The end of NaNoWriMo

Today is the last day of NaNoWrimo, the day by which all participants should have reached 50k words and verified it, thus “winning” the challenge. Today I am at 42k words, haven’t written in 3 days, and have no plans to do so today. And I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you what I learned by doing NaNoWriMo.

I signed up for this challenge with some optimistic naivete. Having never written more than a short story, but wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, I thought this would be it. I’d heard of NY Times best sellers that were NaNo books, and I figured anything was possible. Sure 50k words is a lot, and it demanded commitment, but I had the time and the drive. I could do it.

And sure, I did do it. I got to 42k words, which is in itself pretty impressive. And if I wanted to, I would have reached the 50k mark. And after having 7k be my highest word count, I feel super proud of myself. You see, because even though I didn’t “win,” I still feel like a winner. NaNoWriMo was the kick in the ass I needed. I needed to go from talking about writing, and wishing I was writing, to actually writing. And I did.

This challenge made me go from thinking I’d never be good enough and that my writing is unremarkable, to thinking that it might be unremarkable now, but that I have the potential to make it better. That a blank paper will never be more than that, but a paper with lots of red cross-outs can be better. And my 42k words will get better. On my time, at my pace, by my rules. I appreciate NaNo for getting my engine started, but I know now that time constraints and word count goals make for more quantity of writing than quality of writing. And to be fair, no one claims to have a polished novel at the end of the month. But I felt I was putting too much pressure on myself, and that was not good for creativity.

Now, I know that all writers work under some sort of deadline. When you are working with an editor and publisher, you need to have your work completed by a certain time. I get that. I also understand that every good writer writes every day. Every. Day. But that’s just not ideal for my life right now. I could write something every day. And maybe that’s really the point. Just to get something down. But I could not commit to 2k words each day. Some days the words flowed very easily, and I reached over 2k words, and other days not so much. And it was on these “not so much” days that I felt enormous pressure. If I didn’t hit 2k, I would be behind, and if I was behind, I would have to race to catch up, and if I didn’t catch up, then I failed. That was no good for getting the creative juices flowing again.

And while I realize 2k words isn’t that much to ask of someone, it just wasn’t always feasible for me. When I left my job as a teacher and decided that I was never going back to the profession, I did so for many reasons. But one of the main reasons was that I had put my job ahead of so much else for so long. I sacrificed personal time, my health, and pushed my family to the side for ultimately nothing that gave me long-term pleasure or benefits. And when I decided teaching was no longer the best fit for me, I swore to always put my family first, no matter what else I was doing. And there were several times during NaNo that I should have been with my kids, because they were sick or wanted attention or just because otherwise I was holed up in my office and not really present; and, I didn’t honor my commitment to them. And I always felt a pang of guilt then. But in my head I defended my actions as it’s only for a month, it wouldn’t be forever. And I got through much of the month this way. But what would I say if I continued past the November 30th mark (as my 42k words is roughly only half the book)? Would I continue to justify my reasons for eschewing my promise to myself and my family? I wasn’t willing to do that.

But toward the end of the month, with Thanksgiving upon us, my kids being home for 4 days, not to mention some bouts of pink-eye, upper respiratory viruses, and then strep throat, I couldn’t see myself focusing on my writing above everything else. As the days went by, and my word count stayed stagnant, I started to realize that making it to 50k wasn’t really winning me anything but a return to the life I’d previously lived and loathed. And it was then that I made a conscious decision to not finish. My story would still be there waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again. But these moments when my family needed me were too crucial to miss.

I know I might seem hopelessly idealistic in saying I don’t want to live a life that feels like a burden. Yes, I know sometimes aspects of our lives are difficult. But after having lived for so long with everything being difficult, I know the danger in complicity. I know how making concessions can be a very slippery slope toward feeling futile and worthless. I never will allow myself to live like that again. And when it comes to writing, I never want it to feel like a chore. Challenging, frustrating, perhaps? Sure. But never like something I have to do instead of something I want to do. I want to want to write even when I can’t, when I have something else I need to be doing. I don’t want to feel like I have nothing I want to say when I have all the time in the world. And that’s exactly why I walked away so close to the finish line, and why I don’t regret it or feel like a loser at all.

I congratulate all of the participants who will, by day’s end, have met the goal of 50k. And I also applaud all those who tried and didn’t get there, willingly or otherwise.

Hopefully we all have so much more to live. And while I know today could be our last and perhaps then I should write like I don’t have forever to finish, I choose to simply live life enjoying what I can from each day. And if writing is a part of that day, great. If helping a sick child blow their nose or catching their vomit in my bare hands so it doesn’t hit the carpet is part of that day, that’s great too. I will live my life by my rules only now, and my rule states that I always do what feels right. And today what feels right is saying farewell to NaNoWriMo. Regardless of my word count, I now consider myself a writer.

Our Fears

I’ve been thinking of fear a great deal lately. And not fear in the sense of horror films or the like. Fear in the sense of what builds in our minds and prohibits us from doing something. Some may call it anxiety or worry or uncertainty. For me it’s more than that. It’s more than just a trifling, passing thought. Fear that gets in our way of accomplishing something is far more serious than that. It has the power to shape our lives, and this is not a good thing. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Fear has largely controlled my life. I can say with complete certainty that I have made many many decisions based on the fear of something. Judgment, failure, exposure, inadequacy, attention…the list can keep going for some time.

