Wednesday, 24 November 2010

NaNo with a Twist

Everybody in the literary blogosphere seems to be aware that November is NaNoWriMo month - and many are slogging and swearing and cursing and despairing and celebrating as they write their daily quotas, heading for the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. That's 1667 per day, for those of you not in the know.

I blogged about it recently and encouraged you to take part. What about me? Well, on the last day of October, pretty much at the last minute, I had a rush of blood to the head and signed myself up as a NaNoWriMoer.

The first of November, therefore, was hellish. What had I done? What was I thinking of? How could I write so much in so short a time when my life is so busy and my mental energy so low?

As the day headed towards midnight, with nary a word scratched on the vellum, the biggest conundrum I faced was this: what was I going to write? For quite a while now, I've found myself unable to make proper progress on projects because I cannot choose one in particular, onto which and into which I can settle. I have a butterfly mind. I am subject to fierce enthusiasms and sudden burn-outs. So all of that Monday was spent in an agony of indecision blended with a complete lack of faith in my ability to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday morning. NaNoWriMo wordcount a big fat 0. All day Tuesday the pain went on - and my only comfort was that I hadn't really told anybody that I'd signed up (although you're supposed to, as the moral support of others and the Shame Factor of letting them and yourself down are powerful triggers to composition). Nobody knew that I had Failed. Nobody could jeer at my humiliation.

Nobody, that is, but me.

Dear reader, I expect you're hoping there was some sort of breakthrough, some sort of revelation, to turn around the sorry direction this account is heading in. Reader, there was not one revelation, but two.

First, late on the night of Tuesday 2nd November, I chose my project. I chose it because I remembered one of my favourite couplets, from Philip Sidney's sonnet about inspiration: where his Muse rather irritably says to the struggling poet who is 'biting' his 'truant pen, beating [himself] for spite', 'Fool, ... look in thy heart and write.' In my heart and mind, for many years, has been the plan to write a memoir.  I've put it off time and again, always thinking there would be a 'later' better suited to its composition. I knew that to tackle it would be difficult, that to engage with certain memories might be traumatic, to find a structure for it a challenge. But I also knew that if I never do this, I will have failed in a much more significant way than in not writing 50,000 words in a certain month in 2010.

Without thinking too much about where it would lead or what the structure would be, I opened a new document and started typing. And it's been a revelation, in many ways. I start each session with the panicky thought that I'm not up to the job, that my mind's a blank, that I don't know how to write the first sentence - but then I do write that first sentence and I'm away. A flood of memory surges through me and is channelled onto the page - some of it will be moved or excised later but that doesn't matter just now. Now is about release and momentum. I had no idea it could be this easy or this fulfilling. NaNo's philosophy is that you should just write, without the internal editor switched on, and this is what I try to follow. What is also liberating is that this is a project for me, without the draining second-guessing of what the 'market' wants - the checking of agent requirements and of book-deals recently done - I am in a bubble of spontaneous creation, ignoring the idea of mainstream publication.

I'm not saying that the thought of publication doesn't cross my mind (what is a writer without a reader?), but what I am saying is that by not making it the be-all and end-all, my writing has been able to stretch its limbs, untrammelled.

The second revelation is to do with productivity. 50,000 words is all very well and good and there are many writers out there who can produce several thousand words a day without, it seems, breaking sweat. That's not me. When I write, I write in a short, fast burst - but if I stop, I lose momentum and the fire cools. So I've come to an accommodation here: I choose not to write 50,000 words. I would have ground out sheer nonsense or clunky uninspired pedestrian prose, in service of that goal. There's a balance to be struck between writing spontaneously and non-judgementally and sweating under the burden of an unachievable word-count. I chose a target of 35,000 words: this seemed to me to be challenge enough and a satisfying quantity to have achieved by the end of the month. Each day, I set my quota as 1,000 words - knowing that once I get going, I'm likely to go over it, and the going over it makes me feel delightfully smug. I do my little running sums: in the first stage of the quota, things are often agonised. Tap tap tap goes the calculator: 361 words. Oh God! How am I going to get to 1,000? Tap, tap, tap. 749 - nearly three-quarters ... then, in the final stage, 'flow' tends to kick in, and I lose all sense of time, of effort, of wordcount. I draw breath at the end to discover I've written 1100, 1200, 1300 ... Bliss!

So, I've broken the rules. I'm writing memoir - and NaNo is about writing novels (although I see other NaNO rebels do too). I'm writing something that even my nearest and dearest may never see. I'm writing 15,000 fewer words than I should - but, at the same time, 35,000 words more than I might have done.

If you're a fellow NaNo-er, good luck! We're on the home straight now! I know I won't get my completion certificate, but, with just over 5,000 words to go, what I have is intense satisfaction and a renewal of faith in my ability to string one damned word after another, page after page, to build something that didn't exist before, to express something which only I can express in this particular way, to leave something, not just of myself but of those I've loved and have lost.


Karen said...

What a great post. Wonderful that NaNO (!) has inspired something you may not have got round to writing otherwise, and who knows where it might lead?

Like you, I've switched down the pressure by agreeing with myself to do 1000 words a day and finally that's what I'm achieving. I also find it slow at first, and keep wordcount checking, then it all starts to flow and I have trouble stopping!

Good luck with it :o)

Lorna F said...

Karen, we are kindred spirits! Let's keep the thousand word instalments going. xx