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.