Yesterday, I visited a museum, dedicated to one of the best known and widely read authors of the nineteenth century. I was interested to see where this author had worked so hard, in her most productive years, to produce her novels. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that all of her works had been written, long hand, with quill pen, on this desk:
It’s not even a desk! It’s a side table. The chair is tiny and austere. This is where Jane Austen wrote her most successful work. If you want evidence of what you need to become a writer, this shows that it is possible with a chair, a desk, a pen and some paper.
That, of course, is not the whole story. The rest of the story is that the house had been given to her and her mother and sister by a brother who got lucky, when he inherited the estate of a distant cousin. Two of Jane’s brothers were admirals in the Royal Navy, so money and housing was not a pressing problem. The problems of existence were lessened by this stroke of luck, but one still had to survive and maintain one’s health. Indeed, it was a failure of health that took Jane Austen, aged only 41.
Her father had been enlightened enough to educate his daughters (at least to the age of 11, in Jane’s case) and to encourage them to read from his prodigious library. That was a lucky break for Jane too.
The other part of this was a certain discipline, as a writer. Jane Austen’s habit was to write in the morning, every morning and then attend to the rest of life’s requirements for the rest of the day. The important thing was writing habitually, every morning.
Editing must have been painstaking. There was a premium on putting the words down correctly, the first time, with correct spelling and grammar, because a rewrite or revision required writing it all out again, by hand. On the other hand, there is a certain opportunity for clarification of story line and sentence structure that presents itself, when you are forced to rewrite an entire page of a manuscript from scratch.
Jane also had some happy introductions to publishers through her brother’s connections. That didn’t hurt, though she did change publishers, mid-career.
So, there you have it. The ingredients are all there:
- A pen, paper, ink, table and chair.
- A house you can live in without having to worry about how to pay for it.
- The freedom from having to earn a living, just to subsist.
- A habit of writing every day.
- Read a lot, from quality sources.
- Have enough education to know how to work with words and language effectively.
- The necessity of getting it right, on paper, first time, more of the time.
- Using enforced rewrites to make the story better.
- Somebody that can champion your works with publishers.
Not everybody can command those sorts of lucky ingredients, but some have them appear, without being prepared for them. The key is to do the writing and to be serious and dedicated to focusing on it. Jane certainly started without necessarily any guarantee of succeeding, as a writer. Most don’t.
I thought it was interesting. It proved to me, again, that there is no such thing as an overnight success, but that with application and some good fortune, you can become a successful writer.