘like’ button without a comment on others’ posts, but I have to admit there is a tinge of regret when, as far as I know, the poster is not curious to know more about the person making the comment by visiting the commenter’s blog. Of course the only indication of this is a ‘like’ but maybe they didn’t like. What we need is a ‘Read’ button so we can see who has read a post.

      • To me, a “Like” really means that someone thought the piece was worth their time to read it to the end. Not necessarily that it was a great thing.

        There are many reasons people write blogs. Not everyone is a person who writes for publication, like I do. I read and write family history and many genealogy blogs are primarily intended for relatives, for example.

        My friends and family read my blog, but not being on WordPress, they don’t have the option to “Like.” Of course, a blogger can opt to not even have a Like button on their posts.

        So, I am a writer who likes feedback, because I want my writing to be read. I confess I get irritated when I read posts that have a lot of typos – makes me want to say, “at least respect your writing enough to proofread before hitting the Publish button!” But that’s my problem, really, not theirs.

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