Sunday, November 6, 2011

Starting a New Chapter, Today

This month I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. I will attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel during the month of November. Every year, tens of thousands of novels are written this way. I have never written a full-length novel before, but I have written plenty of nonfiction books and short fiction, not to mention this daily blog, so there is little doubt that I will now be able to write a full-length novel. The only suspense is the question of how well I can do it in one calendar month.

One of the advantages of writing a novel this quickly is that the story can’t get boring. Thus far, I have written five chapters in five days, and to finish the novel during the month, I will have to continue writing nearly one chapter per day.

In the traditional novel form, and in the novel I am writing, each chapter is a new threshold. That is, the lives of the characters change just enough during the course of a chapter that the events of that chapter could not occur in the same way in the previous chapter or the next chapter instead. This convention gives rise to a familiar life metaphor.

There are actually two familiar metaphors or cliches that come from the experience of a novel. You “turn over a new leaf” or “turn the page” when you change a single habit or let go of something from the past. This level of change in life is like going from the right-hand page in a book to the left-hand page that follows on the other side of the same sheet of paper (called a “leaf” when it is bound into a book).

A bigger change, when you change your way of living so much that the previous pattern of daily action is no longer possible, is “starting a new chapter in life.” You might move to a new town, get divorced, start college, quit smoking, or change careers. People think of these big changes occurring only every couple of years. We all know people who have gone twenty years or longer without this level of change in their lives. On the other hand, there are also times when change is forced upon us, and we start a new chapter in life whether we are ready or not.

This especially tends to happen to characters in novels. In the novel I am writing, the main character has gone through five chapters in less than a month. As the writer, I have had to experience these new chapters on a daily basis in my imagination in order to write the narrative that forms the novel. It is not necessarily easy. I spent Friday getting comfortable with the idea of working on a road maintenance crew on a remote highway, only to wake up Saturday and have to follow a rumor that spreads through a town overnight. The pace of NaNoWriMo does not allow me to stand still long enough to get completely comfortable with the circumstances of any one chapter. I must move on as surely as the sun rises if am to reach my destination by the end of the month.

But I can do that. It is not so easy, but it is not so hard either. And if I can do it in my imagination, as a would-be novel writer, I must also be capable of doing it in my actual life. The imaginary mind is the same mind as the real-life mind. If I can imagine something in enough detail that I can write it out coherently in 2,000 words, then I can imagine something else in enough detail that I can live it all day long.

Furthermore, if this is a possibility for me, then it must also be a possibility for people in general. We are all capable of advancing from one stage in life to the next without the need for a long pause of years or decades in between. We can experience a threshold change between one day and the next.

If we have this capability, why do we employ it so infrequently? Well, why did I wait until November and NaNoWriMo to write my first full-length novel? Often, we are just waiting for life to tell us it’s time.

But more than that, it is a matter of doing the work. It is one thing to say, “Yes, I really want my life to change. Yes, I really, really want to change.” It is another thing to apply a disciplined imagination to your objectives, to spend hours working out the details of the next step forward in your life, giving it enough attention that it forms a picture consistent in itself and consistent with where you are arriving from.

Who has the time to do all that? I am only doing it today, for my novel, because the NaNoWriMo schedule says I have to finish during the month of November. But if you decided that you could take the time, it seems to me, you could start a new chapter in your life today.

And then, if you could spare the time again, you could start another new chapter tomorrow.