have you ever heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s short for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s this thing that’s been going on since the early 2000s where a bunch of people decide they’re going to write a novel in a month. To make it fair, they’ve imposed a word count: 50,000 words in a month. You’re supposed to start a brand new novel on the first and write frantically all month, until you hit 50,000 words. That’s about 1,667 words per day, which is a lot but also not impossible to do.
I first heard of NaNoWriMo in like 2004 or so, when I was in school for creative writing. I was in my early 20’s and I hadn’t written a book yet, but I had been writing for my entire life and knew that a book was something I wanted to write eventually, although it seemed really far away and unachievable and back then I felt like I needed to pass some sort of invisible milestone to be worthy of writing a novel.
Anyway, the idea was appealing to me but I was too much of a mess. My life was chaotic and I was very broke. I wrote on a computer that my GF-at-the-time found in the trash and fixed up for me. It got stolen in 2005 in a house robbery, despite the fact that it was maybe worth $20, and with it went all my not-backed-up writing, so perhaps it’s best that I didn’t write a novel on it.
I started my first book in 2006 and it took me four years to write the first draft. At the time, I said I could have probably written it in a year or two if I could just focus. But I couldn’t focus. Last year I finally learned I have ADD, inattentive type, which has explained literally everything about my life. I slipped under the radar because I am not hyperactive, and most people think that ADD is only the hyperactive type, but there’s also the inattentive type where you lose items the second you put them down, can’t focus on anything unless it’s absolutely fascinating to you, are unable to organize things in a way that makes sense to neurotypical people. We’re often thought of as lazy and judged really hard by assholes who don’t understand. I really wish I had gotten diagnosed a long time ago, my life could have been totally different. But anyway, I couldn’t focus back then, I had a chaotic life, I had a lot of friends who I loved, I prioritized my friends and lovers and paid jobs and volunteer work over my writing, I wanted to write but I was too tired, I drank too much, something might be happening, my friends could all drop dead at any moment and what if I missed my last night with them because I stayed at home to write?
So the first book took four years to write and four years to revise, because I worked on it when I felt like it, which wasn’t often. This book was also my heart. It was fictional in that many of the scenes were made up, but the backdrop and the characters were very much the story that I absolutely needed to tell. It was hard for me to talk about it because what if someone didn’t like it? They wouldn’t just be rejecting the project I was spending time on, they’d be rejecting me, and I couldn’t bear that back then.
Eventually my book made its way into the world, and I learned a lot in this process. I worked on another book, a memoir, for about 2 years but had to scrap it. So, this book was my third. I have nothing to distract me now. We’re in pandemic world, I live in a city that I like but where I have no friends (I have a few friends in neighboring towns but we don’t really see each other) besides my co-workers, who I only see at work, and my partner, who doesn’t mind if I ignore him to write. I can’t travel or go to movies or concerts or events or anything that might distract me. I was forced to resign my fulltime job in mid-October, which really sucked but if that hadn’t happened I would not have had the time or energy to write. The first two weeks of November, I had one per diem job where I worked about 1-2 days per week, and it had a lot of downtime and I was able to write at work. The last two weeks, I added a part-time job another three days a week. This job was more draining and stressful and required that I give a lot more of myself, but was still not fulltime, so I had time to write.
I couldn’t have done this working full-time, caring for children or elders, or even having local friends who wanted to hang out (assuming we’re in a non-pandemic world, of course). I couldn’t have done this if I’d been drinking as much as I had for most of my life. I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t already written two books and realized that it was something I could do. I couldn’t have done this if I were in crisis, or was chronically ill.
That’s not to say this month was easy–a lot of really stressful things happened this month, including a covid outbreak at one of my jobs, starting a new job, some pretty wild situations that I can’t write about on the internet, and a little election that you may have heard of. But I surprised myself. I showed up and I did the work. I have never been one of those writers who’s like, “Write every day, no matter what!” I don’t think writing is the most important thing I do, although it’s probably the thing I do that I am best at. I don’t believe in forcing myself to write when I really am not feeling it. In fact, I am constitutionally incapable of doing so.
But, I had a few days between deciding to do NaNoWriMo and actually doing it, so I had some time to think about the story I wanted to tell. It grew slowly. First I decided I wanted to write a bike trip novel, since I’m dying to go on a bike trip and I cannot right now. Then someone reminded me of Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life and I thought it would be kind of funny to have my main character stay at some of those punk houses on her journey, which meant that my story would have to take place in the 90’s. Then a friend’s zine mentioned how they fell in love with a zine penpal in the 90’s, and my story clicked into place–my protagonist, Lee, would be biking to her penpal who she’d fallen in love with. I wanted the terrain to be mostly flat, so I set it in the Midwest. I picked the town Warsaw, Indiana off a map and made it her hometown. I plotted routes on google maps and decided it made the most sense to have her girlfriend live in Minneapolis, because it went through Chicago and Madison. I found an issue of Lesbian Connection from the early 2000s and made notes of where the contact dykes lived.
Then I sat down and wrote her story. Every day. I skipped two days, once when something really bad happened and I was overwhelmed, the other day when I had to get up really early for orientation for my new job and I was too exhausted to string together a few words. But I wrote on election day, I wrote the day we found out who won. I brought my laptop to Urgent Care and banged out nearly 2000 words in the waiting room.
I couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t interested in my story, if writing it didn’t bring me joy. I couldn’t have forced myself if I wasn’t feeling it. But I was having a lot of fun.
To add a little bit of magic to it, every day I picked a new archetypes card from my archetypes deck, and worked that into what I was writing.
So I wrote and I wrote. I thought I was going to make it, but I wasn’t totally sure. Anything could happen. Yesterday was my only really bad writing day. I kept looking at the word count. I was so close–48,000 words and counting–but I was starting to hate my characters and doubt this project. I was at my toxic hospital job, where I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in the past, but I was having a bad day and I was grumpy and I just wanted this to be over.
Today I woke up and realized what I wanted to write it. I don’t work today, thank god. A monday to myself with all the possibilities. I made my coffee and waffle and typed until I reached something approximating an ending. Only then did I look at the word count. 50,380 words. 172 pages. 30 days (really, 28). This is what can happen when I sit down and shut up. This is what can happen when everything else that gives my life meaning goes away.
I uploaded my word count to the website, and maybe shed a little tear.
I wrote the final words while wearing a hoodie I’ve owned since 2003. I’m certain I wore it while writing the first two books. I’m certain I wore it when I thought I would never have my shit together enough to write a book in a month. I’m glad my hoodie was there to see how far I’ve come.