by Anna Scheithauer
[ed. note: I’m very proud to call Anna one of my students. She is, as you’ll see below, a brilliant young person. She is what I would consider one of the best of the rising generation of Imaginative Conservatives, and I’m very glad to have her write for The Imaginative Conservative. She’s currently a History and German major at Hillsdale College. Last year, as a member of my Jacksonian America course, Anna wrote a novel in lieu of a 20 page research paper. She embraced her novel with glee and excellence.–Brad Birzer. P.S. It should be noted that Anna used Scrivener to write her novel, and she found it to be the perfect program for such a project].
National Novel Writing Month is an annual battle of endurance between the writer … and himself. 50,000 words are recruited over a span of thirty days. Victory only comes when those fifty thousand words form a cohesive force dedicated to the solution of the Plot. This force is divided into chapters, which include the cavalry of characters and the infantry of ideas, which are supported from afar by the artillery of action. The battleground is Anytime, Anyplace, and it can change on a whim.
As I learned during last year’s writing month, a story needs the conflict and resolution that a term paper does–only with a whole bunch of made-up stuff, some heroes, villains, and distracting plot devices thrown in. There are lots of details that must be filled in–one quickly learns appreciation for the Little Things that make a person, a place, or an idea. Questions we never think about surface as we build our characters. For example, how does someone walk, and what does that say about him? We learn as we try to translate our observations of the world around us into little black strokes.
I had the good fortune to be able to write a fictionalized account of a nineteenth century american exploring expedition in place of a research paper. While my classmates pored over Indian policy, elections, and John Quincy Adams, I found myself researching questions such as, “What type of shoe would a sailor wear?” and, more troubling, “if a three-masted ship sails from the Cape with the tide at 9:00 am with unfavorable winds, at which time will she arrive at the uncharted beginnings of a continent which may or may not be the entrance to the world beneath the Earth’s crusty surface?” The answers are, a) none, since bare feet afford more traction on deck, and b) a Very, Very Long While, or about 40,000 words. To deal with my subject, I suddenly had to become acquainted with whaling, with the parts of a ship, with the slowness of travel, and most challengingly, with the little details of everyday life that colored the lives of Americans one hundred and sixty years ago.
The most difficult part about it all was not the research, or not the amount of words, as much as the struggle to decide where I wanted to go with my words. Living in a society where “problems” are so prevalent, it is very difficult to choose one, to make it interesting, and to solve it with a very strict deadline. The challenge comes with trying to fit the pieces together, and the learning process that results is a unique, important one. Constricting the imagination to paper or an electronic file solidifies what we hold dear for present and future reflection, and has changed how I observe the world around me.
Pick up you pen or take up your keyboard, and commit yourself to battle.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.