A Novel Life

I was once told that real life is not like a novel. Obvious, right? Real life is mundane. In real life people have jobs that pay the bills. In real life people have bills. In real life we can go for long, long stretches of time with nothing at all happening. In real life people need to use the bathroom.

Novels, I was told, are different. In a novel something exciting, urgent, or high-stakes is always happening. No one gets a rest and no one is spared. The plot is always moving forward and characters are always thrown into growth-inducing situations. Well, if it’s a good novel. And no one ever has to use the bathroom or eat.

Wait a minute. Who says that’s just true in novels? Have you seen my life lately? Or the life of any given person trying to get by in the world. I don’t know about you, but in the last year I have had a secret affair and had my heart broken, experienced major shifts at work, helped more than one friend out in hair-raising situations, lived through Snowmaggedon 2, suffered through the same stories at no less than three or four major family holidays, gotten into an epic fight with a friend who is now a former friend, cut ties with a toxic
family member, and had my heart broken again (by the same guy, no less). And those are just the big things.

Hmm. Sounds like a novel to me. Except that I did need to pee occasionally and I did have a few things to eat now and then.

I think when people compare real life to a novel or what they see on tv or in movies they feel like their life is dull in comparison because life takes more than two hours to happen. Entertainment is packaged, but really it’s no different than our everyday lives. Sure, we might not all be archeologists spelunking in the tombs of Egypt in search of forgotten treasure … unless you happen to be my cousin Ed. And we might not all have such good lighting and brilliant camera angles with which to see the world … unless you’re my brother Stewart. And life might not be full of A-list actors and red-carpet extravaganzas … unless you’re my cousins Jake and Maggie. But life is still a rich cornucopia of characters, plots, climaxes, and denouement.

Real life is not a novel or a movie or a tv show. Life is a series of novels, a movie and all its sequels, a long-running tv series. Not just my goofy life either. Most of the plots and situations that end up shaping my novels are, in fact, things that have watched unfold in my own life or the lives of the people close to me. We all go through break-ups and have our hearts broken. We all laugh ourselves to tears with our friends late at night. We’ve all had those moments when we weren’t sure if we were going to live or die. We’ve all lost someone. We’ve all found someone. The only difference is that we’ve been playing to a smaller audience, the audience of one, ourselves.

I’m relatively lenient when it comes to watching movies. It takes a really bad movie for me not to like it at least on some level. Heck, I even like Bollywood. I’m a little tougher on novels, but that’s only because as I writer I can “see the strings”, so to speak, and have little patience for poor crafting. But you know what? Nine out of ten times I am an incredibly harsh and cruel judge when it comes to appreciating the everyday drama of my own life. I get bored with the plot. I get disappointed with the outcomes of
certain chapters. I am critical of the character growth. I get frustrated when certain characters leave the story and annoyed when others seem to be more at the center of the plot than I would like them to be. I suspect I’m not the only one who views the story of their life this way.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good series.

One of my favorite movies of all times is Empire of the Sun. It’s a film about a British boy coming of age as a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp in China during WWII. Horrible things happen to him, so much so that when he’s reunited with his parents at the end he hardly recognizes them and they almost don’t recognize him at all. But every single time when the music swells as that scene unfolds I cry buckets. It reminds me of my own life in a way, of the heartache of being lost in a world I don’t fully understand, of the struggle of trying to make sense of everyday chaos, of the lessons I’ve learned the hard
way, and of the parents who I ultimately did lose to death and selfishness. Life imitates art imitates life.

So when people try to tell me that real life isn’t like a novel I have to smirk a little. Where do you think we novelists get our ideas? Novels are nothing more than real life happening while an author holds your face and turns you towards the action and says “Here, pay attention to this!”