That’s right, I dropped out. Yeah yeah, I know, there’s still more than a week left before the end of the month, but come on, let’s stop kidding ourselves, shall we? This just ain’t happening. See, I am just chock full of guilt right now, and I just don’t have room for more. I don’t visit my parents and in-laws enough, I’m too busy to play with my kids, the house is a mess, I haven’t really exercised in a while, and to be honest, our meals haven’t been the most well-balanced. That’s right, my kids have gone to bed without having salad some nights. Because—novel. Because, I’ve got to prioritize my writing, right? Even when the ideas don’t come, I must write. I must ignore the naysayers in my brain that are telling me to just stop writing because everything I’m writing is crap. No, I reply. It’s November, and I can crank out 50,000 words if I just put my mind to it.
Well, it didn’t happen. Not this month, not this year.
The month started well. I outlined an entire novel ahead of time. With notecards and everything. I have character sketches, motivations, conflict—all of it. I knew exactly what I needed to write—maybe not entirely for the whole month, but enough to get started and with a definite plan to finish each writing session by creating another card so I’d be ready to go each day. And it worked, for a few days. But then I found myself completely bored with the project, and I just knew that if I was bored writing the story, then there’s no way a reader wouldn’t be bored reading it—if it ever got that far.
So I dropped that project and started over. Only this time, I introduced a theme—Time Travel. I decided to leave the structure of the novel much more flexible for the first draft. I was sure, given how intriguing I’ve always found the concept, I could certainly come up with something.
And that worked, for a while. But then…life happened. The election happened. And yes, I was swept up by the narrative being told all around me. Agents started tweeting their interest in diverse stories. And, well, I happen to have some of those (including a novel I’ve been pitching for almost a year now), and decided that if I wasn’t writing, I should at least be submitting. Well, I should be submitting anyhow, so I didn’t feel guilty about being sidetracked by that activity. And of course you don’t just submit, you research. You carefully craft each query letter so that it’s personal and applicable to the specific agent. Which takes time. Time away from NaNoWriMo. And that’s fine. If I get an agent while others are busy writing, that’s okay by me.
But in the process of getting caught up in the elections, and thinking about my stories and trying to get back into time travel mode, I found my thoughts veering toward the political. And I didn’t want them to. I was self-editing. I had found the link, could channel this topic into a spoken word political diatribe arguing that time travel is a luxury afforded only to the privileged. And I wrote one piece about it. But I stopped myself from going further. I checked myself. My heart wasn’t where I wanted my writing to be. Which you may argue is a flaw in my process, but as I still have to live in my world and raise my children, I couldn’t. My survival and sanity require me to compartmentalize my life. Perhaps, when my kids are off to college and beyond, I will have the luxury of exploring writing that rips into my soul and scratches at my heart. But for now, I can’t. My words serve me, not the other way around.
In the middle of the month, I was inspired by another idea, and gave myself permission to explore that, not knowing how it might fit into my time travel project, but frankly not worrying about it. I went to the library, read Wikipedia articles, made arbitrary connections, and started to write. There’s a present-tense narrative, a rich backstory, a deeper historical framework, and a few characters. The nice thing about the theme-based writing is that it doesn’t have to make sense right away. This could be a collection of short stories, for all I know. But I was determined, even as I struggled to keep up with life (and continued to neglect others), to reach 50,000 words.
A few years ago, I had done really well during NaNoWriMo, but before the end of the month, I realized that the story would reach its conclusion in much fewer than 50,000 words. It’s disheartening to fail, so I just stopped writing. I returned and finished the project later, but I didn’t ‘win.’ And yet, I return. Year after year.
In all honesty, I’ve probably written 50,000 words already this month—between my original novel idea, my weekly blog posts; my #ontheplusside posts on Facebook and Twitter (post-election spread of positivity to counter all the negative news in my feed); my Saturday Shout-Outs (same purpose, but to thank people in my life for what they’ve done or just to bring a smile to someone’s face); my upcoming holiday newsletter; and other projects I’ve been inspired to write that have not fallen neatly under my designated NaNoWriMo project theme—and that’s okay by me.
I’m not a consistent NaNoWriMo winner, and that’s okay. I’m not just a novelist. I judged at a couple of local Speech and Debate competitions this month. Yes, I spent about sixteen hours of November Saturdays not writing. My kids have five days off, right at NaNoWriMo crunch time. And I’m faced with a choice: hole myself away in the name of my craft, or break free from the shackles of self-imposed guilt. I’ve never cared what people think, never dressed to please others, and prefer to treat people with kindness rather than out of obligation. And yet, I voluntarily impose these expectations upon myself, stress out and miss out on living, and then feel miserable when I fail. For what? [warning, here’s the pessimist sneaking out] I can’t find an agent, probably won’t ever get published. There are literally thousands upon thousands of writers out there, many without kids and families that need tending to constantly, that honestly could use the money more than I need it, and am I really so shallow as to need the public approval?
Do I really need a Pulitzer? Do I really need to fulfill my fantasy of seeing a play staged at one of the fine theaters at Cleveland Playhouse Square? For that matter, am I so unambitious that I don’t even dream of Broadway? And if I’m not that big a dreamer, then what’s the point of dreaming? Who dreams for mediocrity? That’s not to say Cleveland Playhouse Square is mediocre; it’s wonderful. But it’s not New York or London. It’s just me, dreaming local, wishing for some way to make my mark in the world, to make the world a better place for having had me in it, to maybe reach someone and inspire someone, to show them they’re understood and not alone. Is that really too much to ask?
And what does any of this have to do with NaNoWriMo? Am I totally off-base here thinking that trying to force myself to sit, day after day, ignoring the back pain and tendonitis in my left arm, and avoiding taking the dog for a walk because damnit, I’m writing, is somehow going to produce something that someone wants to read? And that I should ignore the projects that jump into my heart, eagerly wanting to come out and play, because they’re not part of the novel I supposedly need to write?
No. Today, I’m writing a short children’s play. When my kids come home, I’ll bake cookies and read them stories. Tomorrow, I’ll write again, whatever I feel like writing.
And then, starting Wednesday, I’m going to step away from my computer and play with my kids. I’ll cook a Thanksgiving feast at my sister’s house, hang out with family. I will silence the critics that shout in my head, telling me I’m not good enough and that all my efforts are for naught; I’ve given them too much control. My doubts are bullies hanging out in the middle of my brain, growing stronger the more I dwell on how I haven’t met my word target, and they need to be banished. And when they’ve gone away, when all the characters living inside my head stop hiding in terror and come out to play in the creative courtyard of my brain, I’ll be ready.