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Lessons from the Masters on How to Write and Two Who Rose Above It

I read a biography of Jane Austen this summer, written by one of my favourite Canadian writers, Carol Shields. Carol Shields was an unlikely choice of biographer and I’m not sure how she got this gig. Although Shields’s books are about the domestic realm, they are not rom coms which is – to be harshly accurate - Austen’s genre.  The rage (even bitterness, evident in Mansfield Park) that suffuses Austen’s work is not in Shields. The greatest overlap is that Shields’s work is social commentary and so is Austen’s – though one could say the same for every writer. But there the similarities end.


Yet the biography was interesting because it reflected so much of Shields’s own understanding of the writing process. It was less a biography than a meditation on writing. In the biography, Shields notes that Austen had a long dry period of twelve years where she didn’t write much more than a thank you note. It corresponded with Austen’s move from her familiar rural life of shabby gentility to bustling urban fashionable Bath. Shields generously calls these years, creative silence.


Austen didn’t start writing again until she was once again living quietly with her sister and elderly mother in sleepy Hampshire. Shields suggests that for imagination to flourish, domestic stasis is a pre-requisite. Followed by a “delicate balance of solitude and noise”. And backs up her argument by quoting Virgina Woolf, who said something remarkably similar.  


Anyone would think it would be otherwise: the stimulation of new ideas and new ways of doing things that cities offer, the interplay of people and events sparking something new, the invigorating zing that hangs in the air. Rationally, these should all act as a catalyst to vibrant and original writing.


Apparently not.


In Shields’s brilliant last novel, Unless, her main character is an author who climbs up to her office in the attic every morning at the same time to churn out words. The repetition settles her down, the calmness of her own domestic life permits her to create domestic dramas in her imaginary world. It rings with authenticity and it takes little imagination to see Shields herself climbing the quiet stairs in the provincial capital of Winnipeg to write her day away. 


Besides the writing process, there was another similarity between Austen and Shields. Austen died of breast cancer at only 42 years of age. Shields too died of breast cancer but kept the disease at bay longer.


I cannot help but point out that during their illnesses, neither woman had domestic stasis, a balance of solitude and noise, or a calming routine to assist them in their writing. And yet, both wrote. Thanks to modern medicine, Shields gained enough years to produce (among other works) this biography of Austen. So we understand what helps writers to write. Just not why sometimes some writers can rise above all that.

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