Monday, May 25, 2009

Back to the Present

Some time ago a friend told me about something called National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that participants set aside one month–the month of November–and try to crank out a 175-page novel.

My reaction was: you’ve got to be kidding. It took me eight years to write my first novel, a historical one. I’ve been researching and writing my second for at least a year and a half, and I’ve only got about 80 pages to show for it. How could anyone possibly write a novel in a month?

But about three weeks ago, I was feeling kind of bogged down in my novel-in-progress. It was becoming more of a chore than an artistic calling. Then I had a flash of inspiration for a completely different kind of novel: light, comic, and contemporary. Indeed, based on my own experience. I wouldn’t need to do any research, I was living it. But how could I abandon my work-in-progress after sinking all that work into it?

Then I remembered NaNoWriMo, as fans of National Novel Writing Month like to abbreviate it. What if I just took a month off and banged something out?

So it’s been about three weeks now and I’m on page 130. And I’m having a blast. For me, it’s been liberating not to have to constantly consult history books and documents to make sure I’m not making mistakes. And the luxury of being able to come up with cultural references without doing extensive background research! Plus there’s the satisfaction of turning one’s own sometimes painful experience into something that (I hope) will make others laugh. Regardless of what others think, though, it’s definitely helped me maintain a certain ironic distance from the real experience that is grist for my novelistic mill.

But, as I’ve always known, there are pitfalls involved in writing about things drawn from your own life–not least of which is the danger that other people will recognize themselves in your writing, or think they do. It is, of course, fiction. None of the characters in this novel is true to the real-life models I’ve based them on. I’ve exaggerated and invented freely. But I’ve also used some dialogue taken directly from conversations I’ve had or overheard, and there are certainly some details the real-life models would recognize. I can say it’s fiction until I’m blue in the face, and inevitably there will be some people whose feelings might well be hurt if they read it.

I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. That’s why I write about people who have been dead for a good long time–they’re not about to rise up and complain. But in this case I just couldn’t help myself. And I can always console myself with the thought that, given the state of the publishing industry, chances are this novel will never see the light of day.

And if it doesn’t, all I’ve lost is a month (or perhaps a bit more–I may allow myself to cheat). On the upside, I’ll have gained a certain amount of enjoyment–not to mention the retention of my sanity in the face of events that are enough to drive just about anyone off the deep end!