personal writing

You Should Write That Novel – NaNoWriMo

Who's with me?

Who’s with me?

I don’t quite remember how I first stumbled upon the magic of National Novel Writing Month. I was in high school, so I am apt to assume it was my wonderful cousin, Jodie, who let me in on the secret. Whoever opened the door, they welcomed me into a world of excitement and achievement.

For those of you won’t don’t know, NaNoWriMo (pronounced nah-no-rye-mo) is a novel writing competition that takes place during the month of November. You compete with yourself, the terrible parts of yourself that scream “this is utter crap” and “you’re not really a writer,” for one month, 30 days, to win the ultimate prize—a finished 50,000 word manuscript of your novel. It is for those of us who daydream about having written that one book we’ve thought we should always write, if only we had the time. It is the memoir you haven’t started, the Harry Potter fanfiction you dream about, the dystopian young adult novel to compete with The Hunger Games. You know your book. You just haven’t written it yet.

Well I’m here to tell you, it’s time to stop procrastinating it. That book isn’t going to write itself.

It is time to start plot mapping, character developing. Buy yourself a legal pad, a binder, a moleskine, a stack of printer paper. It’s time to start fleshing out backstories, building your world. Go out for a walk, notepad tucked under your arm and pen in your pocket, and just let your imagination run wild. Build people you hate and love, people you see every day, people you’d make out with if only they were real. This is your novel, this is your proof that you are a novelist. This isn’t for the world yet, this is for you. This is a giant “HELL YES” to the question “am I, can I be a writer?”

It is a ridiculous month, filled with days of clarity, and days of utter disappointment. You start off running, 1667 words every day. The plot pours from you, the characters are fresh and snappy and witty. Within three days you’ve got three chapters. Three more chapters than you’ve ever had. You’ve got stumbling plots, action and adventure. You’ve got people you love to come back to. It’s wonderful and brilliant and the road stretches out smooth and welcoming.

It will likely feel like a disaster somewhere in the middle. You’ll spend a week or two of November holed up, staring at a document you couldn’t imagine to be worse. You’ll have ice cream at 2AM, scraping sentences together to get to that 1667-word-a-day goal. You will feel like a failure.

If this worries you, I have some words of encouragement. Here’s the secret to being a writer. We all feel this. In every book, no matter how many we’ve published, there is always a moment of crippling self-doubt. Of wanting to move the entire document into the trash. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from a Neil Gaiman NaNoWriMo pep talk:

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not really.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”

I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.

That’s the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it’s the only way to do it.

So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.

You can do this. This is your year. This is the year that you write that stupid novel, that brilliant beast that keeps you up at night. If you were looking for a sign, consider this it. You should write your book. I promise, it will be messy and ridiculous and awful at times. But within that madness will be sentences that you can’t believe you wrote, characters that feel so real they haunt you. There is something amazing about looking at your draft, of seeing the words you wrote, finally real. When you cross that finish line, few things feel sweeter. You wrote a novel—a NOVEL.

So go create an account. Find your friends (I’ll be your first!), explore the forums and find your genres. Go buy yourself all of your favorite snacks, and copious amounts of coffee and tea. Start putting together your noveling playlist. Maybe even invest in a mug to show your commitment. We’ve got just over four weeks, 25 more days to prepare. Don’t procrastinate this. You’ve got this. We’ll all be rooting for you. It’s time to write that book.

Need a noveling buddy? Connect with me in the comments, and we’ll cheer each other on!

I’ll see you at the start line.

Mistaken Identity

Do you have one of those absolutes in your life about your identity? Like, one of mine is that I don’t enjoy winter sports. In the winters in New York we’d sometimes head north to Lake Placid, spend a day or two on Whiteface Mountain, skiing or snowboarding. And after several years of attempting—the ludicrous rental of snowblades, dozens of falls on the bunny hill, excessive frustration at ski pulls, and even the purchase of a snowboard (I wanted to be a snowboarder so badly, but I hated every minute of it), I finally came to the official conclusion: I don’t like winter sports. I have crossed it off on my to-do list, politely decline when people invite me to go skiing, ignore their suggestions that I “try it just one more time.” Nope. I’m done. I am 25 years old, and I have decided that not liking winter sports is a permanent part of my identity.

