I met a fellow math professor at a conference several weeks ago who is teaching a class on the idea of infinity. He told me of a story he tells his class about how difficult the idea of "infinity" can be. He described a class that a student wants to sign up for with an infinite number of seats. There are, however, already an infinite number of students enrolled, so each seat is already taken. A new student comes into that class, and wants to enroll, only to find every seat taken. This student, however, realizes that there is a solution to his problem, and suggests that everyone move up one seat. There still is an infinite number of seats and an infinite number of students, but now the seat at the very front of the class is open, and so the new student has a seat.
I admit that I have been thinking of the concept of infinity a lot this last week, since my grandmother, who avoided getting the 1918 flu, drew her last breath the Friday after Thanksgiving. She has now joined her husband of 50 years and the many people from her past whom she saw visit her in the last few weeks in what I hope is an infinite future of peace and joy. For those left behind, there is sadness and a great sense of loss.
Grandma was a very generous woman, who played a role of caretaker for quite an assortment of people over the years, especially me. Long before schools had “latch key” programs, my mother arranged for me and my sister to take different buses home from school, so we could end up at my grandparent’s house where a snack and a quiet place to study awaited us. Each night, my family gathered around their table for a multi-generational meal that more often than not involved tomato sauce and very lively and often loud conversation, sometimes in Italian.
When I was in graduate school and living on a small stipend, my grandmother would often buy me clothes or slip me a few dollars to help me with this crazy endeavor I was on, one different from those pursued by anyone in my family before me. I don’t know if she understood it at all, but she was always there to encourage me. The woman whose education ended at what she called “continuation school” will always be a model for my own vision of who I wanted to be when I grew up.
In the last few weeks, she gave me one final gift, without realizing it. The son of her youngest brother came to visit with her, and in doing so, re-connected with me after not having an occasion to speak to me for almost ten years. Since he is an author himself, and his father, my great uncle, was, too, we soon got to talking about my writing. It wasn’t long before I was telling him of my hopes to write a novel some day, and, with his insight as a guide, I found myself outlining a book that I didn’t even know I wanted to write. I have never written anything that is novel length before, except, of course, for my dissertation. Although meticulously researched and based on standard economic techniques, I sometimes sarcastically refer to it as “my first work of fiction.” Still, I am drawn to the idea of writing this novel that seems to have taken on a life of its own. Drawn loosely from family history and from some unique experiences I have had with parenting, I am making plans to pound it out the minute I get home and have a moment to breath.
Which is why I am asking for any advice anyone could give me. I have met quite an assortment of people over the years who have written a novel, and I would love for any advice you might give me about such a project. I am most interested in advice on the actual process of getting it written, not in getting it published (that will come later, if I still want to.) I remember finding that writing my dissertation was difficult to write, and hope that this is more of a pleasant experience. Do you have any thoughts for someone whose non-professional writing is usually shorter than two pages long and almost always in the first person? And, of course, once written, since the courage to write the novel was her final gift to me, it will be dedicated to my grandmother.