The difference for me in writing stories and writing a novel comes down, maybe, to this: In writing a story, you take one element and blow it up. Writing a novel, you take every element, everything you know, and try to distill it into one thing. This task is staggering.
At some point in my freshman or sophomore year of college, I started conflating my writing notebook and my personal journal--no longer separate, just everything in one notebook, as it came, the invented and the real all mixed up and sometimes overlapping, and I continue this practice to the present day. But holy mother, is it making the novel mining a crazy experience. It turns out I started taking notes on what would become this novel (I thought it was a story then) in two-thousand-fucking-two. So I am digging back through seven years' worth of life, or rather lives, to pull out sentences and notes and ideas I'd forgotten. This is about twelve or thirteen journals of all sizes--Moleskines, spiral-bound sketchbooks, big 8x10 art books and little square ones and all shapes and sizes in between, a couple of them dog-chewed in the corner so the pages are hard to turn.
The journal-mining is dangerous work. I have to stay on task and resist the pull of my own past lives. Retrospection is a bitch, and the periods of doomed euphoria are a harder tug than the moments of immediate darkness. It is intense (and I'm not saying this with wistfulness or nostalgia, just clear sight) to realize how different a life can be and how rapidly it can change, over and over. And it's sometimes shocking to realize how much I've forgotten--I'm not an avid chronicler of events, more ideas--and it makes me glad I wrote down what I did, and wonder what happened between those pages that I wish I had access to now.
Through it all, multiple characters and stories pop up, some of them later realized, some abandoned. Little flags and post-it notes. The elements of this thing I'm working on. The constant is that I was constantly making things up in the middle of living the real thing, and often the fiction has the real truth and the documentary leaves it out.
All of it fuels the story, but it puts me into a strange cloud where I feel like I am perpetually on the verge of a sneeze or tears.
I think DFW had it about right with his extended analogy of DeLillo's hideous hydrocephalic infant. It does feel like this.