“happiness is a choice”. . .

by mulberryshoots


As some of you may know, I’m participating in NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) to write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November. So far, it’s been a blast! I started out on November 1st with a vague idea about the setting, four characters and some of the events that occur to them. I was a little nervous because that wasn’t a whole lot to go on to generate enough steam to write a story of 50,000 words in a month.

Although the wordcount sounded daunting, the process was JUST to write the story: to get it on paper and not worry about editing or whether the words were perfect. December was for editing. And in my experience with my first novel, what I discovered is that getting the story out was the really easy part. The re-writing part is when the real writing effort hits the road (and takes a lot longer time, sometimes bogging down the work.)

The pacing that NANOWRIMO set out (there’s a whole website and populist movement to support writers and to spur them on with well-intentioned humor and cheerleading) was for us to try to write 1600 words a day in order not to fall behind the goal of reaching 50,000 words by November 30th. I was a little dubious also because, well, there’s life going on with my daughter visiting me for the weekend and there’s Thanksgiving and stuff like that. But, I was game to do it nevertheless. Mainly to learn from doing it.

For example, I viewed a very helpful and cute video about pacing that showed a graph of action based on the plot line of “Star Wars.” It was the most succinct guide to pacing I have ever seen–humorous and very easy to “get.” Okay. So I knew more about how to start out my book with a bang, draw back, fill in, and build more climaxes until the big one, teasing, backfilling and enticing your reader all along the way.

The other thing that I had learned from reading about David Foster Wallace was his opinion that it’s your job to make the reader feel smart while he/she is reading and to pat them on the back when they have figured out things that you have carefully crafted along the way. These two concepts–that of pacing and the relationship of the story to the reader as it unfolds were things I had in mind when I started out last Tuesday with a handful of plot elements in my idea grab bag.

Well, dear reader, the thing just took off. I just sat and typed while a story unfolded on my MacPro. By the end of two days, I had a wordcount of over 22,000 words! Not only that, I had a theme! I heard a radio clip in the car where the announcer glibly said, “Yeah, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional!” Then he laughed. G. also happened to hear it and mentioned it to me while we were getting supper ready that night.

As many of you know, that’s a boiled-down version of the Buddhist Noble Truths: that pain is inevitable and that suffering is optional. Pain happens to us all, in various settings with various cast of characters. But it’s HOW and whether we handle that pain and/or choose to suffer our whole lives through with that pain–that is ultimately up to us.

The plot of the book is about four characters who have different kinds of pain, how they deal or wallow in it, and how they come out of it on the other side, some more successful than others. In fact, one of them fails abysmally. The setting is in a small New England seaside town. The title is simple and I like it a lot. I know what happens to each one of them, how their lives intersect and entwine, the lessons that they learn from their pain, etc. etc. etc.

I wrote an update to a friend of mine, including the quote. And she wrote back saying that she and her husband had attended a forum taught by people whose theme was parallel and similar: that “happiness is a choice.” The group leaders had overcome difficulties with autism in their family and my friend related how their efforts had prevailed to such an extent that there were barely any signs of autism in their son, many years later.

I thought it was also interesting in a discussion with G. that he thought of pain as being physical pain. You break an arm. Or you have a chronic back problem. I was surprised because I don’t think of physical pain when I hear the word. I think about emotional pain and psychological pain: the pain of a boring marriage and wishing for what might have been; the pain of feeling isolated or shut out in a family whose members were happier than you were; the pain of feeling disappointed about life or having disappointed others. There sure are a lot of kinds and degrees of pain–too numerous to count, as a saying goes.

Anyhow, this NANOWRIMO exercise has provided a whole panoply of philosophical and human issues. I had lunch with a classmate from Smith College yesterday–we hadn’t been that close but friendly and we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. The tidbits we told each other about–the classmates who had died, or had spouses who had died, remarried or not. One, at our age, was still bitter about how badly her mother had treated her growing up. I commented that I had noticed there were lots of my women friends who had had unhappy mothers who had not been supportive or loving to us, their daughters. I wondered if it’s because theirs was a whole generation of women who didn’t have freedom or opportunity. And which our daughters have, even more than we did at their age.

I don’t think our mothers’s generation thought too much about happiness being a choice–I think they just took their lot in life and swallowed their disappointments. Expectations and social mores were so much more rigid for them. With the breakthroughs my generation has had, I think many of us feel we have more power to improve the quality of our lives than our mothers did. And for sure, my daughters’s generation does. I watch them living everyday, making choices that are meaningful to them, taking ownership to fulfill themselves in a thoughtful way on a day-by-day basis.

This is a long post and I realize that. It’s been very interesting to wind down this path–a road not always taken–to think about pain and how not to put ourselves through more suffering than we have to or want to. Happiness IS a choice. It’s all in how you go about living with pain that is inevitable–and if you’re lucky, through it.

Now, I’m going to get back to my 22,000 NANOWRIMO words and pick up where I left off almost a week ago. I can’t WAIT to see what happens! What I do know is that all will have their individual pain.

And some will choose happiness.