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We’ve all heard the popular maxim: everyone has a novel in them. Whether you believe it or not, it certainly sounds like a good thing. The beauty of literature, after all, comes from learning about the world from someone else’s viewpoint, from experiencing something that is detached from us physically but can nonetheless engage with us emotionally. So for those of us who want to discover the full range of ideas and experiences amongst our fellow humans, it is a welcome thought that everyone has a potential novel to write.
On the other hand, there are already a great deal of bad novels out there, so perhaps a more discerning filtering process is a good thing. The arguments for and against are both numerous.
This potential novel question didn’t seem important to me before I came to study my Creative Writing MFA. An inner novel, and deciding what to do with it, is someone’s personal business, I thought. It was only when it became my business that I was forced to pick a side. Let me explain.
Being a creative writing student and having to regularly introduce myself with that fact, I am very used to the inevitable questions which require me to describe what I’m writing. I have long been suspicious that neither party really enjoys this, but social etiquette requires that I plow on with my rehearsed novel pitch. The usual tell-tale signs of forced interest on their face and the discomfort on mine have been enough to convince me that one’s novel is not good conversational territory.
Once in a blue moon, however, something quite wonderful happens. When people learn that I am a writer, rather than ask what I am doing, they gleefully tell me, as if the fact is something that has been clawing away at their insides and has only just found the direction with which it can make its escape, that they, too, despite not thinking of themselves as ‘writers’, are writing a novel.
Obviously, when this first happened, I was thrilled. The more people telling stories, encouraging the sharing of creative expression, the better. So, out of genuine interest and politeness, I took up the position of curious questioner.
“I’ve been thinking of writing it for about nine years,” the guy at the house party said.
“Is that right?” I replied. “What’s it about?”
“Angels,” he said. “Well, an evil angel.”
“Oh,” I said, a sudden perverse interest coming over me.
Over the next forty-five minutes, he took me through a world in which a fallen angel, someone akin to the devil, had come to earth and started impregnating women. Some of these women, however, are secretly magical angel-like beings themselves, which means that, when one of them gives birth to the villain’s daughter, the child has a great enough mix of powers to be the only one who can stop him. Twist upon twist. I nodded and nodded, throwing in the occasional oh cool. It’s a story, I was told at the conclusion, about sexual morals. Good versus evil.
“So how far through are you?” I asked, exhausted.
“I’ve not written any of it. But I think about it a lot.”
Noticing that he had paused to take a sip of his drink, I told him that I had to go to the bathroom and, after splashing my face with cold water to try and forget the details of the angel’s promiscuities, went back out and hid from him in the kitchen.
The next time this happened was in a coffee shop, a place where I usually feel safe enough to let my guard down and not worry about sudden unexpected chit-chat.
“I’m a writer, too. People tell me I’m a great writer. They say, ‘you’re a beautiful writer, you should write a novel, we would read it,’” the guy at the coffee shop told me after casually asking what I do. “So I’ve been thinking of writing this book for about five years.”
“Good for you,” I say, urging the queue to move faster with an intense creasing of my brow. Stay interested, stay polite, I told myself.
“Yeah, I noticed that there’s certain things that are popular now, like trees. You know, after Guardians of the Galaxy. So I’m writing about a world where trees take over. But the trees are all female, and they’re, like, sexy trees. They create a government called the Democratree,” he said, as serious as if he were talking about tax returns or his sick grandma.
“Democratree?” I said, glad that I didn’t yet have my tea, otherwise I would have spat it out in disbelief.
For the next ten minutes I was treated to an in-depth speculative monologue about what the motivating factors would be for an evil army of trees and how a ragtag team of heroes would work together to stop them. It was kind of like an arboreal War of the Worlds. Once my tea came I struggled to find the right words with which to conclude.
“How much have you written?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing yet. But I know the whole story.”
“Good luck,” I said, mentally noting that coffee shops were no longer safe spaces.
After these, and a couple of other similar occurrences, my patience with people’s inner novels had started to run rather thin. But please, I add desperately, don’t think I am judging these people, because that’s not what this is about. And I’m certainly not judging their ideas either. I’ve struggled through enough elevator pitches of my work and unnerving workshops to know that you can never tell whether an idea is good or not until it is written. In fact, I might even go as far as saying that I like these ideas (Democratree, in particular, has franchise written all over it). But these people, the poor unwitting souls, only succeeded in reminding me of that age old question: should everyone write the novel in them? Is everyone really capable of that? Their willingness to tell a stranger their idea rather than writing the thing down tipped me slightly closer to the no camp. After all, the difference between a serious writer and one who talks about their novel to strangers is vanity, surely. It’s wanting to seem like a writer rather than be one. To tell someone about your story for nine years without having written a word is failing to realise that pushing the bike along beside you, no matter how nice and shiny that bike is, does not mean you can ride it.
On top of it all, too, I find that I am hopelessly jealous of their confidence in their own ideas. If I could have half the amount of confidence it takes to tell a stranger about a non-existent work for over thirty minutes, then I would get a lot more done. I would be a much more prolific writer. These people are, it seems to me, wasting this confidence.
So I think the envy and the annoyance have forced me to come to a conclusion. Everyone, if they were to root around enough, has an idea for a novel inside them. That I don’t doubt. But this is, I see now, not the question at all. The question is what one does with that idea, whether one writes it or not. And either is fine, as long as once you’ve admitted it will never be written, your novel doesn’t only exist in vain conversations with strangers at parties. That is not a work of art burning inside you. That’s an anecdote.
That novel that you have inside you, then? Well, as a writer who doesn’t enjoy speaking about my work half as much as these self-confessed non-writers do, I think that these potential novels, whether they are about sexually violent angels or attractive trees bent on world domination, should be written. Because then maybe their authors would be too busy to lecture me about them when all I want is a cup of tea.