I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo since I learned about it in college, but I never felt like I had the time. Looking back on all the Novembers since then—almost a decade of them, which isn’t disheartening at all—I can point to ones where I could have tried it, at least. And there are some that I genuinely could not have managed. Not the 50K words, not the mental devotion, not the emotional drain.
Like two years ago. So many people in my life died that month that I physically could not attend all of their funerals. Emotionally, I could hardly bear to read all their obituaries. I was overwrought in every way. My birthday and Thanksgiving came and went as usual, but I don’t remember them at all. And just before the month’s end, as I staggered under the weight of it all, someone I love dearly fell, and fell ill, and died just before Christmas.
A year later (last year), I did NaNo for the first time, and I won. In NaNo-speak, that means I finished: I wrote all 50K words.
I joined NaNo because I had to do something. By October of last year, every day I struggled more and more to get out of bed. No matter how much or how little sleep I got, I couldn’t seem to motivate myself. I tricked myself upright sometimes but I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even bribe myself. Not with Chick-fil-a, not with a new book, not with a nap later. Where everything else failed, guilt would eventually get me up. I was leaving the dog whining outside my door, him knowing I was inside and awake, me knowing he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get up and open the door to see him.
Ten minutes became fifteen, twenty, thirty. I was regularly late for work and stayed late to make up the time. Trying to scare myself out of bed, I’d watch the clock on my bedside table tick to, and past, the time I should have left for work. I’d berate myself that “They are going to fire you and you will deserve it.” Despite having a job I was good at with coworkers I love, despite my wonderful family, despite an understanding roommate, despite friends, despite professional counseling, I couldn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.
Now, I don’t want to over-dramatize this any more than I already have: as best I can remember, I did get up every day. Out of habit, out of guilt, out of shame. I don’t think I ever called in sick because I couldn’t make it out of bed. But I also didn’t know each morning if today would be the day I didn’t get up.
I started thinking of November as my month to save myself, to set a big goal and to meet it, and I thought NaNo might be what I needed. NaNo has built-in ways to track and celebrate my progress, plus a community of people also writing their way into or out of or through things via these 50K words. I’ve been writing to escape for as long as I could write, which is almost as long as I can remember. And, when I did a test run, I discovered that, if I could write very first thing, I could get out of bed.
As November strode on, though I grew increasingly tired and did sleep through my pre-work writing sessions a couple of times, I flew out of bed. I was excited. I felt driven. My mind sharpened and I got better at other tasks, like editing and social media writing at work, like memorizing scripture and focusing on the sermon. I think it did help that I was writing about death and grief, generously heaped with humor. It also helped that the dog liked to come downstairs for a pet and to wish me well.
As I always have, I wrote to cope and to understand. And I saw people draw near to me, people who asked about my project and cared about how it was going. Near the end, probably the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my brother came into the room where I’d been holed up for hours, miserably trying to pry words from my brain. He came up behind me, kissed me on the crown of head, and told me I could do it. I grabbed his hands and hugged him, and when he had left I cried. And then I kept writing.
That’s something else about NaNo: it forces you to take care of yourself. You’re still galloping toward 50K words, which you likely wouldn’t have written otherwise, and you’re staying up later and getting up earlier and not returning friends’ texts and ordering pizza again, but you have to sleep. You have to eat. You have to laugh. You have to go for walk. You have to, or the words won’t happen. And in November, it’s all about the words.
I don’t need NaNo with the desperation of last year. Still, I am incredibly excited for my 6am writing sessions and I’ve literally been stockpiling cookies since the spring.
I don’t know if I’ll finish. I do have an idea I like. I’ve tried to prepare better than I did last year. And I know what NaNo can be.
I love to write, and I’m going to try really, really hard.
Forgive me if I’m a bit distant this month, a bit hard to find, a bit more tired and less conversational than usual. I’m doing something that’s really, really important to me. I hope you’ll still be there in December. I’d love to catch up.