“A Humour for Writing”

Jane Austen humour“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am,” wrote Jane Austen in a letter from Godmersham Park to her sister Cassandra on October 26, 1813. Is there any writer among us who has not felt that way at times? For whatever reason — and there are many good ones — writing is the last thing you feel like doing some days.

Maybe it is a grey day, and the clouds seem to have drifted inside, obscuring your flow of thought. Or maybe the sun is streaming through the windows, tempting you to forsake your writing for a long walk. Perhaps the topic has been assigned to you by someone else, and you’re “not feeling it.” Are other people in the room, asking for your input or making just enough noise that you can’t concentrate?

While any number of outside distractions might have contributed to Miss Austen’s disinclination for writing, I take heart from her resolution: “I must write on till I am.” Although Miss Austen initially wrote for her own amusement and to entertain her family and friends, two of her novels — Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) — had been published by the time she wrote this letter. The modest financial success of these books was probably an incentive for Austen’s pushing herself to write on, despite her mood. With another novel drafted (Lady Susan) and two more in the works, she surely knew that the words would come, sooner or later. Rather than waiting for a moment of inspiration, she presumably picked up her quill and wrote.

How thankful I am that Miss Austen pushed herself to write, regardless of her “humour”! Five of Miss Austen’s completed novels are among the books I have re-read most often. Which gem might we lack today, had she allowed an uncongenial humour to defeat her? Mansfield Park? Emma? Persuasion —  the last novel she finished and possibly my favorite?

Her implicit advice — write yourself into a frame of mind for writing — is worth remembering. Sooner or later, every writer has one of those days. I have found that, once I get some momentum going, the words spill onto the page, almost of their own volition. Do I have to cut more words from the writing than I do on days when I’m pulling out the words rather than the words pushing me along? Undoubtedly. But an imperfect draft is better than no draft at all.


writers-quote-wednesday (2)Note: In the context of Austen’s letter, she was almost certainly referring to letter writing rather than to novel writing when she made this statement. Because I have personal experience with writing as a means of getting past a block, it seems legitimate to apply Austen’s quotation to all writing.

Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. In deference to Miss Austen’s nationality, I have used the British spelling of “humour” in this post. Text and photos copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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34 thoughts on ““A Humour for Writing”

  1. Pingback: Pack Your Bags: Virtual Tour Blog Award! | sappy as a tree: celebrating beauty in creation

  2. It is so true when you say: “Write yourself into a frame of mind for writing.” I’ve forgotten this as I try to restart my writing again after being away from it the past few months. Thanks so much for the reminder!

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  3. Pingback: Writer’s Quote Wednesday-Weekly Wrap-UP for 12/3/14 | Silver Threading

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  5. I have been putting out a whole lot of imperfect drafts lately, but my heart tells me I will revise one day. Then the question comes: will anyone read after I revise? Am I dreaming? Will there be a time when I have peace to think clearly and reflect on what really needs to be said?

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    • Ah, that is the million-dollar question, Beth: will anyone read what we put here? I always find it amusing that Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” Umm, he got that wrong, didn’t he? I make no claims for my own writing, but it is interesting that we have no idea of the lasting value of the things we say and do on a daily basis.

      So, please, revise and post, dear Beth! If it is meant to be read by someone who needs to read your words, it will be.

      But I have no answer for your last question. I hope so.

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      • Subconsciously, we may know when we have written or spoken well, and revision is always an integral part of that.

        Two proverbs tell it like it is:
        Proverbs 18:20–A man’s belly shall be satisfied with the fruit of his mouth; and with the increase of his lips shall he be filled.
        Proverbs 24:26–Every man shall kiss his lips that giveth a right answer.

        Can you just see the fingers-to-the-lips motion in that last one? That is not mine yet, but I dream…

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        • I’m not sure that I always know when I’ve written well, Beth: the pieces that I like the best tend to be the ones read by fewest people. But that gets back to the question of why we write, and it isn’t always for an audience. Wonderful proverbs!

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  6. Lovely quote, not just for writing of any kind, but also for life. When I first began to learn to parent peacefully, for example, I spent a lot of time pretending to be peaceful when I would previously have been anything but. Eventually, I started to feel more peaceful, and now, six years later, I’ve learned many tactics for actually BEING peaceful, and I seldom feel deeply angry anymore.

    Writing tends to be my default. It’s definitely something I do daily – it helps me to work things through, to connect, to create, to expand, to appreciate…

    And I am so with you with the loveliness of British spellings. I refuse to spell theatre in American. My auto-correct hates that about me, and I don’t care!

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    • You know, I hadn’t thought about this quotation’s application outside of writing, @shanjeniah: you make an excellent point. I once knew a drama major who felt awkward dishing up ice cream as a summer job: her grandmother, who was a friend of mine, told her, “You just have to ACT like you’re enjoying it: think of it as a role.” Parenting, of course, is a lifetime job and so much harder than dishing up ice cream, but doing what you think you should do, even if you don’t feel like it, can get you started.

