What if my novel is the MacGuffin of my life?
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
Javier Marias says there are seven reasons not to write novels, and only one reason to write them:
...fiction is the most bearable of worlds, because it offers diversion and consolation to those who frequent it, as well as something else: in addition to providing us with a fictional present, it also offers us a possible future reality. And although this has nothing to do with personal immortality, it means that, for every novelist, there is the possibility – infinitesimal, but still a possibility– that what he is writing is both shaping and might even become the future he will never see.
I keep Marias in mind, which is good, because recently I read a Salon article ranting about the current surplus of unnecessary novelists. If we hope someone will read our drivelings, we should switch genres, and churn out novel-writing advice manuals. "...far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels," opines Laura Miller, "than out of people who want to read them." She scoffs at the unnecessary hordes of would-be novelists who have sprung up in recent decades as "narcissistic" people who should go back to their job of selflessly reading the work of the "two dozen odd authors" who she, Laura, thinks are actually quite good. "Frankly," she says, "there are already more than enough novels out there -- more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it's our job to do so."
Shoot, if only I had listened to Laura before I ever started this self-serving debacle. I have been toiling away for ten years, and I have completed only a fraction of a novel! I am not a novelist. I am a cliche. An embarrassing, incompetent, cliche!
And that is when I remembered about the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin, or "McGuffin," is described by screenwriting.io as "a device that drives the plot, but has no real relevance." Alfred Hitchcock is quoted in a 1939 lecture at Columbia College as saying: "It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."
I perked up. Now we're getting somewhere. "The necklace!" "The papers!" Yes! The eponymous wikipedia article calls the MacGuffin a plot device that goes much further back than twentieth century thriller movies: "The Holy Grail of Arthurian Legend has been cited as an early example of a MacGuffin. The Holy Grail is the desired object that is essential to initiate and advance the plot. The final disposition of the Grail is never revealed, suggesting that the object is not of significance in itself."
Indeed, there is some pretty heavy duty comfort to be found here, perhaps. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour." (KJV Ecc 1:24) Or as they say on shinetext.com: "progress, not perfection."
Indeed, the idea of writing a novel has driven the events of my life over the past decade, in a very MacGuffin-like way. In 2011, I read a novel which was being written by a colleague of mine, and I was enchanted. "I could do this!" I thought. "...or could I?" Since then, as an alarmingly large group of my friends have told me, my attempts to write a novel have created enough interesting observations and pratfalls to fill, well, a novel. Indeed, the journey of writing the novel has been very entertaining, in and of itself.
But what role does the novel itself play in the journey? It is a MacGuffin? Like every Grail-seeking Templar ever, I have to scoff at the question and keep moving. As a novel-writing-coach I hired along the way pointed out quite bluntly, "you are not a would-be novelist. You are a novelist. There is a clear, non-hypothetical audience for this book (which is about Jacobites, Druids, Enchantresses, Pirates, and Spies, among other things). Just write it, and then sell it. And then write another one."
It's that easy!
The exciting part of my novel right now is that it is a sort of Schroedinger's MacGuffin -- will it be real, or will it just be an inciting incident?