Introducing Divya Breed, a friend of mine who I met several years ago through the Trail Angels, a women’s mountain biking club in South Orange County. We also attempted a writing group together briefly. Two years ago, she inspired me to participate in NaNoWriMo – an international writing challenge to write 50,000 words towards a novel each November. I went on to complete the challenge, but unfortunately Divya did not. Here is her story.
The Freedom to Fail: My Experience with NaNoWriMo
About once a year since my early teens, I have felt compelled to write a work of fiction. Sometimes I would finish it, but more often I would give up in despair, for the words rarely came out the way I dreamed them. Part of the blame rests on some inspired poetry and fiction that I wrote and won accolades for way back in my teens. That sets a good stage for overly high expectations, right? My inner critic was loud and harsh if the writing didn’t flow as it had on those occasions.
In spite of that, I couldn’t stop myself from writing. I wrote regularly after discovering LiveJournal, and I shared my words with a limited audience of friends since much of it was personal. I also kept scratching at that itch to write fiction and started whenever the muse took me or I had a few hours to spare. What I failed to do was persist, take it seriously, and finish what I’d started.
Then, in November of 2011, I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first time. I was juggling a full time job as an engineer, raising a two year old, and trying to make time for my husband and my home. November is always a full month for me. It encompasses my wedding anniversary, birthday, and two major family holidays (the Indian holiday of Deepavali and the American Thanksgiving). I had always found excuses in the past for why NaNoWriMo was impossible for me. 2011 was no different, but I decided I’d had enough of excuses. Besides, the itch to write a story was strong, and I hadn’t scratched it since having a baby.
My pace was good at the start. The permission to write complete nonsense, or even just really bad prose, was what I needed to quiet my inner critic. After all, this challenge was not about writing a wonderful piece of literature. It was about proving that I could actually write in volume if I put my mind to it. I hit my allotted word count on most days, and I tried “to be zen about it and just appreciate the act of writing.” Those were my own words from my journal, about a week into November.
Let me digress for a minute to say that I am not a zen person by nature. I am a control freak. I am goal directed. I want to finish what I start. Always. Failure is a black hole of doom looming over me and threatening to swallow me whole. I hate it. You know where this is going, right?
Week 3: the two year old comes down with a stomach virus and becomes permanently attached to me. Several days later, I get sick too. My writing output drops precipitously, and I fall behind. Way behind. To use my own words from that time, “Actually hitting the 50k mark is highly unlikely unless I can sit and just write for an entire day.” That full day of writing? Did not materialize. I did not finish NaNoWriMo. I made it to roughly 37,000 words before the month ended, more than I had ever written for a single piece of fiction in my life. I should have been proud and elated, but I wasn’t.
I had failed. I fell into the pit of despair.
Some weeks later, Lindy invited me to submit a guest post about my NaNoWriMo experience. I said I would try to make time and write something, but the truth is I was too depressed about my incomplete novel to put fingers to keyboard. I was too busy lamenting my fate. Woe is me! This is a sign! I wasn’t meant to be a writer! You know, the usual stuff.
Months went by. I couldn’t bear to look at my draft, much less finish it. Making time to write in November had been a huge effort with significant sacrifices to sleep and family. It was too much to ask of my husband and child (and myself) to live like that forever. Besides, the writing was crap. That was part of the point, to write for volume and not quality. I’d need even more time to edit it into anything worthwhile. That time did not exist in my life.
Eventually, a year passed, and NaNoWriMo 2012 loomed. Would I try again? Not on your life. The now three year old had a very late bed time, and I was working only 30 hours a week with mothering taking up the rest of my day. The luxury of a “lunch hour” during which to write was gone. It reminded me, though, that I had a mostly written novel sitting on my hard drive. I opened up last year’s story and started reading it. For a first draft, and a rushed one at that, it wasn’t half bad. Huh. Maybe this whole “shut the inner critic up and just write” attitude really worked. Maybe it wasn’t a wasted effort after all.
The itch was back.
This time, I decided, I was doing it on my terms. Sustainable terms. A few hours each week. Maybe a class to force me to share my work. I would dream the big dream and take the scary step of trying to be a professional writer. My current job was already a part time gig. The time seemed right to step into Career, Part Deux. Would it ever amount to anything? Not unless I tried. And perhaps failed. And tried again.
Yesterday, I finished writing a short story for an online workshop. That’s right, I finished it. It’s only the first draft, but it’s done from beginning to ending. Is it any good? Not really. I took a page from NaNoWriMo and just let myself write. It’s a terrible mess of words, but I’ll unleash my inner critic and edit the crap out of it (literally) before I submit it.
Thanks, NaNoWriMo, for showing me that it’s OK to fail; that it’s OK if the words aren’t magic the first time; that inspiration may come, but piling on the word count is equally valuable; that there is beauty in every effort. Maybe I’ll step into your crushing embrace again…someday.