One of the things I’ve learned about being an adult is that locking into these identities feels like an accomplishment. As though stamping this activity or that dietary choice with approval somehow settles the ground beneath you. I am a vegetarian feminist who hates winter sports therefore… what, exactly? I’m more convinced of my identity? This extensive list of qualifiers (tattooed, writer, short-haired, procrastinator) gives me a sense of self. I suck at ceramics, therefore I am.

I’m not knocking these absolutes—I do think they are extremely valuable to establishing identity, confidence and self. But occasionally, they also prevent us from growing. Just because I’m becoming an adult doesn’t mean I’m becoming permanent. These absolutes, these pieces of my identity I’m writing in stone, lull me into a false sense of security. I am no more settled by saying “I hate green olives.” I am simply deciding to avoid something in my life.

There is nothing inherently wrong with making these decisions. Being the girl in the office who always says no to happy hour because she’s conscious of her budget isn’t really a bad thing. But sometimes, it’s difficult to see the trade-off. Making a decision always limits your options, making choices about who you want to be ultimately means that you aren’t something else. Sometimes I need to be reminded of what I’m giving up.

I will likely never go on a ski trip with friends. I won’t drink peppermint hot chocolate in the lodge, watch the frost crowd the corners of the giant windows, rub my sore hips through my snow pants. I won’t feel the biting chill of the wind against my cheeks, find clumps of snow in my boots when I pry them off, laugh up at the sky with my skis pointing in opposite directions, my tailbone throbbing.

I don’t have a strong desire to experience these things. For me, the trade-off has been evaluated, and I’m ok with what I’m missing out on. But I can’t deny that these missed opportunities, these hypothetical trips through fresh snow, prevent me from learning more about myself and others. I am deciding not to grow in this area. Is it the right decision?

I’ll tell you at the end.

The Importance of Taking Care of Yourself

Around Christmas of 2010 I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Many outside factors contributed to this–my mother’s cancer diagnosis, the impending end of college, our recent family move. But the fact remained that my hours in bed (going to bed early, sleeping in late, never feeling awake), my self-perceived worthlessness, my minor bouts with self-harm (I’d clench my fists often, digging my nails into my palms, and occasionally punched my thighs to relieve tension) could no longer go untreated. I worried that soon the depression would get worse, and I would no longer see the point of treatment. I asked my mother to take me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed and encouraged to start a regiment of meds and therapy. I was afraid of meds so I asked to start exclusively with therapy.

I went to my first therapist with deliberate skepticism. This woman can’t help you, I told myself. If you want to get better, just get better. Feel better. Stop being so sad. Just be happy. I labored under the belief that depression was mere unhappiness, and that I was letting myself be unhappy, and that I could choose to be happy. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Stop feeling sad.

In my journey through to depression, I tend to write off this therapist. While I didn’t necessarily feel that strongly about our time together, she gave me something for which I will be eternally grateful–the opportunity to begin a dialogue about my feelings without the pressure of judgment or guilt. I have been extremely blessed with a vast community of friends and family that I have always felt open with, but this network of friends can (and should) only go so far. With a therapist I discovered the importance of naming my feelings, recognizing them as real and needing to be felt, and, perhaps most importantly, not inherently bad. Very slowly I began to shed the belief that there was something wrong with me because of my depression, that I had let myself feel these things, that I could save myself. There were actual physical changes that had happened in my brain, pathways that had been rewired by my constant negative thoughts that couldn’t be changed by simply “feeling better.”

I also discovered another vital truth about depression around this time–for most people (myself included) it is a lifelong struggle. There would be no cure-all for me, I wouldn’t suddenly hit thirty therapy visits and feel elated all the time. Depression is a constant in my life. I make a conscious effort many days to combat it–to avoid situations where I can feed it. Fortunately my depression is currently quiet, but I am aware that if I don’t take care of myself it can and will rear its ugly head. I make sure to get enough sleep, to eat healthy foods that make me feel good, to get exercise, and most importantly to me, to avoid feeling shame my emotions. I will not be happy all the time, I shouldn’t be happy all the time, and I am no less because of that fact. I embrace my emotions more than I ever have in the past–recognizing that shame about them is more toxic than actually feeling them.

