In which Jane Austen did not have an MFA

This morning I’ve been pondering the fact that Jane Austen did not have an MFA, and before anyone starts arguing about the value of an MFA, please be assured that I don’t care whether you have an MFA. If you are an aspiring writer or even an established writer living today, I only care if you write a book I want to read. How you arrive at that book is your own issue. I am interested, though, in something I read in the Carol Shields biography of Jane Austen. Shields points out that it’s unlikely Jane Austen ever read a single essay about how to write a novel.

As someone who did get a degree in creative writing (not an MFA, but a PhD), I find this astonishing. Of course I understand the historical context, and of course we all know that in her time and place and situation, it would have been unusual for Jane Austen to have been given a reading list on how to write a novel. Still, who could fail to be astonished by what Jane Austen accomplished all on her own without an MFA, without a Wayne Booth book, without even so much as a room of her own?

Jane Austen shared a bedroom with her sister through her entire adult life. She did not have a place to go off on her own to write. She probably did most of her writing in the sitting room with all of her family around her. Since many novels these days are written in coffee shops, I suppose I can grasp this one. The family sitting room of her day could function like the coffee shop of our day with a variety of people all milling about but all basically doing their own thing. Jane Austen didn’t have a room of her own, but she did have a chair of her own, and for a determined spirit, that can be enough.

Let’s face it, the girl had drive. The writing mattered to her enough that she did it with or without the best of circumstances. In the end, this is the only way anyone becomes a writer. The writing matters to you or it doesn’t. You get it done or you don’t. The degree you have and the job you have and the home you have make no real difference to this one make-or-break factor.

But Jane Austen had something else that a lot of young writers today feel they need an MFA in order to acquire. She had a supportive literary community. Yes, MFA programs are super places to find supportive literary communities. No, you don’t have to pay for a degree in creative writing to find and/or create a supportive literary community today, but chances are you will have to put a little effort into surrounding yourself with people who want to talk about your writing. Jane Austen had this in her own family.

Carol Shields tells us that Jane Austen’s family was highly literary-minded as a group. They read. They wrote. They discussed what they read and wrote. A favorite family entertainment involved reading books out loud. We can imagine that the siblings would have competed to be the best readers and to make the books the most entertaining. We can also imagine that they talked about what they liked and didn’t like in each book. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the family of a rector/schoolmaster would have had a limited number of new books coming into the home, so certain novels and other works must have been read repeatedly in these family literary evenings. The Austens must have known their favorite works of literature as well as these parson’s children would have known passages from the Bible. And when it came to sharing their own original scribblings, this family that had been discussing books together for the whole of their lives could probably be relied upon to voice honest opinions.

In short, they were conducting writing workshops at home long before anyone had a term for writing workshops. They were homeschooling a creative writing program.

Jane Austen’s genius shines through in her narrative style and structure. She did things no one had done before. She did things even the best writers of our day struggle to match. She did them without being told how, but that’s not to say she wasn’t taught how. She taught herself. The family that spent so much time reading books and talking about books taught her how.

If you want to learn how to write like Jane Austen, a good place to start would be to take her novels and read them out loud over and over and over to people who will talk back to you. If you are paying enough attention and if you have enough desire to learn from this experience, it will teach you everything you need to know.

It’s been a long time since I was in a creative writing program, which means it’s been a long time since I’ve known anyone who would sit still to be read to. Thus, I’m going to have to find another route for myself. Maybe it’s time to take my laptop to a coffee shop and sigh over my unfinished manuscript with all of the other would-be writers in town.

Lady Lazarus Rising

We have a newly discovered Ted Hughes poem about the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath.

And I have newly discovered that I can listen to Sylvia Plath reading Lady Lazarus on YouTube.

Haunting, I’d say is my best response to both.

I’m tempted to develop a minor obsession with Ted and Sylvia for the next few weeks. This might be a fitting approach to Halloween for a poet, but I’m afraid people would think I was suicidal rather than simply celebrating the macabre.

