This past November, I completed the first draft of my first novel by writing every single day from November 1 through November 30. I am officially a NaNoWriMo 2012 winner for finishing a novel greater than 50,000 words. Yay Me! Here’s what I learned in the process.
The biggest challenge of NaNoWriMo was the obvious time commitment. I had to eliminate habits, disconnect Facebook and remove other activities that could absorb “downtime” used for writing. I had to slow my cheering for my President and unglue myself from the pre-election and post-mortem analyses of Mitt Romney’s ascension and fall from the national spotlight. My focus needed to be writing, and I needed the part of my brain responsible for literary abandon and creative thinking.
I wanted to keep myself honest, and hold myself accountable. You may not know that I failed before at this NaNoWriMo challenge, but this time I had a renewed sense of urgency and purpose to write in earnest every day. I had a story to tell and so I began. Nothing would keep me from it this time.
Writing every day was a trying, electrifying, harrowing, sleep-deprived, crazy time. Surprisingly, working this intently toward my novel gave me a personal sense of validation that I didn’t know I needed. Participating made me feel that my story was not only important, but also worth telling. In solidarity with other writers, I felt incredibly empowered to take liberties in crafting the story and gave myself permission to misbehave a bit.
Focusing on my novel in this 30-day window required discipline and a removal of filters. I could not divorce myself from the travails of my characters. As I wrote, I found my characters dealing with deep-seated emotions. Repeatedly, I questioned how their raw emotions engulfed their personas. They didn’t gloss over how they felt, who they betrayed, or even who they did or did not love. At first, I needed to cleanse them for presentation by glossing over their flaws with masks to hide their deeper, darker dimensions. This was necessary for me to present them in a way that made them digestible, but it was unclear for whom. Stripping their ghosts from their hideous pasts only made them palpable for me to digest but created a conundrum that could not be reconciled.
For example, what do you do when the wolf who violently attacks Little Red Riding Hood is your brother or father? Do you make excuses for him, love him anyhow, or blame Little Red, the victim for her shortened skirt, hijab, or flirting smile? Do you confront the wolf with disgust or continue to romanticize his lies? I found myself eager to find a redeeming quality in an otherwise dark character who I didn’t even like very much.
It became difficult to disconnect from the novel after addressing the layers, plots, and complexities of the characters. This was painful at times, convicting at others, and almost always consuming. I was physically present, but the story kept me up at night, sabotaged my sleep, and waywardly inserted itself into my daily life with a nagging unwelcomeness.
Writing and crafting the story was one of undeniable paradoxes. Could I be liberated from the bullshit and guilt of unfulfilled expectations nestled deep inside or did I need to be positively neutral in all things? Could I call a spade a spade or would I need to sterilize the characters of flaws, perceived or real? Could I be unapologetically raw and truthful in presenting my characters despite flaws and keep them whole? Could I, as a writer, not offend anyone who might identify with the characters, and why should I care?
Writing this story during NaNoWriMo forced me to ascribe a fuller humanity to characters and to delve into the dark without censor. It was in unleashing their fullness that the true story would develop. Inherently, I knew that cleansed and contrived characters could not sustain a novel. I also knew that not all stories end with “happily ever after”. Can anyone say “broken marriage after the ‘storybook’ wedding”? Not all stories fit into neatly packaged presentations.
So what’s the lesson in all of this? Writing is full of epiphanies and surprises. You feel liberated when you get the story right – when you feel that you have done justice to the characters, but it is downright daunting when you have nothing to write at all. So what do you do then? You write anyway! You may stop, but start again until you reach The End…wherever that may be.
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