One way to write a novel

PART 1: In which our heroine lays out the project and multiple objections

On Saturday night, we decided that I will write a novel. I stated my objections:

Objection the first/primary: What about money? Do I not need to exchange my time/life for money?

I have, on a notecard taped above my desk, a quote from Alan Watts recently sent to me from the Universe via a wise soul: Under all circumstances one should behave like the water, one should adjust to the requirements of the outer world, keeping safe his/her unchangeable essence in the meantime.

Adjusting to the requirements of the outer world is a tricky thing. Which are the REQUIREMENTS and which are not?

Outer requirement: One must meet the basic material needs of oneself and one’s offspring (and possibly other immediate family members, and pets, and neighbors in trouble?). Food. Water. Shelter. And immaterial needs. Love. Safety. Belonging.

Ah, belonging. There’s the rub.

Human beings exchange their time/life for belonging. For security. For experiences. For freedom. For stability. Of course, money can help provide some of these things, to some extent, but on its own cannot provide any of them. Lots more to think about here.

Decision: I have three months to write the first draft of a novel. I will continue to sell cosmetics. I may accept editing contracts that are proferred during this time, but will not pursue them. I will sell my coin collection.

Objection the second: a novel? An essay? A short story? A song? An album? If I spend time on one, I’m not spending time on the other. If I don’t write music now, will anyone want to hear (me perform) it in five years when I finally make the time? If I pick the wrong project now, and it doesn’t work, will I have to get a “real job” and the song/story inside will remain unsung?

Decision: You have an idea for a novel (well, lots of ideas but one that you would like to start now). Your songs are nice but (per counsel) your writing is better. Write songs if you want. Focus on the novel. Get a draft done. Find out if you can do it.

Additional note: NaNoWriMo (that is, National Novel Writing Month) begins November 1st. The objective is to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. There are tutorials, support groups, resources (etc.), and generally some community supporting creative endeavor so it seems fortuitous to begin at a time when there might be some human engagement more readily available (rather than sitting at home alone rocking and laughing at all the hilarious lines my amazing characters will be delivering).

Objection the third: Write a novel? Don’t you know the world is kind of in trouble?

I was in the carpool line to pick my kids up from school yesterday. From private school. Their school is located along a street where approximately 0% of the population are likely to be able to afford to send their kids to the school (many of the families at the school likewise cannot afford the tuition and many, like us, receive some not insignificant financial aid). Before pick-up begins, cars wait along the righthand side of the street in a long line, sometimes blocking driveways.

This was the case yesterday. We all shifted, some forward, some back, to allow a highly incensed man to pull his tall, very shiny, black pick-up truck into his driveway. It did take him an extra 30 seconds to pull in and I can definitely relate to feeling frustration when you get home and there is something blocking your parking space. It IS frustrating and it would be annoying to have all these Audis and Lexi, and the odd Tesla, blocking your drive each day at 3 pm. So he said something rude to one of the ladies in the line, I believe it was a nanny, in an unpleasant and not totally unthreatening tone, and then went inside the house.

Directly after this incident, I had pulled forward and there was a car parked on the side of the road next to me (a parent who had walked up to collect children rather than waiting in line, motor running, exhaust wafting up to wrap our planet in just a tiny bit thicker of a sweater) and so my car was about a foot more towards the left than most of the other cars. I was sticking out, ever so slightly, to the side when, from behind me, comes a towering monster of a truck. Grey. Chevy? Or Ford? Who can say. I don’t know much about motors or the mechanics of producing sound therein. I think, if you have your car in very low gear and you press the gas, say to the floor, you can create what turns out to be an unmistakably intentional and incredibly hostile sound. A chest-tightening, stomach-flipping sound that pretty clearly indicates to the lady in the car sticking out an extra foot from the line that you wish she would eat s**t and die. You hate her and her f***ing private school brats and she should go f** herself. I think that’s what the car was saying but I don’t speak engine so I could have some particulars of the translation wrong.

If you are me, next you start thinking about people who are mad and about guns and about children and schools. And then you start thinking about solutions and what could change and what is making that person so upset and what can be done and misinformation and power and people profiting from being divisive. And then thankfully your kids get in the car so all you can think about is keeping their bodies separate, explain why it is too late to change their minds and both be Odd Squad agents for Halloween, try to give a lesson in economics and explain the difference in cost and value, explain that while some kids do, in fact, buy whatever costume they have in mind each year for Halloween that’s not how it was when you were little and that’s not how it is going to be for them but you are happy to help them make something out of all the dress-up clothes at home. Explain that it is less about the expense than about the disposability and the consumer aspect of buying new costumes on a whim each year. You know you are no fun. Why can’t anything just be fun. So you spend the afternoon putting jewels on a crown with your daughter who has decided that she will use a dress she has and be a queen, even if the boys don’t like things like princesses and all that. Son still undecided.

So anyway, there are problems. They are big and they are scary. There are helicopters flying to the Pentagon all the time I can tell you. Let’s not get into this anymore here, I think we all know what I’m talking about.

So I’m going to write a novel. It’s not going to solve anything. But there have been some pretty awesome people in history who have thought it was a useful idea to write a novel. I am, statistically if for no other reason more closely linked to ability, unlikely to join in their ranks in terms of longevity and impact, but if many of my heroes and soulmates have been writers, maybe I can be excused from saving the world for a few months and try my pen.

