Novel is the Scariest Word I Know
There were very few things I was absolutely sure of coming into grad school. Really, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to write a novel for my thesis. I’ve always been sure of that, even though I’ve never written a novel before. But that was why I was here—to finally crack the start of that goal.
My first week here, someone involved in the MFA program (who is no longer here) casually told me that “People don’t really do novels here. It’s not encouraged. You don’t have experience in it,” I was flabbergasted and quickly went into a crises that seemed to be way too premature to be having my first week of my first semester. Although I write short stories, it’s not what I wanted to do with my degree. I didn’t want to work for three year to write a short story collection I wasn’t even invested in myself. That statement also deeply confused me; I know of at least two third year students who were writing novels for their thesis. Getting into grad school and leaving the possibility of an established life and putting down roots on hold was a lot of work already. I was dismayed that the thing I had come here for, my elusive novel to finally get itself down on paper, was already discouraged because I hadn’t written a novel before.
I didn’t go into the acceptance phase of grief after the initial shock. I knew I couldn’t invest myself in a short story collection I had zero interest in creating. I started questioning. Are there really people who come to get an MFA after they’ve already established themselves as a novel writer? I thought of the third year students writing novels; it was the first one for all of them. What made them different than me? The answer was, really, a relief: I wasn’t different from them at all. They’d never finished a novel before, they wanted to take on writing a novel, however daunting that task is, because it was what they were truly interested in writing beyond their grad school years.
Still, I shied away from the novel for my entire first year. I wrote short stories for my workshop and couldn’t get myself to cross from the short story side to the novel side, despite how desperately I wanted to do so. As much as I love novels and wanted to write one, it was as big, scary task that stretched far beyond the twenty-twenty-five pages short stories tend to be. I had to lay out a long, sprawling story that would require scenes of action and scenes of rest. I would need to place small pins of interest in the first chapter that would have to gain momentum and importance and I couldn’t forget to bring them back up in the climax.
I bought a stack of colorful index cards over the summer. The pink ones became the main plot line, each of my alternating narrators got their own colors, green and orange, to track their individual plots. All of the secondary characters got their own yellow card. I stopped thinking about what could catastrophically happen and whether I even had the stamina for a novel. I started plotting instead.
Plotting out the novel has not been easy; even though I’ve written two chapters and turned them into my workshop this semester, the plot is still in the process of changing. The initial plot I wrote out over the summer got ripped up and completely redone in October. As I get farther into it, the plot may change again. I cannot tell right now. I probably won’t be able to tell until a full draft is staring back at me.
I have, however, gained a sense of relief and purpose within my MFA. My thesis novel is by far the hardest project I’ve ever attempted. But I feel a sense of fulfillment when I work on it. Every word, sentence, and page is contributing to a goal I’ve had since I was a teenager. It may change along the way, but it’s taking me with it on each step. I carry my stack of index cards around with me; they are all full now but they add a weight to my bag that’s reassuring.
I write this as I wrap up this fall semester and am at the halfway point of my MFA. It’s a surreal feeling that I’ve somehow already gone through a year and half and am starting down the fast and frantic other side of the hill. Despite the anxieties of the unknown, I know I’ll get everything done, there is no other option. By the time I crash and skid into the bottom of the hill, I’ll be holding a part of a novel, and I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than that.
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