I’ve been writing a novel. Sorry, no. The Novel. I’ve been writing The Novel for a while — I started it out over the summer in 2014, when I was on campus at UNCG to knock out a few classes over the summer session (I probably didn’t need to, but I’d fallen in love with Greensboro and didn’t really want to go back to Cary, and I loved how independent I was at college, and I never had a rebellious phase as a teenager so instead I did it in college). It’s not really important what it’s about (half the time even I don’t know).
It’s also not the only thing I’m working on writing, of course. I’ve had a short story going for a little while now that I might never finish because I realize the plot is just a rip off of Alien and I have another, different novel that I started for NaNoWriMo in 2018 and got a little bit further in for NaNoWriMo in 2019. And there are a few other things, mostly bad poetry. But none of those are The Novel. You know the one. The big story you’ve got inside you, waiting to be told, so important that it’s The Novel (in capital letters).
A lot of people have got their own The Novel. Like most of them, I don’t really know if I’ll ever finish mine, it might just be destined to be a conversation piece at parties, and I have serious doubts that it’ll be good if I ever do. But I keep plugging away at it, and someday, maybe I will finally dot the last period and write “The End” (or probably something more pretentious than that). The Novel lives, currently, in a little black journal I picked up from Walgreen’s a few years ago.
I originally started writing it on my laptop, but I read a story about an author I’d heard of (I can’t recall who) who said they always did their best writing on pen and paper and thought I’d give that a shot, since I was kind of doddering in no particular direction when I used my keyboard and got too caught up in things like, “Is this scene any good?” or “Maybe I’ll just backspace and rewrite that.” So, I started over with a pen. I found it a refreshing change of pace at first, and I do think it’s helped me to keep up with The Novel, writing a bit here, a bit there. I can’t backspace or erase with a pen — if I want to do anything more major than cross out a short word or phrase and scribble something in the margins, I’ve got to either strike it all out of get some white out, both of which are more of a pain in the ass than just soldiering on. The pen keeps me moving forward.
Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, I think it’s important to have something with forward momentum. Everything else is treading water — political events are at a standstill, the photography industry (our primary client base at work) is struggling to keep its head above water, and my husband’s job search has ground to a complete halt as everybody’s hiring processes freeze. At least I’ve got this novel.
I was writing some the other day, working through a chapter that’s been in progress for something like a year at this point, and was pleased to note that I’m almost halfway through that journal from Walgreen’s now. That’s nothing close to halfway through the novel — I’m not even through act one, and then this is probably meant to be just the first book in a series anyway — but it will still be a milestone when I’ve filled up all the journal’s pages. I don’t get a word count to obsess over, which is maybe a blessing.
Pushing forward like this feels good. I’ve been stuck on this chapter because it’s been a struggle figuring out how to get one character who’s been separated from the group back to the main group without it feeling like the whole side-adventure was a waste of time. Part of what’s let me move forward is realizing that ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it was. I can edit it out later if I need to, once this first, rough draft is done with (if it ever is). But I’ve got to finish this chapter first if I’m ever going to get there. And that’s a lot like life. Rough patches come, standstills come, there are hills to climb and troughs to weather. I might feel like I’m in a trough right now — I think the whole world probably does. But if we just keep moving forward (which no one ever said will be easy), eventually, we’ll get through it.
I’ll close out with a saying that comes from Pirkei Avot, a Jewish text that compiles ethical teachings from early rabbis, sages, and other great Jewish thinkers. “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: it is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much.” Translated a little more loosely, we might say that the important thing is not whether you finish what you’ve started: it’s to keep going. It will be worth the effort.