Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing a Novel is Like Running a Marathon

I plan to graduate my MFA program with a fully written, ready to be shopped around, serious piece of work, which tells a sweeping, specific story that speaks to the universal experience of human life and, at the same time, illuminates intimate truths of the individual self. In other words, I plan to write a novel.

This is not exactly ground breaking news. In order to finish my MFA program I have to complete a thesis. This is generally expected to be a book-length piece of writing. Some people choose to compile a collection of short stories and/or essays. Others write novels. I will be one of the Others.

But it's not as easy as it sounds! You see, I have been trained to write short stories. For years and years, in workshops and at home, I have been sprinting to the finish line of plots that are small and contained, that focus on one or two pivotal moments in a character's life. As any runner knows, you can't go from sprinting 5K's to long distance running overnight. And the novel, it turns out, is a marathon.
Writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
The quote above comes from a great article I read months ago in The Millions, about how writing workshops and programs focus on the short story because it's easy to critique in class and are too often the only thing journals are willing to publish in their limited spaces. In my own experience, I know this to be true - I have never written a single piece longer than a twenty or so pages (with the exception of NaNoWriMo novels, which I am loathe to count) and when faced with the prospect of a story arc that could carry a reader through several hundred pages I freeze, become frightened, and run back to the safe haven of the short story. This, despite the fact that my life's ambition is to be a novelist.

Here is the good news: I'm in an MFA program and I have three years to figure my shit out. Well, 1.5 years, really, because I am determined to spend the second half of the program writing and revising my thesis/novel. Next year I plan to take a novel writing workshop class - it spans not one but two semesters, giving the students a full academic year to write and workshop sections of their books-in-progress. This particular class is one of the reasons I was drawn to UNCW. I'm waiting for year two to take it is because I want to have a really good idea for a novel first and good ideas are at least 50% of writing. (The other 50% is the ability to find a gem in a bad idea.) (I have a lot of made up statistics about writing. My other favorite is that writing is 25% writing and 75% revising. See? Writers can do math!)

To make a long story short: by May of 2014, I will have written my first novel, by making a short story long. Also, I will not tell you how much time I spent getting the previous sentence's pun just right. That is between me and me.  

For more on the writing/running connection, check out these links:
The Running/Writing Parallel by The Running Historiain (a blog post by one of my favorites)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
99 Problems: Essays About Running and Writing