Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

one's personal novel

This week my friends' list features numerous entries by folks in the community nanowrimo. This community is devoted to, the National Novel Writing Month project, which commences on November 1. For those whose friends' list is not barraged with the post "Hi, I'm Kylie, I'm 22 years old, and I've been chomping at the bit to participate in nanowrimo since I first learned of it at the dorm, and I can't wait until November 1, and my question is: "plot--what is it?", I'll explain that in the nanowrimo project one begins a novel on 11/1, and must complete a 50,000 word novel by 11/30.

I've written extensively about how this project energized me a year ago to write "Lonely Distance", a sci fi future history about internet obsession, written in that charming style I'll call "rambling redundant weblog first person narrative". I completed my 50,000 words in ten days, uploading into the nanowrimo counter machines (you see, the nanowrimo folks don't read your novel--they just verify word count), to receive my very own .pdf certificate that I had completed the project, which certificate I forgot to print up and have framed for all posterity. I'll have future posts about this work of non-genius, as I still intend to self-publish it. It already even has a cover, thanks to kenmora.

nacowafer suggested I do nanowrimo, noting (though more politely than I phrase it here) that in essence my natural verbosity should make production of a tome of sufficient word count reasonably easy. So it proved (or, to act more goofily mystical than I am, would it be "so moted it been"?). After all, a regular weblogger achieves in a month thousands upon thousands of words, so channeling that into a novel is just a matter of coming up with a premise.

This morning I'm thinking of how much people are novelists in life. The writer Sandra Tsing Loh, despite her various personal faults, did come up with the gem that "All autobiography is fiction" and the part of me that has a residual Jung meta-psyche (I just made that phrase up--read it as "some profound psychoanalytic theory") suggests that "all fiction is autobiographical" for good measure. But pithy slogans, though great for NPR and those quirky performances in chamber orchestra halls that NPR celebs do, do not always capture the full nuance of the situation.

People sometimes seem like long campfire tales. So much of one's personal history can be in the telling. "I am the type of person who....". "I could never do....", and "I tried, but I just can't....". Without self-definition, it seems that life for some folks would have no definition at all. Of course, I see the converse situation: "I am all-powerful", "no evil exists because I wish it away" and "I am good at x in ways nobody else is good at x". If one can control the narrative of one's life, it avoids living with the uncertainties and complexities.

A campfire generates heat which protects against the cold (and, in some places, the wolves that beset the dark). A campfire tale stereotypically enlivens one's insides while the fire warms the outer person.I am a huge believer in the power of story--the personal myths which define and comfort.

I think that people who say "I could never write a novel" make a valid point, because for some people thinking in character and plot is just not congenial.But most folks, on another level, write a personal novel every day. I'm consistently intrigued by the way in which the novel of one's life gets written.

I sometimes think that the generation of people my parents' age, who were born in the 1930s, wrote their novels in some ways very differently than people of my generation. For my father, going off to college was a rather larger deal than it was for me--he was the only one of his siblings, I believe, to actually finish. His struggle to work through undergrad at Tulane and med school in Little Rock involved much more "all or nothing" than my own life did. His folks ran stores in a tiny little town on the railroad--his father's main occupation was as a railroad telegraph operator. His town was so small it really doesn't exist anymore--it's just a forgotten memory of some country folks 'round about what used to be Lester, Arkansas. He saw himself in a struggle to achieve a defined goal--to be a doctor. He saw this as his fight, in a way--his epic saga.

I envy my father, and many of his contemporaries, a sort of determined single-mindedness that I and most of my friends lacked. I'm not one of those people who harps on the need for everyone to get post-secondary education (although my friend Gene might testify to the contrary), because so many of my friends elected to skip college. At least two of my closest friends chose not to do college in a sort of reverse snobbery--sort of a thing against the Man and the absurdity of it all and the sheer hassle of the thing. Both were gifted enough to get degrees had they chosen, and their incomes arguably suffer a bit for the choice they made (although this is not universally true of all who choose to do without college). But they live their lives with a bit more thrift, and a lot more free time, than a lot of busy professionals I know.

LJ confirms for me, by the way, something I already pretty much knew--one cannot define the "thinking people" by the pieces of paper they achieved just after high school. That's not to say formal education is not a good thing--I'm a big believer in it. It's to say instead that the life of the mind is not a matter of degrees, but of one's personal quest to obtain education. But in my father's generation, I'm intrigued that some of his contemporaries said "I must have x degree, so that I can do y". I notice that in the current generation of kids, a single-minded pragmatism also prevails. Kids now feel in many instances that they must get into a "top 16" (don't ask me why 16) law school or not go at all--this type of thinking would have been alien to me. I went to a less prestigious law school than I might have, to save tuition and because it never occurred to me that it mattered that much.

I used to spend a lot of internet time on message boards giving kids advice on law careers. I really enjoyed doing that, and I met some very nice people that way--kids ranging from almost out of college to kids a bit older than I am. I am always struck by the way the way one decides whether to go to law school is so much more "sensible" than when I was making those decisions.

