I’ve always wanted to write a book.
This is hardly a unique dream, especially for someone who works full-time as a writer of criticism and pop culture journalism. It is, however, the only ambition I’ve possessed consistently throughout my entire life. Other dreams came and went, evolving as I did or being discarded as interests changed, but the hunger to be an author has remained. everyone else in my life has been keenly aware of this passion, mostly because I didn’t shut up about it for most of my childhood. My high school yearbook even lists me as the student most likely to become an author (granted, they said ‘erotic author’, but it’s the thought that counts). Over the years, I have spent a lot of time starting The Next Great Novel, the one that I’m absolutely sure I’ll finish this time, there’s no force on earth that will stop me from completing it. I tried it again this year. Guess how that went?
National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing project wherein participants sign up and attempt to finish 50,000 words of whatever they’re working on between the 1st and 30th of November. It’s a worldwide celebration of the written word and its ability to bring people from all walks of life together. Many celebrated authors wrote their works during NaNoWriMo, including YA authors Rainbow Rowell and Marissa Meyer, and Erin Morgenstern, author of the best-selling romantic fantasy The Night Circus. Once you sign up, you’re able to join with fellow participants in your area or online, and regular pep talks are sent out via email from people like John Green. By 2015, 431,626 people participated (633 different regions) in NaNoWriMo. Of those participants, more than 40,000 ‘won’ by completing the 50,000-word challenge.
I have signed up to NaNo multiple times and I have never won it. Hell, I’ve never even come close.
Here’s what happens every single time November is on the horizon: I start thinking about stories I would like to write and begin formulating them in my head. I like to have a story totally planned out in my mind before writing a single word down. Sometimes, I spend my nights just thinking about this fantastic idea that I’m sure will make a brilliant book. Once it’s fully fleshed-out in my imagination, I take notes, always by hand in one of the countless notebooks I’ve accumulated over the years. There are times when I get a great story idea or a nugget of something interesting out of the blue, and those glimmers are added to the Notebooks app on my phone or Google Drive. November gets closer and I think, yes, this is my year. I’ve got this all planned out to the nth degree. Not only that but I’m wildly enthusiastic about getting those words on the page. I reason that NaNo will be the suitable kick up the rear I need to stay motivated and stick to a schedule, which I have found is the best way for me to get any sort of work done. I sign up and I start telling everyone I’m going to do it, which leads to tweets of encouragement from friends and strangers alike who are in the same boat. November 1st rolls around and the words just fly from my fingers. This continues for about five or six days and then… that’s it. It stops. My mind doesn’t want to keep going. I read back the words I’ve written and immediately declare them to be trash beyond redemption or rewrites. Another unfinished manuscript ends up in my Google Drive ‘projects’ folder and I never speak of it again.
This happens every single time. I can almost set my watch to my NaNo failures, which appear with the same regularity and predictability as any holiday of the festive season. It sucks every single time and I have never been able to stop myself from quitting.
This year, I was so wearily aware that I was inevitably going to fail and yet I signed up once more, driven by the naïve conviction that this time would be different from all the other times I said it would be different. Surely I was older and wiser now, plus I’m a full-time writer who is able to get between two and five thousand words out a day, depending on deadlines and mood. Any lingering feelings I never had about my perceived laziness or lack of motivation were easy enough to refute given my workaholic tendencies in the writing field. And yet I’ve still never been able to do it.
All the elements of NaNo that seem so beneficial at first quickly become smothering to me. The target of an average of 1800 words a day suddenly seems utterly impossible. All those pep talk emails feel like their rubbing my ineptitude in my face. The productivity and success of fellow participants grind you down. Eventually, it feels ludicrous to set this arbitrary challenge and keep forcing myself to stick to it. Maybe this isn’t the thing for me. Perhaps this isn’t the most effective method for me to finally write the novel I’ve wanted to complete since I was old enough to know that people could write books. The only problem is that I don’t know what my method is yet. Even outside of the boundaries of NaNo, I’ve struggled to stick to ventures I’ve set for myself. My incomplete projects folder is not just limited to November failures.
Enough people have told me over the years that there is no correct way to write a novel that I have to assume they’re telling the truth and not just trying to placate me. I miss writing fiction with the full-throated freedom I possessed as a teenager, long before it ever occurred to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. I would like to believe that one day I may actually complete a book but there’s a part of me that just wants to accept that it’s an increasing impossibility and perhaps I should be satisfied with that. Alas, I hate leaving a story incomplete.