Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Life Is Not Like a Novel, Except When It Is

 This post started out as a warning to all my fellow bibliophiles who sometimes confuse life with novels. In the end, however, I think I realized that we can learn some valuable, or at the very least, interesting life lessons by doing just that.

Let's start with the basics. Like a book, life does have a beginning, as far as WE understand it. It begins when you are born, and there's a really long prologue narrated by someone else until you are old enough to remember anything, this being around the age of three. There is also an identifiable (though not necessarily final) end. But is that where the similarities end? Hardly.

Story arcs do exist in real life. The difference is that they are many, and tangled. Some plot threads may lie dormant and forgotten for tens of thousands of pages, only to reemerge in a way that adds nothing to the story, that, in fact, makes us regress in our character growth.

That leads me to the most frustrating part of life v. novels: character development is not linear. I can't tell you how many times I've been infuriated by a friend for bringing up an issue that I, as the supportive friend in her life/novel, had helped her resolve through many a patient conversation over drinks or coffee or the phone.

In these situations, I often want to shout, "We had this dialogue before. I can skip ahead and see that he cheats on you! It's so obvious. WHY are you regressing? It's making the reader wonder why you are in this story at all!"

And that can be super awkward to say. Some overly sensitive types might even be insulted by your impatience with their real life troubles.

Also important to remember when comparing life to novels: falling in love does not signal the resolution of your story or relationship. In a novel, falling in love can really be quite simple. There are only so many characters, for starters. It narrows down the potential romantic interest pool significantly.

In life, however, there are so so many people. There are people at work, at the high school reunion, at the grocery store, at your friend's wedding, there are even people—real people, mind you—at the DMV.

How is a protagonist supposed to know WHO is the right person for her/ him??

You don't. And here's the worst part: There might be MORE THAN ONE. There might be a right person for a particular time in your life. You meet, fall in love, etc etc. And then, one day, that story arc ends for no REASON. There's no explanation, it just ends.

(There's a great Raymond Carver story about that. Or was it Richard Seltzer? This may  horrify you, but I sometimes get them confused. When I read short stories I tend to remember the story not the author. Anyway it's about a couple sitting on their front step or dinner table, realizing their marriage has ended without asking them for permission. Anyone out there remember what it was??)

And so you break up. You divorce. You move out. You do whatever needs to be done. And you do it alone, because there are no readers cheering you on. They finished your love story YEARS ago, and have no idea that a sequel, no, companion novel, is being rushed to publication at this very moment. You think that's it. Love arc over. And then...maybe, one day while standing in line at the meet someone. And a new, messy arc begins again.

The thing to remember is that every life has an author—YOU. Every person is both the author and the protagonist in their own story. So you better start acting like it.

What makes things a little more complicated is that all the books and all the people in this world blend together, elbowing for space and running into each other's sentences.

The scariest part of all? There is no editor.

No one is guiding the plot threads, no one is monitoring the character growth. No one is making sure than any of it makes any sense at all.

But what about God(s)? say the religious types.

Well, I've been wondering that myself. I would say that God (in whatever form you prefer), might take on two roles: the Head of the Publishing House and your literary agent.

As the head of the ONLY publishing house, God would want every book to flourish, but that might be at the expense of other equally deserving books. So, she does her best and just tries to keep them all in print for as long as possible and hopes that each one will succeed on its own merit.

As your literary agent, God gives you personal attention. God may not line edit, but he can sense when a plot arc has gone wrong. She thinks you should consider revising it because it just doesn't feel right. The suggestions are broad, instinctive, and ultimately leave the quality of your life, I mean book, up to you.

It should be noted for the atheists, that you do not need an agent to get published, nor do you need a publishing house. You can go it alone and self publish, if you choose. It just makes things a little harder.

This has gotten awfully philosophical for a Wednesday morning pre-coffee. And it's all because Terri Windling posted this quote to her blog:

"For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin -- real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. "  - Alfred D'Souza

I often feel this way, but guess what? Your story has not only begun, it's being written right now AND published simultaneously. So you better hurry up and show some character growth, make some mistakes, and take some risks or else no one's going to want to read it.


  1. haha WOW. wow.

    check, check, check....

    the worst part about all this is--what the hell am i doing at the DMV?! i can't even drive?!

  2. Oh, my, I have tears in my eyes (both from laughing and from soul searching).
    Great post, one that I've got to share!

  3. Absolutely love that quote and this post. Thank you!

  4. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and for saying hello as well!

  5. whaddaya, how about you substitute post office for DMV? Things can get pretty tense there as well, in my experience.