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My Jane Austen Summer
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Kathryn Stockett spoke to a standing room only crowd in a huge church sanctuary because there wasn’t enough room anywhere else in Dallas for her rock-star crowd. We were totally with her when she began reading from a pile of rejection letters. She named names, and what could we do but laugh at the stupidity of the agents and editors who rejected THE HELP. We loved imagining how they must be kicking themselves, no longer able to trust their judgment, mortified and embarrassed before the entire literary world.
I have been telling my husband: if I had one week of total isolation I could finish my novel. Well, I got my chance to prove it. As of 8:00 am last Monday morning, I was HOME ALONE. For five days it was just me and my novel.
Day T-1: I wanted to hit the ground running so I cleaned my office (for the first time since 2013) and cleared my desk of everything not related to the novel-in-progress. The result was exhilarating and I decided I should do that more often.
Previously published on Girlfriends Book Club
Since we are discussing setting I will reluctantly work past my discomfort to share, not only how I obtained realistic details to create the manor house in my novel, but also how a sense of poetic entitlement caused me to behave badly. Ahem. (Sound of me clearing throat). I avoided arrest and have purposely omitted names in this post in order to protect myself.
I Skyped from my office. “Happy birthday!” I said. Clearly her house was full of revelers and I struggled to hide my embarrassment. “I’m sorry to interrupt your party.”
“Nonsense, Jane Austen said, “You’ve saved me the trouble of inviting you.”
I fell into the awkward lull.
“Don’t fret, you’re not the only guest to arrive via Skype,” she said. “We just hung up with Mark Twain.”
“But he’s dead.” Her guests looked oddly familiar. “Is that Charlotte Bronte?” I asked.
Jane turned to look. “Yes,” she said.
This post was recently published in Girlfriends Book Club
Since I don’t have an MFA, my learning curve offers a unique perspective on the subject of writing instruction including several less conventional resources. Here are five sources for important lessons I didn’t learn in a formal program:
- Gossip: Understanding how individuals operate under pressure is a prerequisite for creating empathetic characters and a grasp of the complex world of human psychology is expected from the get-go. Fortunately, my grandmother, a professional counselor, shared her expertise with me–her oddly attentive granddaughter–from an early age. We lingered at the table long after meals, solving the the problems of in-laws and outlaws, leaving no unseen pressure under-analyzed. If you don’t have a professionally trained grandmother, an observant girlfriend will do. And if the term gossip bothers you, just call it material.
I met Jane Austen through my parents. She occupied a top bookshelf between Aristotle and Balzac, wearing the same tan tweedy jacket all the Great Books wore. From my teenager perspective, she seemed as accessible as a marble goddess in a museum. Nonetheless, one acutely boring day while wondering WILL I EVER ESCAPE THIS SMALL TOWN, I found myself precariously bereft: between books with nothing to read, and decades before the day of instant downloads. Thus, the annoying choice: either not read, or resort to my parents’ Great Books collection. I pulled Sense & Sensibility off the shelf and spent several days out of town—in Jane Austen’s world. I could have mustered greater enthusiasm if she’d included a Heathcliff in her pages, but she was a friend of my parents, after all.
Confession: I need a shot of adrenaline in order to leave town. Other people routinely lower thermostats, lock doors, and depart on schedule, but in the fraternity house we call home, I can’t find the thermostat behind last night’s pizza boxes and we’re lucky if our doors are closed. Nobody organizes so much as a toothbrush without a packing list and the packing list can’t get created until the increasing pressure of a departure date triggers an adrenaline boost.
I will never be able to go back in time to visit earlier versions of my writing-self, but if I could, I would offer my younger writing-self a firm pat on the back and tell her that the endless rejection and setbacks would eventually result in a published book.