“I’ve always been a writer.” I say it on my website, in cover letters, and in my own head, like a mantra. While it’s true in a literal sense, I’ve been hooked on writing since childhood, it never felt real. It felt like I was faking it. Who am I, to call myself a writer.
Then I discovered NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo, the adorable nickname for National Novel Writing Month, is a non-profit sponsored event that has brought aspiring writers together since 1999. It challenges participants to complete a novel, 50,000 words, over the course of the mere thirty-day month of November. It’s no small feat, requiring a minimum of around 1,600 words per day. Registration is free, and the website offers forums for discussion and encouragement, statistics to track your progress, and banners that preach the NaNoWriMo slogan: “30 days and 30 nights of literary abandon.”
But before these days and nights began, before I ever thought of actually writing a novel, I had a dream. One of those completely unprovoked, mind-bending dreams that sticks with you after you wake up as a series of shadowy wisps. The dream continued to float in my mind until it began to warp, bending and twisting its way into what I finally interpreted as an idea for a story.
I felt inspired. I felt like this could really be something. The next few days were constantly interrupted by new plot points and characters, puncturing my sleep and turning my fingers pruny as I washed my hair twice in the shower, lost in thought.
Finally, I grabbed the nearest notebook and began to chicken-scratch the details of the next great American novel. Not wanting to forget a single thing, I rambled through every detail I could think of for a half dozen pages and felt excited about my progress.
The next week, I found my mind wandering back to that imaginary world. A new idea began to surface, and I raced back to my notebook, unwilling to let the thought escape without being imprisoned in my priceless pages. I scribbled a few more lines and then, wondering where this new idea would best fit in the story, went back and read through my original notes, line by line.
It was terrible.
Not in a ‘there’s glimmers of hope’ way. Not even in a ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ way. Just completely, unequivocally, bad. Nothing made sense. There were gaping holes and a sickeningly predictable love triangle. The part that had seemed award-winningly original to me was so preposterous that I didn’t want to write it, let alone read it. I had nothing.
Initially, I felt crushed. The enthusiasm behind my writer mantra was loosing steam fast. I buried the notebook in an unused desk drawer and moved on with my life, writing newsletter articles and editing text and all but forgetting about my moment of inspiration.
Then it happened again.
A dream, one I can no longer remember, lingered in my head one morning. I let it bounce around there, trying and failing not to think about it, and forgot to shave one of my legs in the shower for being so distracted. But I fought the urge to write anything down. Even if this were a halfway decent idea, it would look stupid and small on paper to my unenthusiastic mind.
I let it fester, allowing it to surface during long road trips and sleepless nights and while washing my hair. But I still refused to write. I told myself that anything worth writing, I would remember. It was my own internal editing system. The lack of permanence meant that a small spark was growing inside me again, one that said maybe, just maybe, this really could be something.
Somewhere in the middle of this process, I stumbled across NaNoWriMo. I’d heard of it before, but never really given it much thought. Two months shy of November, I found myself perusing the site, reading through old forums and user profiles and list of WriMos who’d had their novels published. Names like Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, and Lani Diane Rich jumped off the page. These people had all started with an idea and a drive, and ended with publishing contracts and their names on best seller lists.
I continued to daydream, twisting and shaping the plot of my unwritten story, which had admittedly changed a lot since its inception. Which was a good thing, I told myself, and my road trip reveries were now interrupted with visions of being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres and praised for my brilliant plotting and quick wit. We would banter easily about my bizarre writing process and she would announce that the audience members were all going home with a copy of my novel. They would cheer like she’d taped the keys to a Mercedes between the pages.
In October, I went to a NaNoWriMo launch event, fully anticipating a few hours of awkwardly wishing for someone to get up and speak to us all to spare me the anxiety of making conversation with someone. Instead, me and my chocolate covered pretzels were welcomed with open arms. People relished in the fact that it was my first year participating. “What’s your name and what’s your story?” they asked. I found myself bonding with a table full of people over my love of audiobooks, and they actually laughed when I told my story of waking up to the hissing basilisk in Harry Potter. I left feeling more inspired than ever. Though I ended the night gushing over a Halloween episode of Pretty Little Liars (#sorrynotsorry), my inner writer was itching to get started. I could do this. I would actually do this.
On November 1st, I fought back my fear of obscuring the blank, perfect page and settled into a chair by my bedroom window. The words that had been bursting from my head for the past few months flew from my fingers and I typed feverishly, pausing occasionally to think, but never looking back. I wrote just over 2,900 words that day. It was a Prologue. Chapter 1 came the next day, and I found myself proud of that day’s work, but itching to delete everything from the day before. I resisted. NaNoWriMo encourages writers to “turn off their inner editor” for the month and just write. I made subtle changes but mostly moved forward. Every day, I read the end of yesterday’s prose, wanting to delete some sections, but finding inspiration in others. I pressed on.
Now, over a week into the thirty day period, the reality of it all is starting to sink in. I am writing a novel. I have no grand delusions, other than my occasional talk show guest daydreams, that it will actually amount to a perfect page-turner. In all honesty, it probably sucks. In fact, I’m pretty sure it sucks. There are clichés and an angsty, bipolar main character and I’m avoiding the setting altogether because I have no idea what to do with it. But still, I’m writing a novel.
“I am writing a novel.” It’s like a new mantra, holding hands and skipping gleefully through my head along with “I’ve always been a writer,” harmonious and happy at last. Because that’s the most important part of NaNoWriMo, not the story, or the word count, or even the aspirational novel itself, but that it turns participants into actual, legitimized writers.
I wake up every day and get out of bed energized, ready to write. I write on my couch, my bed, the kitchen floor. I write in the dark (thanks, Sandy) and in patches of sunlight sneaking through the windows. I thought about writing a daily blog about my writing after each day’s writing, but that sounded mentally and prepositionally exhausting. I write in silence and I (try to) write with Parks and Recreation playing on loop in the background. I write with a dog in my lap pawing the keyboard and causing extra typos. I write with overused symbolism. I write with magical twists that even I didn’t see coming. I write with reckless, literary abandon. And it’s wonderful.
The only goal now is to finish. To hit that word count, or surpass it, and bring my story to a close before November 30th. They say to tell everyone you know about your goal, so if only through peer pressure, you’ll feel compelled to finish. So here I am, telling the world in the best way I know how. I am a writer. And this mess of overused eye imagery and poorly written dialogue will be proof of that. In my head, it already is.
Now, back to the story.