My point in telling you all of this is two-fold. One, depression affects a vast array of people, 1 in 10 Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives. The stigma that you should just “feel better” is dangerous, and shuts down the dialogue about mental health. It is why I felt so responsible for my own depression, that I had somehow done it to myself, that I was broken. The more we stigmatize depression the more people suffer its terrible consequences–convinced as I was that they can fix themselves, or worse that there is something wrong with them. Depression likes to be fed, and the idea that you are broken only brings you closer to your depression.

Two, an awareness of your emotions is vital to your mental health. I am extremely fortunate to be at a place where I can manage my depression (many, many people are not). I am aware of what feeds it, and I try to take care of myself. Having dealt with depression, I can see some paths like road maps–too many hours of TV, sleeping too long, staying inside all day, avoiding contact with friends and family, long sad music sessions, not eating properly–these all feed my depression. These are by no means universal, but they are some of my indicators, like flashing lights on the highway: danger ahead.

Depression is a terribly easy thing for many people to fall into–and it might not even be apparent to those you love. I imagine this post will come as a shock to some of my friends. Depression likes to get you alone, make you feel alienated, make your emotions feel unsharable. Outwardly you can be bubbly and friendly, putting on a face to keep your negative emotions quiet, feeding the alienation you feel, feeding your depression. Take care of yourself. Name your emotions. Talk about them. Recognize that life is hard. Don’t compare your emotions, life, struggles with other people’s. If you think you need to, talk to a therapist or doctor–even if you aren’t depressed, therapy is a great way to tap into your emotional health. Be in touch with all of your feelings, not just happiness.

Please, please, please take care of yourselves. There are many people that love you.

If you feel you need immediate attention, the National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.

I love you. Be good to yourself.

The Worst of Me

For the last few weeks I’ve been attempting to write a novel. If you’ve met me, you know I’m pretty much always trying to write a novel, but I’ve recently buckled down on a series I’ve been working on since the 10th grade. When you quit your job you tend to find lots of things to fill your time (WHEN will Chandler and Monica FINALLY get together??), and plowing through this book is one of the ways I’ve decided to fill the dead air.

I found myself a group of Alpha readers, people I trust to not only motivate me, but to treat me like a princess along the way. I haven’t met a writer without an ego, and while mine is occasionally highly inflated it’s easily punctured. If you’ve found a sentence that could be better, don’t worry, I have too, and I’ve berated myself over it again and again and again. If you think a post could be a little stronger, I’ve considered scraping the entire blog, wiping my hard drive, selling my laptop, and accepting my fate in data entry for the rest of my life.

This part of me, the highly volatile part that begs me to eat cookies at midnight and screams that “AT LEAST STEPHANIE MEYER IS PUBLISHED,” is one of the hardest things to combat every time I sit down to write. She’s the reason that instead of opening the document, I open a new tab and look up Creative Writing MFA programs, because just a little more training and we’ll be ready. She reads the first few lines and groans at the lack of imagery, the weak characters, the tropes, the half-finished thoughts. Last night, after seeing far too many stupid, stupid parts, she managed to convince me that the entire project was a bust–that as a white, 25-year-old from the ‘burbs I couldn’t write for anything, couldn’t dream of successfully pulling off a mixed-race main character, would be laughed out of any agents office. She scoffed as I pushed through a sentence, finding every characterization a mistake, worse a stereotype. Not only was I terrible writer, but apparently I was racist too.

It’s hard not to listen to her. She’d pretty damn loud some days, and other days she really does have a point. She will always have something to say, and sometimes she really will be right to say them. But listening to her, letting her win, is the easy way out.

She is the lazy, worst parts of me. In her ideal world I’d write half of an entirely white-cast Harry Potter fanfiction and then go out for ice cream. She likes writing, sure, but she wants it to be easy. She looks at the mountain and wonders where the road around it is.

This entire endeavor is terrifying. I am confident I will make mistakes, and somedays, with that knowledge bumping around in my head, every sentence is difficult. You will fail, better quit now.

Ignore her. Stand up from your desk and stomp on her.

And when your roommate knocks to ask if everything is ok, sit back down and power through. Don’t let the worst of you win. She’s an old hag who’s never published anything anyway.