      I’d forgotten about the “er” and “re” thing: “theatre” rocks!

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  7. It is always comforting to know that those we admire share the same struggles, tribulations, and insecurities as we do. How wonderful that, aside from her witty novels, a few of Ms. Austen’s letters survived as well to help guide us centuries later!

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    • It is amazing to me that, limited though her life and circumstances were, she managed to produce so much of value — and with a quill pen, too. At some point in the near future, I’d like to read her letters.

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  8. I believe I may need to attempt to employ this tactic. I find that at times when i do not feel like writing I allow myself to just not write. Today has been a blue day, and perhaps instead of shying away from writing I should instead “write it out”. I love that instead of just posting a quote you expanded and added your own thoughts and context.

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    • Thanks, Karen. I learned a few things about Jane Austen that I didn’t know, including the fact that Lady Susan, which wasn’t published until her death, was written fairly early on in her carrer.

      It is not my favorite kind of writing to do, but I have heard that Stephen King and John Grisham schedule writing time each day — whether they feel like writing or not. (Don’t quote me on that, though: I’m relying on hearsay, which is always dangerous.)

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      • I like the way you think. I also caught a little bit of the present/presented on the other blog. Totally makes sense. I schedule writing time each day only because it is there staring me in the face. My husband works very early in the mornings and I work closer to noon. Even when the kids were home I would start writing while they were sleeping until they went out the door for school. Of course it was interrupted but I would find my stride for the few hours I was alone before work.

        It helps to schedule everyday, because I know the plan isn’t going to go as planned everyday. If I skip a day or two, I know I have another block of time coming up. If I think of something standing in line at the grocery store, I only need to remember it until my next block of time. It also helps for days like today, where I am scattered, jumpy and antsy. Today the words may not be flowing … its been slow and deliberate, but quite good. I don’t have to edit out a bunch of garbage and bad grammar that I put in when I am inspired.

        To expand on a prior opinion, I don’t call this part writers block. I wonder when people aren’t in a humor for writing they will lump this in with writers block, you know because the flood gates aren’t open. It is close but a different struggle.

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        • I see what you mean by the difference between writer’s block and not being in a humour for writing, and I agree — although, not having taken on a major writing project since I left school, I’ve not experienced true “writer’s block.” Unfortunately (as I’ve probably said before), writing first thing in the morning seems to be my preferred time — but it is wrecking the rest of the day. A timer: that might help!

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  9. I love Jane Austen as well. Oh, to be able to write as well as she did! I think we can apply the quote to any writing if we wish to. I just channeled Jane and she told me it is ok. 😀 Nice post about the context in which she wrote. I read PD James book and although good she is not as good as Austen herself. I did watch the PBS production and actually liked it better than the book.

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    • Thanks for channeling Jane, Deborah 🙂 I may go back and rework a sentence or two at some point, but I definitely connected with the idea of writing when you don’t feel like it. I have heard good things about Death Comes to Pemberley. I have seen other P.D. James adaptations on PBS but never read any of her books.

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    • Thank you for noticing, Colleen 🙂 After I had added the text to my photo in PicMonkey, I happened to click on the original letter again and realized that I had used the American “humor” in my picture. I felt like I had to re-do the photo. . .

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  10. Fabulous post! This is what I wanted to see. Interaction with your quote. I re-read your post twice, it was so good. I love the famous author’s quotes because they share with us the same insecurities that we face as writers. We are not alone. I am so inspired knowing that what we go through is all worth it in the end. The satisfaction of having written one’s dream. Well done.

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    • Thank you, Colleen. I always learn something from these writer’s quote posts. (I hope I didn’t say anything wrong: if I did, I feel sure my mom will let me know — which I actually appreciate.) Apparently, many of Jane Austen’s letters were burned after she died. I’m sure her family wouldn’t have approved of the public nature of blogging!

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        • I saw the first part of Death Comes to Pemberly, but my husband and I missed the next installments. We keep saying we’re going to watch it, but something always comes up.

          On another note, I am now concerned that I took Austen’s quote out of context: after posting, I re-read the first paragraph of her letter. She was almost certainly referring to letter writing, rather than to novel writing. I first encountered the quote isolated from the letter. Now I’m wondering if I should go back and try to clarify?

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        • Only if you feel you need to. You can edit your post and then update it if you wish. Writing is writing. I think the quote works because we all come up against writer’s angst at one time or another. No worries here.

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        • I’m going to add a note at the end: I agree that writing is writing, and letter writing was a very important part of life in the early nineteenth century. I personally have used the tactic of writing just to get a start on a piece; you can always cut later, as I well know. Thank you for your feedback, Colleen 🙂

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