I decided, on the third of November, that I would participate in the National Novel Writing Month project this year. I have a short story whose protagonist has been poking me with the proverbial pointy stick for fifteen-plus years, and she and her neighbors and family and Preacher weren’t obeying my command for them to stay within the short story format. So I decided to let them romp for all of November. Whatever they wanted, they could have.
This is not a stance I adopt often, in either real life or creative life. I am one of those who has an idea of where the story is headed, often not because I’ve forced it, but because endings come to me before beginnings. Ah, I think, there it is. The. End. Then I have to figure out how that character arrived at that end.
As my kids will attest, the day when anything goes is a cold day in hell in our household, indeed. I have this motherly insistence on fresh veggies, limited screen time, and not consuming more sugar grams than one can count on one’s fingers and toes. At least not at a single sitting.
So yes, go ahead and call me anal, or right-brain dominant, but structure serves me well. Routines and habits allow me to get me to the writing desk on a regular-enough basis without paying the piper in the precious psychic coins of mounds of dirty laundry, no milk, no bread, dirty litter boxes, and dog fur matted into a pseudo-carpet on the stairs.
But because I started a few days later than November first, I was behind on the average words-that-must-be-generated-daily-to-write-50,000-words-by-November-30th. Gack. I had to do 2500 words a day, more, ideally, if I were to get enough ahead to be semi-present during the Thanksgiving break when we would be out of town. Double gack.
So I dared to step at least one foot over the threshold of my comfortable routines. I didn’t go to the gym first thing, I wrote. Then I skipped the gym entirely! I didn’t keep up with my email. We ate a fair amount of frozen food. Without fresh veggies. I believe a gallon of ice cream was consumed in less than twelve hours by my children. The dog’s walks were considerably shorter (now she glares at me from the couch when I say, “walk time!” accusing me of abusing the term walk. It’s not a walk when you go out, do your business and come back in. It’s a walk when you go to the woods, chase the squirrels, roll in deer poop, eat some of same, and run, run, run. Liar, her glare accuses. I have to do penance, apparently. I did not know dogs kept score in addition to giving unconditional love.)
I frolicked in letting my writing all hang out. I enjoyed the encouraging NaNoWriMo emails. I buddied a friend I’d made at a writing conference. I gloated over the graph on the website that showed my forward progress.
And I noticed several things: 1. When I treat my writing like a job with a deadline, I get more done. 2. My writing doesn’t feel like a job when it’s all about generating new words only (eg, no revising, no research). 3. The jobs of revision and research appeal to me today, at the end of a month of nothing but making up a new story. I, queen of the routine, need variety.
Yet again, just when I have become semi-self-satisified that I have figured out “the answer” to what works for me, I discover that I don’t, in fact, have it figured out. Either because my circumstances have changed, or I have changed, or because the story needling me demands a different exit method.
Duh. But obviously a lesson I need to learn, again.
I hope all of us fumbling creative souls, in the shortening days leading to the solstice, may have a version of NaNoWriMo: a moment, at least, to step outside ourselves and gaze with surprise and wonder at the starry skies above us. And then another moment when, returning, we step inside and gaze with equal delight and awe at our own spinning universes, so often clouded over.