National Novel Writing Month: My Experience With Temporary Neurosis

I have always loved to write. As a five-year-old, I'd create epic tales of unicorns and magical islands, then write them down and turn them into "books" (pieces of notebook paper, connected with Scotch tape and decorated with marker drawings, presented proudly to my mother, who dutifully kept them safe). And by the time I was in first grade, I'd already decided I wanted to write a book someday. But not just any book -- a chapter book. Lofty were my goals.

Over the years, I started so many novels. I wrote outlines, character maps, first drafts of first chapters. I worked ideas in my head over and over, shaping them like clay on the potter's wheel. But, intriguing story lines and in-depth characters notwithstanding, I never could get past the first fifty pages or so.

It was the age-old dilemma that everyone is familiar with: I just didn't have time.

But during the fall of 2014, people started mentioning, as they do every year, National Novel Writing Month. And this time, instead of dismissing it as an impossibility, I realized that it might just be the perfect opportunity. I was newly single and, naturally, awash with "me-time." I'd also just given up my hour-plus commute in favor of a new job just a few minutes away from home, thereby saving many hours a week. Why not do it? Right?

I had all these romantic notions in my head about being a novelist, see. I'd go to my favorite local cafe and sip a steaming spiced chai at one of the wobbly little tables, fingers tapping away at my laptop as I wove my intricate tale. Other people would start to notice. They'd nudge their friends and point discreetly and whisper, "Oh, look, a writer." The employees would greet me with platitudes about my book: "Any plot twists on the menu for today?" And I'd smile coyly, because everyone knows writers are supposed to be mysterious, and they'd look on in admiration as I settled in at my regular table for yet another long, cozy day of being a novelist.

The reality of the situation, however, was much different. I did visit said cafe on Saturday and Sunday mornings and sip my chai or coffee and write -- but as the day wore on and I found my creative reserves running low, I'd generally switch to beer, hoping that maybe if I got a little drunk, the good ideas would come pouring out of me. Nobody looked at me admiringly. No, they were more likely to give me funny glances, due to all the staring blankly at my computer screen and muttering under my breath I was doing. I've been known to talk to myself even at the best of times, and that definitely kicked up a notch during NaNoWriMo, so I'm pretty sure all anyone at the cafe thought about me was that I was a bit of a nutter.

Eventually, I had to stop going. I was spending too much money on beer. Getting drunk at lunchtime wasn't really great for my productivity. And I'd begun to frighten the other patrons. Instead, I sat at home with my computer in my lap, wearing my old Pac-Man t-shirt and Terrible Sweatpants for days at a time. (The convenience of NaNoWriMo coinciding with the holiday season and, therefore, more time off work, was not lost on me.)

The conversations I had with myself got intense. They were very much out loud, and often took place using various worldly dialects. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a barstool in the kitchen, trying to come up with a different word for "inexplicable" via the method of banging my forehead rhythmically against the countertop and shouting out a new option in a British accent between each impact.

"Unfathomable!" THUD. "Bewildering!!" THUD. "Puzzling!!!" THUD. "Incomprehensible!!!!" THUD. "PECULIAR!!!!!"

It wasn't just myself I was shouting to, either. I carried on full conversations with the squirrels outside the window. The coffee maker. The pesky itch on my ankle. The imaginary beings I'd become convinced were trying to get in my head and steal my plot lines. Yes, people, it was bad.

This being real life and all, I had to pull myself out of the writing wormhole and emerge into society at regular intervals, in order to do things like grocery shopping and my job. It was always like waking up from a very deep sleep by being plunged into a pool of ice cold water. Suddenly, I was surrounded by other people, who were moving too quickly and driving too aggressively and laughing too loudly, and it was all very startling and abrasive. I found that whenever anyone tried to make small talk with me, I'd mention NaNoWriMo -- as if it was the only thing I had room for in my brain anymore.

"Did the sun come out yet, or is it still cloudy out there?" the checkout girl would ask conversationally while dragging my selections across the scanner.

"I'm writing a book," I'd blurt out in an awkward monotone, effectively killing conversation and convincing everyone in my vicinity that I was one of those reclusive types with forty cats and a parrot, on a fast track for the looney bin.

"How was your weekend?" my boss would ask on a Monday morning.

"Book," I'd reply, zombie-like, then trip over my own feet on the way to my desk.

Some days, I couldn't write at all. I'd stare at the computer screen for hours, until my eyes blurred over, without managing to eke out a single word. On those days, I'd try switching tack, thinking maybe I'd get the creative gears churning again if I watched an episode or two of a good TV show. So I'd bring up New Girl on Netflix, only to burst into tears 10 minutes later because Schmidt had to put money in the Douchebag Jar.

It was a highly volatile time, emotionally speaking. Like a vicious, month-long bout of PMS, to the power of 10. There was a lot of crying mixed with hysterical laughter. I'm not proud of it.

That said, I am happy to report that I finished. I met the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I won! Granted, I'd barely finished typing that 50,000th word when the clock struck 11:59 p.m. on November 30th -- but I fucking did it. Deep was my triumph.

Several people asked me if I'd be accepting the NaNoWriMo challenge again this year. I didn't even really have to think about it; my answer was a resounding "NO" every time. Don't get me wrong -- despite all the bitching I've just done, I'm glad I participated in NaNoWriMo, and I'm glad I saw it through to the end. As a person who starts many things and finishes few, I'm proud of my accomplishment. And maybe, just maybe, I'll do it again someday.

But not now. I'm in a serious relationship that makes me happy to devote a lot of time to. My responsibilities at work have increased. I'm also working on re-branding my blog and launching from my very own domain. And I'm recording an album and doing the occasional live performance. In short, there is too much going on in my life to devote that kind of time to writing another novel at this point. And that's okay.

Also, I learned something very important about myself during NaNoWriMo. I have long suspected I'm a cookie short of a dozen. I have always been vaguely aware that there's only a small distance between "whimsically creative" and "bat shit crazy" -- and that even at the best of times, crossing it would not be that much of a stretch for me. NaNoWriMo, for all the good that came out of it, pushed me a bit too close to that line for comfort -- and with everything going on in my life right now, I'm not willing to sacrifice what little sanity I have.

So I hereby raise my wine glass to this year's NaNoWriMo novelists. Write on, you brave, crazy bastards. I'll join your masses again someday.

Until then, I'll keep you in my thoughts while I'm enjoying my free time like a normal person.