Tuesday, October 23, 2018

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Have you ever found yourself faced with a writing project and no idea how to start? Have you ever experienced the uncomfortable realization that everything you write is going to be a reflection on your personal life in some way and that people won’t believe you’re writing a character, even if that character doesn’t resemble you in any way? Have you ever written something for a creative writing class that started along the lines of “the author put pen to paper, but words wouldn’t come.  She bounced a tennis ball against the floor ten times, trying to come up with a different character name on each bounce.  She slept with her pen under her pillow and showered with her tablet in a plastic bag.  One glorious autumn day she awoke to the sounds of geese calling overhead on the migration route, and their brazen honking acted like a tissue might on a stuffed up nose.  She ran to her computer and without preamble, started to write....”
My god, we’ve all done it. We are all GUILTY of that bilge. We’ve all been that self-inserted character, writing pure garbage with the hope that at some point, something of value would emerge.  We’ve all discovered that the best way to write something good, or memorable, or even therapeutic, is just to sit down and do it.  Just write.
This is the whole point of NaNoWriMo.  Stop telling everyone how much you’d love to write a novel one day and just sit down and write one.  No deleting, no editing.  30 days, a beginning, middle, and end, at least 50,000 words.  It won’t be good, but it will be written. 
I’ve tried to convince a number of people to participate in this madness with me every year since I started.  Most people say the same thing - that they don’t have time, or that every time they’ve tried their work has turned out nonsensical.  Listen.  I managed to complete NaNoWriMo one year while working full time and going to night school, and I did it in the stolen moments.  In the times you’d take a cigarette or snack break, a full lunch at work, watch TV before bed, spend scrolling Twitter, sitting on the toilet, all of those minutes add up.  Those stolen little minutes can create a whole life within your life.  I wrote my novel using Google Docs, although I’m sure any cloud-based writing program would work.  You can do it on your phone or tablet while standing in line at the store, or waiting in the doctor’s waiting room.  It helps, of course, to have a good outline beforehand so there’s no wasted time. You just glance at your outline for the next scene or plot direction and write for five minutes.  
I wrote a lot of terrible things that year.  Because the goal is to write 50k words, sometimes my characters would do things like debate what they were going to eat for lunch. I could easily write a couple hundred words debating which was the best menu option at Taco Bell (the beef nacho cheese chalupa if you’re not counting calories, duh).  It didn’t matter exactly what I was vamping about, somehow that chalupa would turn up in later chapters and become central to the character or the plot.  Just the act of writing something down turned into ideas for future scenes, and somehow I got to 50k in about 1667 words a day.  Some days more, some days less.  It’s just like eating a pie.  Most of us don’t sit down and eat a whole pie at once, but I sure can finish a pie if I’m telling myself I’m just having a nibble with each meal.  
This brings me to Scarlett Thomas. Scarlett Thomas writes books that you will either love or hate, depending on your mindset and where you are in life.  They tend to lean heavily on philosophy and have elements of fantasy or mystery in them.  There are also personal insertions that pop up from book to book and seem to run parallel to what she’s told us about herself in various interviews.  I remember reading PopCo and rolling my eyes pretty hard at the strong push to veganism - it was so heavy handed I wanted to hurl the book across the room at the time - but there was also a really interesting spy element, and overall I loved the book.  Interestingly my least favorite of her books is a dystopian/utopian YA style novel where a bunch of people end up stranded on an island.  I remember thinking that a new utopia isn’t really all that great if they don’t strand a good surgical dentist on the island with everyone else. Nothing can make you miserable quite like persistent worsening tooth pain. I found this lack of dental care to be completely unrealistic, and yet I wasn’t bothered at all by the completely realistic book with the talking mouse and mental video game simulations.  I may be critical, but at least I’m inconsistent!
Our Tragic Universe is a book I really hated the first time I read it.  It’s about a writer struggling to write - looks like someone took a MFA writing class, har! - and who completely deletes and re-writes her novel based on whatever is happening in her current life at the time.   It’s about “storyless stories,” a phrase that I still loathe, even though I’ve come to love the book.
I’ve never claimed to be the fastest racehorse, but my perception of the book changed completely when I re-read it and realized that the book about the self-inserting author, which is written by a self-inserting author in real life, is a metaphor for how we live our lives.  That every time we change our circumstance or pick up a skill or learn something new, we can rewrite our story from the new perspective we’re in.  
There are large chunks of dialogue between the main character, Meg, and her intellectual friends where they talk about plot devices and storytelling in general, and each of these conversations makes it back into the book in some way.  They discuss Chekov and the gun - if you introduce the gun in the first act the the gun has to go off in the third.  Within the book, there is an obstacle that is brought up in the beginning and is revealed at the end of the book.  There are plotlines that seem to go nowhere.  Is that sloppy writing, or is the author telling us one of those “storyless stories” they all keep banging on about?
It’s easy to hate Meg, to say she’s unmotivated, whining, and capable of making all the changes she needs to in her life.  It’s easy to hate the deus ex machina resolutions to some of the plot lines.  You can hate her all you want,  but she’s very real.  A person who is living with people who are immersed in depression can pick up the traits themselves.  It might  not be chemical, but unhappiness is contagious and can really sap anyone of basic decision making skills.  If you hate Meg, please take a look at some of your own non-choices.  And as for the deus ex machina element, I think that’s extremely realistic.  So many big things in our lives happen randomly.  It’s the difference between taking the plane that doesn’t crash, or interviewing for the job that turns into your career.  
There’s also an element of moral ambiguity to the characters, which I always like.  What’s the point of saying you’re going to write a novel and then spending the whole time trying to push everyone into a modern morality play, with everyone acting in ways that are always mature and healthy and good for everyone? That would be one boring ass book.  
The last time I reread this it reminded me so much of participating in NaNoWriMo that I had to tie them together.  Meg is dealing with deadlines, a personal life she feels trapped in, and she feels creatively bankrupt.  But she keeps trying.  
As much as I enjoy this book, there is one MAJOR NO NO.  Meg deletes.  She writes, deletes, and restarts over and over, year after year.  This is the number one cardinal sin of NaNoWriMo.  Never delete your word count, Meg.  January is for editing.  For now, just shut up and write.