Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lessons From Austen On Writing

The Northanger Abbey Paradox

Recently I picked up Austen’s Northanger Abbey to re-read it – I think I read it in high school although I really have no recollection of the story. I am ashamed to say this time around I gave up a chapter into it – I found the language very annoying, especially knowing that it was an Austen novel. Now before any rabid Austen fans start sending me threats by email, I want to clarify – I am a huge, huge fan of her work – well some of her work. Pride and Prejudice (P&P)is undoubtedly one of the best novels ever written, and perfect, because not a single sentence is out of place, or does anything other than support the story and provide entertainment. Any editor would be hard-pressed to find a single word to cull from this masterpiece.

I have always read about how we should not judge the works on famous creators simply on the basis of their most famous work, but also compare to their failures, their other work which didn’t do as well. It’s difficult to understand this in abstract, especially as we tend to have a static view of talent – we are always saying of this or the other person, “She is so talented! He is a brilliant writer!” As if that were a steady state phenomenon – you were born brilliant and remained so your whole life. The corollary being of course, that if you haven’t achieved anything of brilliance yet, you were highly unlikely to do so in the future.

I knew this wasn’t true, but sometimes when I worked at my own projects it felt true. I felt as if no matter how much I tried, I would never reach those dizzy heights to which I aspired. After all, how could I begin to compete against [insert your favourite author here]?

Reading or trying to read Northanger Abbey gave me a lot of hope – its a novel that has none of the brevity, easy style of P&P, and yet Austen wrote it after her first version of P&P (First Impressions). Its possible to be a great writer without everything you write being automatically great. If a writer such as Austen struggled with her prose, made poor judgment calls, then there is hope for the rest of us.

The Publishing Conundrum

The other lesson I learnt from Austen comes from this book I am currently reading by Lori Smith called The Jane Austen Guide to Life. In it she describes just how difficult it was for Austen to get published, and how disconcerting it must have been for her. Anyone who has ever received a rejection of any sort knows how it feels. Its almost impossible to get up the courage to try again, knowing the outcome might turn out to be the same.

Austen lived at a time when women were not only not expected to work, they were actively discouraged. And writing (and reading) novels was definitely frowned upon. It would have been only too easy for her to decide to simply not try to publish her work, just enjoy the adulation of her family without risking the pain of rejection.

Isn’t this something we can easily relate to – how often have we decided against taking an action that we don’t need to take, something that will cause friction,  upset the equilibrium. We ask ourselves – do I really need to go back to school? Should I take an evening art class when I should be spending more time with my family? Can I really make diet food for myself and not eat with my family? It’s easy to give in to the status quo, to not want to make waves in our lives, at home, at the workplace. But in our hearts we know we want to get another degree, to go back to our love for art, to lose weight and feel good about ourselves. Why then do we not take the risk?

This is the lesson that Austen taught us – and thank god she did – because I cannot imagine a world in which Austen’s novels, all her novels, don’t exist. She gave us this gift, and so must you – give the world the gift of whatever it is you are afraid to pursue with all your heart and resources – for we don’t know what art (in the full sense of the word) we could be missing out on.

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