National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—is upon us. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers are challenged to produce a 50,000 word book entirely in the month of November, from start to finish. As someone who used to ghostwrite books of that length for a living, I can tell you this is no small feat. It used to take me months to get that much done (though most likely, NaNoWriMo participants will not have stubborn clients to contend with while writing, as I did; that slows down the process considerably).
So it sounds like fun, right? And what a sense of accomplishment these writers must have at the end of the month, when they have an entire novel completed. Granted, it’s only a first draft, and hopefully—speaking now as a practicing book editor—there will be many rounds of edits before it’s suitable for publication. Still, I can only imagine the thrill of knowing the biggest hurdle, the writing, is in the past, that you’ve finally gotten all those words inside your head out and into some sort of logical order, that you’ve created something pleasing that others might want to read.
Still, I will not be participating. Why? Because I have a life. Too much life, to be exact, to have time for it. I don’t mean this in the insulting or condescending way it sounds, as if those who do NaNoWriMo have no life and are therefore free to pursue their writing dreams. Because really, who’s got the short stick here? I have two jobs and a six-year-old son to spend time with when I’m not working, and between those two things, that’s pretty much all of my time. Sometimes I’m able to sneak in an hour and a half of writing once a week while waiting for my kid to get out of a class he takes on Saturday mornings (as I’m doing right now), but even that is often trumped by other more necessary errands. To tell the truth, I envy those who can participate in NaNoWriMo, not just because they have the time (or make the time; I’m sure there are some participants who are just as busy as I am who still manage to fit it in) but because they have the inspiration. Because they haven’t lost whatever it is that drives them to write.
Creativity is like a muscle, I believe, and if you don’t regularly flex and stretch it, it can atrophy. I’ve seen it happen in myself, during periods—like now—when I don’t have as much expendable time and energy to put toward creative pursuits. This doesn’t have to be writing; it can be drawing, painting, knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, redecorating your home—anything that makes you use your imagination and produces some sort of artifact that can be enjoyed by yourself and/or others. If you are regularly able to be creative, then good for you—I envy you too. I hope you flex that muscle as often and as strongly as you are capable of. And I hope that you don’t take that ability for granted, as I did back during the days when I was prolific. Back in my twenties, say, when I had almost zero responsibilities and much fewer worries clogging up my head.
Whenever I think about myself as a writer, my mind always goes to that time in my life, to an apartment I had in Jersey City, New Jersey, a third-floor attic that had an extra room I set up as a writing space. I had a desk that wrapped around two walls, a cork board with photos and postcards for inspiration, passages from books I liked typed out and taped up on the walls behind my desk, and a giant subway-advertisement-size poster from the movie Fight Club. I spent so much time huddled in there, smoking American Spirits and listening to my three favorite CDs at the time, Depeche Mode’s Ultra, Duran Duran’s Medazzaland, and David Bowie’s Earthling, on heavy rotation while I wrote and wrote and wrote, never finishing anything more than a flash fiction piece here and there but just enjoying the process, just loving the feeling of translating the images in my brain into words on the screen of my Mac laptop. I would agonize over every syllable until they were all perfect, until they all gave me that hum I felt inside my mind when I knew I was writing something good. Something with meaning; something with heart. Something that spoke to the themes I was always trying to relate in my writing: love and trust, loyalty and betrayal, and getting down to the deeply buried heart of what it means to be human in this world, to the moment where all is laid bare and the truth, in all its beauty and all its difficulty, is confronted and revealed. Though isn’t that, after all, what we are all writing about? Isn’t that what any good writing is able to achieve?
I still write about these themes today, I think, when I do get the chance to write, albeit in different ways. Instead of fictional characters, I write about myself, about the life I’ve had and the moments that have defined me—the love I have felt, the trust I have lost, the betrayals that have pushed me to become the person I am today, for better and for worse. The older I get, the realer my writing becomes to the point that I rarely work on anything that could be classified as fiction anymore. And it’s harder to find that hum, to look at the words I type and feel like they are magic, to feel the sparks fly from my fingertips as they meet the keyboard. Instead it feels like work, like something I have to work at rather than something that just comes to me.
I tell myself it’s all a first draft, that if I don’t get it perfect, it’s okay, I can always go back and edit. The important thing is to get it out. Writing as therapy, I guess you would call it. That’s what I have time for these days. And in a lot of ways, that’s good. It’s what works for me at this point in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes sorely miss those days in my Jersey City garret. If I could somehow harness that creative energy again and pair it with my older and questionably wiser work ethic—minus the time constraints–who knows what kind of NaNoWriMo masterpiece I might be able to complete?