Also, it crossed my mind to say something like “I wish people would blog about a newly discovered Sharon Gerald poem.” Only, I’d have to make it clear that I do mean without the normal prerequisite of having to die first. Unlike Sylvia, I don’t believe the art of dying well is a particular skill I have.

And then this whole question of newly discovered poems has me wondering why this particular poem is one Ted Hughes did not choose to publish in his lifetime. He did publish lots of poems about Sylvia Plath, and in his later years, I don’t imagine he was a man who got a lot of rejection letters.

Our fascination with posthumous discoveries about writers is fairly morbid in itself. Not that this would keep me from participating in the morbidity and/or passing it along.


Kate Campbell is Coming to Town

I’m excited to say we have Kate Campbell coming to JCJC in April to help us Celebrate Eudora Welty’s birthday. She is a singer/songwriter who has written music based on Welty’s fiction. She also writes a great deal about civil rights and Southern culture in general.

You can go to her website to listen to clips of her music.

See the flyers for our Welty Celebration events:

Kate Campbell @ JCJC (April 15, 2010)

Welty Celebration Events @ JCJC (April 12-16)

Thanks to the generous help of the Mississippi Humanities Council, these programs are free and open to the public. Come on out and listen to some Kate with us.

I’ve heard her twice now, and I think she is wonderful. She’s also very good at talking about the literary and historical context for her work as a songwriter. Good stuff. You can’t go wrong with Kate.


who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be

beautiful    who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals

that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin

sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls    clicking

their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching

as i whispered into my own
cupped hands    enough    not me again

but who can distinguish
one human voice

amid such choruses
of desire


Rest in Peace, Ms. Lucille

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering mine

~Lucille Clifton, “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” from Blessing the Boats, New and Selected Poems 1988-2000

Isn’t that always the case? Isn’t that half our problem each time we try to talk to talk to each other about conflicts of any sort? Aren’t we always waiting for the other to remember, not their memories, but our own?

Yes, Dr. King, I too have a dream. Let freedom, and unity, and love, and understanding, and compassion, and respect ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. Let freedom ring, indeed.

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve just finished listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s followup book to Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, listening. I’ve developed a real thing for audio books, especially since I discovered Audible + iPod. I have to say I give this one a thumbs up, the risky “read by the author” part and all.

I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but I wasn’t wholeheartedly enthusiastic about it. It bothered me that the Gilbert of EPL seemed lacking in maturity and self-awareness, particularly as she spent so much time and money in a way most people aren’t able to spend doing nothing more than looking for herself. I expected more from her because of that, but she didn’t deliver. She was just as self-centered and lacking in genuinely critical self-awareness as people who aren’t able to devote their entire attention to healing themselves. Really, in that book I thought she needed more problems and responsibilities, more of the types of demands on her time that the average person has to deal with so that her own perfectly ordinary human meltdown wouldn’t have the luxury of taking on such epic proportions.

But that was Eat, Pray, Love. That was then. Committed is another book altogether. Committed I like a great deal. It’s the more grownup story. It’s well-thought out, researched, and insightful. She continues the story of her own love and the emotional and legal challenges she faces when she is essentially forced to marry her Brazilian-born man if she wants him to stay in the U.S. Woven through her own narrative, though, are the stories of marriages she’s witnessed, marriage traditions throughout the world and throughout history that she’s researched, and a series of psychological readings on the whats and whys of marriages falling apart.

She embarks on her study of marriage mainly to allay her own fears of marrying a second time after having already experienced a devastating divorce. Much of what she says should be common sense–that relationships break because people go into them as virtual strangers expecting the other person be everything, to fulfill them in every way. Just because we ought to know this doesn’t mean we always do, though, nor does it mean even the smartest of people are immune to plunging blindly into another and another infatuation all doomed to the same bad end as the last relationship.

