Life might be described in a single word: momentum. We’re always moving—forward, sideways, backward, upward, or even spinning hopelessly in circles. Like a protagonist in a novel, we try to determine our momentum, and we often succeed, but we’re also at the mercy of external forces. A benevolent force might enter the picture and sweep us forward, as if we’re catching a wave. But then there are those malevolent forces that always lurk about, flexing their muscles like bullies, ready to push us down, tease us, chase us away (or just hand us bills to pay). We have to figure out a way to get up, move on, and find another wave to ride.
Each December 1, I wake up jazzed with the excitement of having a novel in hand (and perhaps just a wee bit exhausted). Misty swirls of my story world seep through my mind, and my heart beats with plot points and possibilities—because now that I have a rough draft, I can hear the second draft calling me. NaNo has given me more than the gift of a new novel; it’s given me creative momentum.
I don’t take that momentum for granted, though. Even though NaNo’s good momentum sends me gliding forward effortlessly, I know about bad momentum, which can be a snaggletooth trap you don’t even see.
Several years ago, I found myself in such a trap. More accurately, I constructed such a trap (that’s the worst thing about negative momentum: you can be your own bully). I’d just finished a couple drafts of my first novel, and I’d sent it to agents and editors with grand dreams of publishing. I got some nibbles here and there, but in the end, there were no takers. If I could go back in time, I’d whisper in the ear of my younger self to revise the novel again—to focus on the encouragement I received, get some good beta readers, and revise with their feedback in mind—but I decided the novel wasn’t good enough, so I gave up.
I’d been trying to make it as a writer for a while at this point, and I’d watched as other friends became successful, either as writers or in their chosen careers. I started to doubt my abilities as a writer, if not all of my life choices. Confusion plus self-doubt and envy is a three-headed hydra that breathes the most noxious and poisonous vapors. I started to creatively shut down. I took a job I didn’t like, just to earn money. The job gave me a bad case of carpal tunnel, so bad that writing became painful, then practically prohibitive. Instead of turning to my community of writers, I turned away from them. I didn’t know it, but I was miserable. And I wasn’t creating much of anything, except perhaps excuses.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t approach writing differently, but that’s the thing about these invisible self-set traps. I could have written just 150 words a day and incrementally written another novel (150 words per day equals about 54,000 words a year, after all). I could have written short stories, or even haikus. I could have volunteered at a literary magazine to become part of a creative community, or tutored kids in an after-school writing program.
I’m still confused by my actions and attitudes during that time and don’t quite know how to explain them, but I must have focused so much on the “can’t” that I didn’t allow much room for the “can.” But NaNoWriMo is a wave of “can.”
I just read through the “Life After NaNoWriMo” forum, and several people told stories of the obstacles that held them back in November—tales of foreclosed houses, children who corrupted their novel file, back injuries, sick dogs. Some hadn’t hit their word count, but they pledged to keep writing. “I love my characters too much to quit,” one said. Another asked for a “little tiny baby NaNo” in December. “I want to keep up the daily writing habit, so I will be plodding on with my own NaNo in the months to come,” said another.
Reading these comments made me think that we should rename the “Thank God It’s Over” party to “Thank God It’s Just Beginning.”
The spirit and momentum of NaNo don’t have to stop just because it’s December. To build on this year’s NaNo momentum, I’m making a list of the things I learned (or relearned). Most importantly, I discovered ways to find time to write in my daily life. Yes, even when you work at a creative nonprofit, creativity can slink downward on your to-do list. I realized I can wake up an hour early every day to write. I can give up a few TV shows and spend a little less time on Facebook. I also realized how energizing it is to discuss the highs and lows of writing with a community of writers. And each year, I get better at getting in my NaNo zone and writing my novel in the most unfettered way. Such a thing takes daily practice.
Last Saturday, in the early morning hours of the last day of NaNo, I sat on the couch with my son and daughter, and we quietly sprinted and stretched and strained toward the NaNo finish line together. Later, we took a short hike and regaled each other with our novels’ dramatic scenes. I hope we’ll do the same thing next Saturday and the Saturday after that. Telling stories forms the essence of our connections to others.
Life is momentum. Life is stories. Let’s keep our stories going.