The value of discretion

Photo, Mischief Mari with Jane Austen Teapot Cookie, mischief mari, Nov. 2, 2007, Flickr, Creative Commons
mischief mari, "Jane Austen Teapot Cookie," Flickr, 2007.

“Bring the romance!” When I read those words I sighed. With chagrin, not pleasure. I was revising a draft of All Roads Lead to Austen—and Shana, my content editor, was urging me to spice it up. The manuscript narrated a year I’d spent in Latin America holding Jane Austen book groups with insightful local readers. I’d set off to learn if folks in Guatemala, Argentina, and other countries would love Austen the way so many Americans and Brits do. Along with fresh perspectives gained on the road came an Austenesque bonus: I wound up dating one of those Austen converts—then marrying another.

Shana has a skilled editor’s eye for what keeps romance readers on the edge of their loveseats. My story was ripe with possibilities, yet the manuscript was leaving her cold.

Why did I not “bring the romance”? First off, the book is nonfiction. It’s one thing to write steamy encounters for fictional characters—another to spill on the real thing. In print. Like an intimate girlfriend brandishing an appletini, Shana’s marginal comments egged me on: “Were you excited you’d be seeing him soon?” she prompted eagerly. “And how did it feel when he took you in his arms?” she whispered a chapter later, breathless.

But as I continued to hold out, marginalia-Shana flung her hands up in disgust. “You have to ‘think about’ the relationship? ‘Consider’ and ‘decide’? This is your Latin lover you’re talking about!!! Where are your feelings?”

Well, that was part of the problem—travel completed, feelings felt, decision made, I was poised to be married. Did I really want my Mr. Darcy to have the skinny on my pre-marital bliss with Mr. Bingley? No I did not.

What’s more, I teach at a small university; students would surely find their way to my book. How could I face bright-eyed young folks in the classroom, knowing they knew their ancient (i.e. 40-something) professor thrilled and longed and quivered and so on? OMG, TMI.

And yet I had to keep poor Shana from diving off the publishing house roof. It finally dawned on me that, immersed in Austen, I’d begun channeling my favored sister from Sense and Sensibility: Elinor. If Shana/Marianne wanted more detail, other impulsive, warm-hearted readers would, too. A compromise was in order.

First I consulted my Mr. Darcy. “Share whatever you think you should,” he said calmly. “I won’t be offended. I’m the one you chose in the end.” (Isn’t he great?) Then I breathed deeply and got in touch with my inner Marianne. After adding detail, I’d picture students from my Austen class reading it then trim back the bits likely to make them wince.

But perhaps you, gentle reader, now wince. Shouldn’t a nonfiction writer tell the whole truth and nothing but? Austen may have spawned plenty of literary thrills, longings, quivers and so on, but she knew the value of discretion—and leaving a bit to the imagination. That works for me.

Amy Elizabeth Smith

Amy Elizabeth Smith, originally from Pennsylvania, teaches creative and professional writing at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Her recent memoir, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, recounts a year spent traveling in six Latin American countries learning Spanish and holding reading groups on Jane Austen—and finding romance on the road, as well. Find out more about Amy Elizabeth Smith.

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