February 22, 2024

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.

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