The rules say that you should start from scratch. A brand new novel in 30 days. I did that once. Kind of. The year I “won.” November 2009. 50,000 words in 30 days.
No, even then it wasn’t from scratch. I took plans in with me, intent, characters, drafts and chapters, years worth of story. I wrote the bulk of the prose in those 30 days, 50K words as promised, but the story was always there, long before 2009. The truth is I have been writing the same novel since I was 16 years old. Literally over half my lifetime.
Obviously there were breaks. There were vast, years-long breaks. Lifetimes passed between “working on my novel” and “what novel?” and then rolling around to “working” again. And again. I’ve been 17 different people since I wrote that first chapter, as a school project in the 11th grade. That chapter has been rewritten and rewritten and rendered more or less unrecognizable from the piece I wrote at 16, but it’s the same story. It’s always been the same story.
A truth, undeniable: I love it. This story, these characters. I put it away and forget it but I always come back to it, I never start anything of significance that’s NEW or DIFFERENT because I have to finish this story first.
And I can’t finish it. I don’t know how it ends, what the point is. Here it is, here’s the problem: I don’t really know Shelby, who is ostensibly the protagonist of this story. I don’t KNOW her. I know her mother (another truth: as I’ve aged, I’ve drifted away from young Shelby and allowed her mother Julia to grow into the true center of my story, the soul, and I know that’s happening but I’m not sure what to do with it). I know Shelby’s uncle and her father and her friends. But Shelby is an enigma after all these years, and in spite of everything I still think she’s the key, she’s the one who determines the ENDING. But I can’t find her.
So take a hint, right? If I’m a writer I should just put it on a shelf already, after wasting SEVENTEEN YEARS on it, and write something else. Something new and fresh and exciting.
And there it is. THE FEAR that owns me: I honestly don’t know if I have another story in me. It terrifies me. What if this is it? What if this is the only story I have to offer? What if there’s nothing else in me? And I can’t even get it right, can’t even finish it.
I always figured that when I finished THIS story, I would be free, and new stories would float into being. And I’ve always felt that if I CAN’T finish this story…am I really even a writer? How can I say I want to write stories if I can’t finish even one in seventeen years?
(Yes, of course, I’ve finished a thousand other “stories,” little things, silly things, nonfiction and fiction and little useless things. I’m talking about the NOVEL. What if this is my only novel? Because I have always, always, seen myself as a novelist. Let’s call a spade a spade: I’m not a novelist. Not today. Not after seventeen years.)
Here’s another twist: sometime between last year and now, all of my work, SEVENTEEN YEARS, disappeared from my computer, from the cloud, from everywhere. It’s gone. Of course I know the story. The writing may be lost but the story isn’t. I’ve lived it and exhaled it for all these lifetimes. I am that story.
So what’s the message I should take from losing it? Is this my chance to start it over from the beginning, grab hold and do it right, start and finish it once and for all, in one last 30-day frenzy? Or is this me being released, a chance to accept it as it a lost cause, a chance to let it go and find a new story?
NaNoWriMo starts in 25 days.