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How to write like Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 3 2014 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s writing routine: a model for us all? Apparently so, according to a new-ish book mentioned in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Austen is among the 161 certified geniuses – artists, writers, scientists – whose daily rituals the Harvard blogger sifted for Rules to Write By.


Among her findings: Avoid distraction. Take a daily walk. Get someone else to do the laundry.


None of it is too remarkable, but I have to say I’m a teensy bit skeptical about how it all applies to Austen.


Apart from the famous creaking-door story*, reported by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, we don’t really know all that much about Austen’s work routine. Which isn’t surprising, since we don’t really know all that much about anything in her life. We don't have her daily calendars, or her reflections on the best time of day to compose, or her thoughts on the relative merits of first-draft inspiration vs. second-thought revision. We're piecing together a speculative quilt out of a few stray remarks and family anecdotes.


I’ll bet it was all in those burned letters. Blame Cassandra.



* Austen-Leigh claimed that his aunt tried to conceal her writing from casual visitors by hiding it under blotting paper when the creaky door of the Chawton cottage sitting room gave her warning that someone was approaching.


This story is sometimes interpreted as proof that the oh-so-modest-and-spinsterly Jane Austen thought her writing was disreputable, or inappropriate, or unimportant. As a writer myself, however, I know how cringe-inducing it is when people ask, “Oh! What are you writing? Can I read it? Is it anything like the last one?” when the work still feels too new and fragile to share. I’d guess Jane Austen was using the creaking door to head off those conversations.



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