I missed Jane Austen's birthday by a few days -- it's the 16th of December. This essay is from 2005, so Jane just turned 240. She was 41 when she died.
IT'S NOT OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER, AND MAYBE NOT EVEN THEN.
Yesterday was Jane Austen's birthday -- she's 230 years old. If ever anyone has aged well, it is Jane. I won't still be getting work when I'm 230.
She was so decidedly a creature of her era that she never published under her own name in her own lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, her first published work, was written by "A Lady." Pride and Prejudice came out next, and it was by "The Author of Sense and Sensibility."
Editors who don't answer letters, agents who don't return phone calls, publishers who don't acknowledge your existence, marketing departments who don't push your book -- writing is not for sissies. I hear from writers all the time, ground down by their own obscurity, discouraged, bitterly convinced that getting a book published is a matter of who you know, not what you write. That's not so -- unless you're Brittney Spears, who will sell her book with ease if she ever writes one, a truly frightening thought.
The Author of Sense and Sensibility was not a person easily discouraged; its 1811 publication followed her first sale by almost a decade. Northanger Abbey was sold to a publisher for ten pounds in 1803 and then not released (another bad thing that can happen to your book), not until her brother brought it out after her death. Think of it: you are 28 years old, and have sold your first book. You wait and wait for news of when it will be printed, when you will actually hold it in your hands.
It never happens. You're dead by the time it's published, and when it is, it's under another title.
But you don't waste time whining about it. You just keep writing, and your work gets better and better. You write every day, whether you feel "inspired" or not -- don't get me started on "inspiration." And you keep sending things out, your heart in your mouth each time you do.
I need to think about what to do with all my work when I kick the bucket, Moses says. This is no small consideration: he is an Abstract Expressionist who has, at certain points in his career, been given to very large canvasses. I guess I could just set it out on the curb.
But you'll be dead, I say. You can't set your own work out on the curb if you're dead.
Oh, well, he always says, it will be over soon enough.
If you're an artist, you do your art, no matter what it is. No matter whether or not anybody else sees it. If you're a writer, you write. If you're a painter, you paint. If it's good, you will probably sell it, but you will probably never make enough money to live on from your art alone -- hardly anybody does. Remember that your work can always be better than it is and that you can always improve your craft. Always. Remember to listen carefully to the criticism of people whose work you admire, and remember to suspect your own self-assessment: you are hardly unbiased.
And remember that Jane Austen sold her first movie when she was 165.
This is the only image of Jane executed during her lifetime. It is a drawing by her sister, Cassandra.