Know Thy Shelf
Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, October 24, 2012
“I always wanted to be a novelist. I just never wanted to write a novel.”
So said Kathleen Parker when she visited campus Oct. 2 to talk about journalism in the age of “Twitterature.” With those words she gave a voice to the moral dilemma my inner Jane Austen wrestled with for years. I had all the right ingredients: an insatiable appetite for books, an inordinate vocabulary and an insane obsession with used bookstores, not to mention a major in English.
But when it came to whipping out a “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” every idea fell flat. I would spend random afternoons crafting characters and plotlines in my head, only to have them fall apart on the rare occasion I tried to put them on the page. Eking out word after word was like carving into a chalkboard. Every sentence sounded painful and forced, and once composed, seemed irreversible.
Eventually I gave up, crammed my half-filled notebooks into the bottom of my bookshelf, and tried to accept my fate. I was never going to write a novel.
It wasn’t until last week, however, that I realized I was doing it wrong. Over fall break, I went to West Virginia as a part of the Center for Social Concern’s Appalachia program. The trip was awesome, my group was wonderful and I will never forget some of the things we saw or did. One of the goals of the program was to change preconceptions about poverty, the environment and social responsibility. At Nazareth Farm, the staff encouraged us to put away our phones when with friends, spend daily quiet time with God and be better stewards of our environment. So far, these habits have stuck with me. Granted, it’s been less than a week, but I’m hopeful these changes are long-lasting.
One of the changes was truly unexpected. During one of our precious downtime periods, one of the volunteers from another college started telling me about how much he loves to write. At first I thought he had just another run-of-the-mill blog about life or politics or how much he loves the Packers. But I could not have been more wrong. To demonstrate his point, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a stack of manuscripts, covered in the red ink of his own comments.
This kid actually wrote a 200-page novel on his own accord, all while juggling the responsibilities of a student. He said his writing process consisted of sitting down and just doing a little bit each day. It sounded hard, but he was able to write something substantial just because he felt like it. For him, writing was more of a habit than an inspired, earth-shattering revelation. He also said he didn’t worry too much about getting each sentence perfect – he could spend forever being nitpicky about diction and structure.
I found a strange amount of comfort in his dedication, as well as a challenge. There are few things I can commit to doing every day. But to see his reward of a fascinating and personal body of work showed how it’s the daily habit that makes the novelist.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.