I took the Law School Admission Test as a lark, after a desultory "B" average college career in which my initial "pre med" aspirations were washed away by apathy at my studies, and I was casting about for things to do. I've related elsewhere how I chose law school over graduate work in English literature (aiming to be a tech writer or college professor) in order to cause my father to lose a fifty dollar bet with my mother. But I never had the "fire" to go to law school--indeed, in my circles, this was considered a rather "co-opted", morally ambiguous thing to do. When I got to law school, it soon became clear to me that I had talent for it, and belonged there. I worked very hard in law school, mostly out of fear that I would fail, and later, when I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, out of desire to keep on being a success.

I'm sure I've written before how in law school I saw a shining vision of what I perceived to be my True Calling. I really enjoyed leading our study group, and tutoring a couple of kids in a tutoring program.
I had this whole image in mind of What gurdonark Should Be. I would eschew prestigious after-law-school clerkships, a valuable resume item, because they involved working for a government, more or less, and I was more independent than that. I would find a job practicing, so that I could get practical experience (that some of my law professors frankly lacked). After a couple or three years, I would get my LLM and then teach law.

But I hope I am not too repetitive when I relate that a funny thing happened on the way to the Academic Grove, from which all good things spring.
After a grueling year of law practice, which I found intensely fascinating, very stressful and a corporatist life rather uncongenial to my eccentricities, I determined that rather than flee the law, as a sane man would do, I would buckle down and try to conquer it. I bought a home, when my income only permitted me to do so if I practiced law,
to "force" myself into roots in the community, so that I would buckle down and learn to do law well.
I managed to buy right before a massive Texas economic downturn, which made my house have negative equity from the beginning. I had this whole personal narrative, from then on, how I could not sell the house without financial loss, and thus could not pursue my academic dreams.

A few years later, after I had scaled the partnershp ladder and squeaked into an equity position at a law firm, I sent my resume to the academic meatmarket for the annual law school hiring convention in DC.
I did not get a single request to interview. I always liked that fellow Mr. Chips in the Hilton novel because he comes to realize in life that he has a degree which, while sound, is by no means distinguished, and he will always be second rank. I had a somewhat similar feeling about being a top graduate of a commuter law school, when it came to
academia. The funny thing is that in my work life, the identity of my law school mattered less to firms, clients, courts and opposing counsel than almost anything I can imagine. My law degree's lack of prestige doesn't really matter to people who actually practice law, but only to people who teach it. Oh, I suppose I could say it might matter to 21 year olds thinking about law school, who seem to me to be far more school-rank conscious than anyone I know.

I had rather known all this about academic snobbery, though,and the "form book" for such matters says that one goes to one of the great institutions such as Harvard or Yale or Chicago and gets one's LLM, a degree suited only to killing time, studying taxation or getting a teaching job. But when the day came when I had inclination, adequate funding and an opportune moment to go get the LLM, I chose instead to stay in law practice. I instead went with my "alternative narrative", in which I would someday own my own law practice, and be able to do the law I enjoy in a setting without the needless politics some law firms engender. I've been at it three years now, and it has worked out well. I've replaced materialism and politics with a solid ethic of "hard work and some free time" which generates me an income modest by some standards, lavish by others. I sometimes think about what might have been, had I the personality to work in a different setting, but overall I am content with my work life.

But my point today is not my career autobio, but how I'm intrigued by the stories that I tell myself, which help illumine and obscure my choices. I'm fascinated by the sheer novel which, seen in this light, my life has become.

I love to read novels, too. I love LJ for just this reason. I want to reach out to some novelists and say "you're so cool. You entertain me. You make me feel that there's hope in dark days". But when one puts that in comments, it comes out all flat, or eager or even eccentric. I don't mind eccentric, but I usually think I should be more eccentric in my own journal.

But it amuses me, this 50,000 word a month notion--the "challege" of writing such a narrative. Most folks I know write 100,000s of words a month in their own personal history, novels with endless subplots and fascinating themes. Their inward characters speak like characters in a novel. Their plots have more side note characters than a Russian 19th century novel.

People are storytellers-that's a very good thing. I love that I can watch a TV show like last night's "Angel" premiere, and find myself immersed in stories based on threads of the "supernatural" and double-meaninged phrases in the one-liners. I think that the potency of story, though, is taken for granted sometimes. I know that story does not merely keep one entertained--though Heaven knows entertainment among the banality is key. I think that the storytelling sense helps save one from oneself. One can imagine a story in which one is not trapped by one's life, and then one can do the things to evade the trap. Rather than a simple matter of "I can and will", sometimes it takes a self-narrative--a novella of change.

I thought I wanted for drive, but I found I only wanted for imagination. When I found my imagination, I found my path. Or so I imagine. But in my own plot, I shifted the story at least a time or two. The chapters are interesting to read, sometimes, and more interesting to write.

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