It’s good. It’s smart. It’s definitely more mature than Eat, Pray, Love. Plus, you get to learn interesting tidbits along the way like the fact that many of the characteristics of what we now call a traditional wedding in this country didn’t actually become popular until the late 19th century when young American brides thought it fashionable to get married in the style of Queen Victoria.

I still find it a little difficult to relate to Gilbert’s personal narrative in that she seems unaware of the fact that she lives a far more privileged life than almost everyone else in even her own country. Yes, she acknowledges the extreme poverty she witnesses in her travels, but what she doesn’t acknowledge is that even while she calls herself frugal in this book, she doesn’t think like any frugal person I ever met. When her lover is deported she sets out to travel the world with him, albeit to the cheaper parts of the world, rather than be separated from him. I don’t know a single person who would have had that option, nor do I know anyone who would have done it even if they could afford it. Almost anyone would have considered the frugal option to be to go somewhere–like Australia–where they could both find work while they waited out the time it took to process through getting back into the States.

She talks about choosing to go to places where traveling is cheap, but she never once talks about the idea of finding work for either her or her partner during this time. This was puzzling to me since in my world normal people when displaced from their homes look for work before they do anything else.

Of course, Gilbert’s work is to write, but she says that during this time she was not yet reaping the benefits of the huge success of Eat, Pray, Love, and though she was researching the next book, she was not yet writing it.

All that is neither here nor there. It’s just my own quirkiness that has me believing I’d like the book better if the author/narrator had a more working class or even middle class mentality. That said, her ideas about relationships are worth reading, and I think this book will hit home with the large following Gilbert won over with Eat, Pray, Love.

Margaret Walker on Poverty and Racial Conflict

Chapter 5 of Margaret Walker’s Jubilee could be read on its own as an essay. It carries some of the narrative threads of the novel, but it also offers a history lesson as well as a sociology lesson in addressing the issue of why so much conflict existed between black slaves and their poor white counterparts in the Plantation Era South.

Young Vyry, the daughter and slave of a plantation master sees the suffering and the contempt one for the other between the enslaved blacks and poor whites:

Always, too, there were the poor whites, po buckra, who lived back in the pine barrens and on the rocky hills. They suffered more than the black slaves for there was no one to provide them with the rations of corn meal and salt pork which was the daily lot of the slaves, and therefore the black people were taught by their owners to have contempt for this “poor white trash.” (59)

Grimes, the plantation overseer is among those whites who is almost as poor as the slaves he commands in the fields. He goes home to a wife who “could neither read nor write,” who suffers the same fears as the slaves of not having enough to eat even in times when the “marster” has plenty, yet she says, “We’uns is poor, but thank God, we’uns is white.” (63)

Here we have the root of the social system that left its legacy of hatred to blight the whole next century and beyond. Racism has thrived on poverty and lack of education. That’s where it still holds most of its sway.

Racism has also fed on myths of the Old South. People tell stories of heroic glory days. People like to believe in an ethnocentric birthright of gentility in the Gone with the Wind fashion. Yet most white southerners are not the descendants of plantation owners. The well-to-do made up only a small percentage of the population. It’s far more like if you are white and southern that your ancestors were dirt farmers barely managing to survive.

Those dirt farmers taught their children to hate, not because they were better people than the children of slaves or even better off, but because they had nothing else. They had no one else to hold in contempt as being lower on the social scale than themselves.

Read Jubilee. Spend a little extra time on chapter 5. It’s a great chapter. Walker shows a complex understanding of the various elements creating racial divisions.

We like to think we live in a post-racial society, but it only takes a Harry Reid with an unfortunate way with words to remind us we aren’t nearly there yet.

Racism is the cause of so many of our social conflicts even today. It is everyone’s fault and everyone’s responsibility. That’s why examining and reexamining and examining again the roots of our own attitudes, inherited or otherwise, is so important. That’s why everyone should be reading Margaret Walker.