(Silent and unspoken objection (the fourth)): No, I don’t think I’m Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or William Faulkner, or Umberto Eco, or Tolstoy, Forster, Byatt, Woolf, White (etc., etc.). I just want to write. Can I please just write? Can I?

PART 2: In which, after some slight delay, our heroine does, in fact, begin to write a novel

SO, Monday morning was my first morning for novel writing. I had it all blocked out in my calendar. 9-12 is for writing each day, five days a week (for three months, and if you can’t do it then DOOM!). I sat down to write. I found the four handwritten pages I had started two or so weeks ago, ready to type them into my laptop (still undecided whether to write by computer or hand), screens off after 9 PM as you know. I placed the sheets on the desk, directly next to the computer. And I had a thought. Maybe, just for a few minutes, I might have a quick peek at some Jane Austen. Just to get myself into the mindset. I picked Persuasion off of the shelf. I opened it to the first page. I read the first half of the book sitting at my desk. I got up and went to the bathroom. I sat on the pull-out sofa and read the second half with my eye on the clock noting I would have to leave to get the children by 3. I finished the book around 2:30. The whole book. And then I ate something, maybe some nuts.

The afternoon passed. The kids were fed, bathed, put in bed. Sam lay upstairs and sang himself to sleep (NSync’s Bye Bye Bye his current lulla(bye) of choice). I was tired and a bit off kilter having read the entirety of Persuasion that day. Well (I thought), I’m not going to type now (screens and all), I will read a different author. I revisited the same shelf, selected A Tale of Two Cities, unopened (by me) since 1990, and read until just after Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton have had dinner after Darnay’s (very close) reprieve from being quartered, meaning to be cut into quarters, your guts pulled out and burned while you’re still alive (book the second, chapter 4) – about one-third of the book. I slept fitfully (in case you are unfamiliar, this is not a ‘light’ book being mostly about human appetite for torture and beheadings and prisons, etc.).

The next morning, Tuesday, I KNEW that I could not spend another day in the same way. The novel must be begun!! But I just so happen to own a two-volume biography of Charles Dickens. I have had these two volumes on my “to read” shelf for several years. The shelf containing over one hundred books (with new books frequently added and old books rarely subtracted), it was not clear when reading about the life of Dickens would become the top priority. Well, it turns out Tuesday was the day. Just one chapter as I’m insatiably curious about his earliest childhood when his dad went to debtor’s prison and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory. I want to know a little bit about that. To imagine a mind like Dickens’ sitting in a blacking factory, glueing labels onto pots and sealing them for twelve hours each day, at age 11, not knowing if he would ever have another opportunity to do anything else. So I read for two hours and then went to the doctor, had some lunch, read just a little bit more.

STOP! (I reprimanded myself.) No more putting it off!! Start your novel already.

So I did. Tuesday after lunch. I re-read the handwritten stuff, adjusted, and got to 1,268 words by 3 pm. Again got the kids, kept them alive, fed, bathed, read (I forgot to mention we started reading Stuart Little on Monday night, Sam is LOVING it, so that’s three of my favorite authors in one day). I then spent the evening reading more about the life of Charles Dickens.

Let me set the scene carefully for what next precipitated (ha ha, you’ll get it in just a sec): In bed, Tuesday night, I was propped up against my (multiple) pillows, reading my little heart out, resting the book in an upright position against my body, most likely with one or the other eye closed (I rest them that way when I am tired) when something dirty fell out of the book and landed on my chest. Some brownish bit of grass or old leaves. I moved another page and more earthy material fell out of the book.

Four-leaf clovers.

About 10 four-leaf clovers were either tucked into or had just fallen out of a page towards the middle of the book. The last person to have intimate contact with this particular volume before me had amassed a collection of four-leaf clovers and pressed them in between the pages.

I don’t know if this was my grandmother’s book. Or my great-aunt’s book. Or my great-grandmother’s book (or some dude who liked to collect four-leaf clovers, it could have also been a man, of course). What I do know is that someone, and, knowing the tastes of my living relatives in terms of their likelihood of having read a Dickens biography in this lifetime, someone a long while ago, pressed a bunch of four-leaf clovers into this volume, sending me a message decades later.

Do you remember when I found that lucky quarter at Trader Joe’s and stopped playing addictive iPad games and healed my gut flora? Just imagine how much more powerfully some 60-year old four-leaf clovers found in a Dickens biography I had begun the same day as starting my novel might affect me. It’s a sign!

I wrote again on Wednesday (up to 2,993) and then Wednesday night began reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I want to reread To the Lighthouse but fear I gave my copy away in a clutter-clearing binge and so looked for fiction, by a woman, about the life of a woman. Slim pickings. There was only one choice on the “to read” shelf. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God before but I recently took my sister’s copy from a shelf at my parent’s house – it feels familiar but I guess it would have been years and years ago that I read it. A little over halfway through with that one. Add it to the bedside stack.

So here it is Thursday and I’m writing this to update you on the latest and will move on to noveling next.

I like what I’ve written so far. I’m not sure what I’m doing exactly. I don’t have a plan. I’m sort of trying to excavate the bones (as Stephen King describes in On Writing). I’m sort of trying to write what I know. I know there are things to say. So I guess I’ll get to it now…

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