Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Jane Project process post

Something that occurs to me, as I'm hard at work on the Jane Project, is that some of you might be interested in my process, such as it is. I know that I like reading other people's process posts, such as this one from Jeannine Atkins a few weeks back, where she compared her process to making soup.

I do not have nearly such a poetic metaphor for you today. Because I have to say that my process with the Jane Project has shifted - and continues to shift - as I've gone along.

Here's a bit of what that journey has looked like:

In the autumn of 2006, I was brainstorming possible picture book ideas. And one of them was to create an abecediary of women writers. Anyone out there enthralled with that notion is welcome to it, with my blessing, since as I did hours of research towards that idea, I ended up with plenty of easy picks - Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters, Virginia Woolf - but some letters really had me reaching. And it was too far to reach, for me, really. But I digress.

In December of 2006, I spent quite a bit of time in bed due to a flare of my rheumatoid arthritis. And it just so happened that the 2005 movie version of Pride & Prejudice was on heavy rotation on HBO, so that nearly any time I turned the TV on, it was on one of the three HBO channels we get on the TV in the bedroom. And I loved Matthew MacFadyen (Mr. Darcy) and Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins) and Brenda Blethyn (Mrs. Bennet), so I watched it again and again. And it dawned on me that I'd be interested in learning more about Jane Austen in particular, and that rather than an abecediary of women writer's, I'd write a verse biography of Austen's life. Mind you, I knew next to nothing about Austen or, if truth be told, her works at that point in time. I'd seen movie versions of Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightley), Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sense & Sensibility (Emma Thompson), but that was it.

In January of 2007, as I started to feel a bit better, I started my biographical research, by which I mean that I read biographies. I bought myself a copy of Carol Shields's very small biography and found that I was entranced with Austen's life, which encouraged me to proceed with my project. I borrowed a copy of Claire Tomalin's biography of Austen from , then went out and purchased my own copy so I could mark it up. I borrowed a number of additional biographies from the library and started taking notes. Lots of them. Then I moved on to other sorts of books - commentaries on her work, books about Georgian and Regency England, etc. I borrowed quite a number of them from my library, but the library being limited to 40 or so books about Austen (in whole or in part), I ended up purchasing a number of books as well. (At present, my personal collection exceeds 150 volumes, ranging from pamphlets to thick academic tomes.)

I started writing poems based on Austen's childhood, about which precious little is recorded. Still, I found that poems bring some of the information and episodes alive far better than traditional biographies. Each poem is a snapshot of a particular person, place, incident, etc., and it allows that moment to shine in a way that it being rolled into a single chapter covering birth to age 12 or so doesn't allow for.

It occurred to me along the way that I really ought to read all her books. I'd read Sense & Sensibility once in the late 1990s, Pride & Prejudice once in about 2000, and put Emma down in 2001 due to an inability to get into it. So I started reading books. And watching cinematic versions of the books. And I ordered the Juvenilia, a collection of works written between the ages of about 12 and 20 or so, as well as a book called Chronology of Austen, a rather thick collection of research put together by Deirdre Le Faye, which includes events about Austen's ancestors as well as about the descendants of her siblings, based not only on family letters and records but on receipts at shops, journal entries by neighbors and more. It allowed me to find out information about Austen's lifetime that was not widely recorded in biographies - like that her neighborhood was plagued by a highwayman in 1793, and that the first floor of the Austen's home had flooded in 1795. And of course, I've engaged in a tremendous amount of internet research ranging from fan sites to sites dedicated to the Regency or Georgian England to access of scholarly journals.

I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America in 2007, which allowed me to spend time among other Janeites, some of whom have only ever seen a few movies, and some of whom are exceptionally well-versed in Jane's life as well as her writing. I was surprised to find myself elected Regional Coordinator for the Eastern Pennysylvania region, a two-year term that ends later this month. I was thrilled to attend two Annual General Meetings, where I attended a number of seminars on Austen's life and works.

Over the past three years, my process for writing the various poems has varied. Sometimes a poem can be as simple as a summary of a letter (or as complicated as a double sestina summarizing the plot of Pride & Prejudice - yeah, I wrote one). Sometimes I get an idea that requires so much research as to be ridiculous. For instance, I found a reference to Jane and her sister wearing pattens, and spent at least 20 hours researching precisely what a patten is. I've written at least two poems about them, one of which I posted here. I have other poems that make that 20 hours look like a drop in a bucket, with as much as 50 hours of research time to sort out the research for a particular poem and, in some cases, as many hours again invested in composing the actual poem.

I had one poem in which I was trying to describe a particular childhood incident involving Jane and her younger brother, Charles, that would not budge. I tried writing it for weeks and failed to find a way in. I ended up drawing a picture of the scene I wanted to depict, then writing free verse about it, then figuring out a way to write a piece of period-appropriate verse about it. In another case in which I wanted to describe Jane's relationship with an older woman in her neighborhood, I ended up prewriting free verse about my own "teacher crush" when I was in 6th grade, and about S's "teacher crush" in 6th grade, including free verse about what that teacher had said about S. Eventually, I found my way in. Sometimes, you do indeed have to go around your ass to get to your elbow, or so it seems.

It does get easier, the more I know about my subject, to write about it. But no matter how much I know about Jane Austen's life and time, I find that sometimes, the tangents are worth pursuing. Because they've allowed me to come up with poems that help put her life into context, and to create what I hope will be a collection of snapshots that will give readers a better sense of who she really was.

I've set a deadline for myself of completing the first draft of the collection by this August. And now, as I move into the home stretch, I find myself again hoping that a research grant will come through (I've applied for a JASNA grant and for the SCBWI WIP grant) that will allow me to get to England in order to actually acquire some first-hand observations to further strengthen the poems. And I am convinced that many of the poems I've already written may not make the final collection, while others I've yet to write may prove essential. Again I worry about figuring out "what to leave in, what to leave out" (as Bob Seger noted in "Against the Wind"), but for now, I'm going to keep putting together all the snapshots I can manage, knowing that I can remove the ones that are blurry or distracting later, if need be.

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