My greatest fear, and that which has weighed on me the most, is my fear of not being good enough. I’m what you can call a perfectionist control-freak. I want to do everything myself with no help, and I want it perfect the first time. If it’s not? Well, you’d hate to be in my brain then. And spoiler alert: it’s RARELY perfect the first time.

But the way that this has impacted my life in the way that upsets me the most is my paralyzing fear of finding out I’m a no-good hack of a writer. That I couldn’t write and get a book published if publishers were just handing out contracts to everyone and their mama. And so instead of trying, failing, and getting back up again to fight another page, I don’t try. I stop. I freeze. I plan. I organize. I do everything but put some fucking words down on the page. Because If I don’t get the words down, no one can see how shitty my story really is. And my dream of being a professional writer will never get squashed (mind you,it will never be fulfilled either, but we don’t talk about that.)

But I have a plan of action for at least mitigating my fear and making it my bitch. November is NaNoWriMo, and I will be participating. The challenge is to write at least 2,000 word a day in order to finish a complete, unedited novel by month’s end. This means that if I can push away the nauseating fear of failure, I will have at least a 50,000 word first draft manuscript by November 30th. And then the worst will finally be over. There will be much revision and re-writing. But the fear of never reaching success that’s stops me dead at my computer will be over. I will have something at least.

Now it’s just a matter of conquering my fear by Sunday….

All this leads me to saying that I’m curious to hear from others what they fear most.Not monsters under the bed or that strange noise coming from downstairs in the middle of the night. What fear gets in your way of being who you want to be or doing what is most in your heart? Everything is less scary when you have someone else who understands. I’m here to understand.

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The beginning of bravery

Very recently I had the pleasure of meeting with a former professor whom I admire greatly as a woman, thinker, educator, and mom.

I originally met her in my second to last semester as a graduate student. I had to take a research class, which I thought would be a definite drag. It wasn’t. It was one of the most challenging and intellectually invigorating classes I’d taken in all of my academic career. It was a breath of fresh air–pardon the cliche–amidst some very heavy and droning lecture-style classes.

This professor “had me at hello.” She was at once witty, insightful, hilarious, brilliant, and best of all, radiated confidence. Though she wasn’t that much older than me, I developed the sort of idol complex children often have with super heroes. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up. She believed what she said, didn’t need to apologize for any of her opinions, and didn’t care who disagreed.

I acutely remember one doofus moment very early on in the class during which I felt like a prize idiot. After introducing ourselves to the class, we had to tell one thing of interest. I mentioned that I had a one-year-old daughter. Without a blink or hesitation, this amazing woman shared that she was going through fertility treatments and that they were making her sick to her stomach. I, thinking I was making idle chitchat, said something to the effect of, “Well, you’ll definitely feel like that during pregnancy.” She immediately responded with something along the lines of “Yeah, but at least I’ll have a baby.” Burn. What a silly, foolish thing to say to a woman who was fighting with every ounce of her being to conceive a child, and here I was reducing it to some trite idea known galaxywide.

But that was it. There seemed to be no malice in her comment, nor did she seem to harbor any resentment or ill will toward me. She just said what she was thinking, and that was that. That was, and still is, her style. In a world where people exist with so many masks and who live so much of their lives hiding behind either a keyboard or false pretenses, this way of facing the world feels almost poetic to me.

And so, when she asked to meet me to help her with an interview for her newest research, I was floored. Though we’ve maintained contact via various Facebook posts and comments, I was excited to sit down with her after so many years and really talk.

We talked mostly about education–the good and the bad…mostly the bad on my part, I admit. And in doing so, I shared so many thoughts and feelings about the state of education, what it is to be a public school teacher in a country so comfortable with vilifying us, and how worried I am that students are missing out on what could be amazing experiences because of the restrictions put on schools, teachers, and the students themselves. It felt amazing to be heard, really heard. And not just heard, but understood.

Of course I’ve spent my fair share of time commiserating…ok, bitching…with my colleagues. And of course my husband has had to wield my rants more times than he should have. But to have someone objective, with no connection or investment in my personal situation come out and agree with me, felt liberating. Perhaps I wasn’t crazy after all. Perhaps I’m not just a jaded, miserable wretch of a teacher. Maybe it’s the system, and not me, that’s flawed.

As if this wasn’t good enough for my soul, one of the last questions she posed to me was, “How are you so brave?” I was honestly taken aback by the question. Me, brave? I really hadn’t thought about it that way. I was just speaking my truth. And it was in that that she impressed upon me was what was most brave. To speak what I really, truly believe without any of the typical dancing-around-the-bush or other verbal detractors, was impressive to her. And that resonated with me.

And the more I think about it, the more I really wonder how many of us are speaking our truths? And how many of us don’t worry about the consequences? How many of us refuse to apologize if what we say isn’t what others want to hear? And why the fuck don’t more of us feel secure in doing so?!

Soon, I found, I couldn’t keep her question to me out of my mind. Yeah, I guess I was brave in being completely honest to her. But what about other times I practically have to force my mouth shut? Why was I hiding sometimes? And what good was it doing me? The more I questioned it, the more I knew I had to do something about it. I had to do something for myself for once.

And so, this is where this blog comes into play. This is now my sanctuary. A place where I can express myself, and not care about repercussions. I have always found solace in writing. It waters my soul. And so I no longer give a shit who sees this. Come, get a glimpse of my mind and heart. No one will stop me. No one will make me feel afraid or ashamed to feel how I feel and say what I say. Come what may. I’ve battled anxiety and censorship for too long. And that is over.

And it was all because of a single question.