NaNoWriMo is over… now what?

On the 28th of November, I completed NaNoWriMo with 50,629 words. This was, by quite a margin, the most I’d ever written on any one story or project.

In the days coming up to the end, I thought I wasn’t going to feel much when I reached that milestone. Because the truth is, as I’m sure most of you other NaNoWriMoers understand, the end of NaNo is by no means the end. It is an achievement in itself, but what I have now is not even a first draft, it’s a partial draft at best.

I surprised myself by becoming emotional when I crossed the finishing line, though. I rang my boyfriend, and nearly had a bit of a cry. But this feeling really only lasted a few hours.

The thing about NaNo is – yes, it got me writing. Yes, it proved to me that I can write 50,000 words on a story I had done minimal planning on and wasn’t even that passionate about. It might have even been the cause of a few decent paragraphs, though I think most of the 50,000 words are really not particularly well strung together.

But what it didn’t do: it didn’t make me feel like a writer.

The problem is, I have this idea in my head of the person I want to be when I’m older. Or, well, the person I would quite like to be now, but it doesn’t seem quite realistic yet. It’s not as simple as a list of things I can lay down here – more than anything, it’s a feeling. Contentedness is one word I could use to try to describe it. Wholeness. Satisfaction. And I think I have equated being a writer with feeling that way.

It’s kind of like when, years ago, I was smoking about 5 cigarettes a day (and a lot, lot more when I was drinking) but I didn’t ever feel like a smoker. I would never have described myself as a smoker. But by anyone’s definition, I was a smoker.

Perhaps it’s the lack of commitment, the fact that I’m not doing it full-time, or the fact that I’m not squeezing it around a different full-time career. Perhaps it’s because the rest of my life, to be honest, is a little empty right now. I don’t necessarily mean that it a very maudlin way – it’s just the honest truth. I rattle around a little in my own life these days.

Or maybe a month does not a writer make. Maybe if I continue with this, now, and continue to get better at it, I will start to feel more genuine. If I start to enjoy it more, maybe.

That’s another thing that may be contributing to this feeling. I enjoyed it, to an extent, but not as much as I would have hoped. I didn’t spring out of bed every morning, eager to get back to my story. It didn’t make me feel happy and fulfilled.

So what now? I’m certainly not giving up just because November didn’t turn me into a different person. I’m taking a few weeks’ break from writing, and then I’ll either keep going with the NaNo novel or go back to the one I was writing before. And hopefully, in a few weeks, I will realise that it actually did change me.

I will finish the novel at some point, anyway, and maybe then the satisfaction will flood in. Or does it ever? Maybe that’s the problem with art – it never feels finished.

Anyway, turning point or not, it’s been an experience. And it’s done me a lot of good to actually follow through with something, as I’m notorious for never finishing projects. Here’s to the next few months and the rest of my writing career.

I hope all of you fellow NaNoers are similarly satisfied with your achievement – and maybe a bit more satisfied with how it’s made you feel!

Outside My Window: Homeless Love

A few short weeks ago the sun would only be setting at this time, but now it is deep night. Today it turned bitterly cold, as though the old gods are reminding us that it is nearly winter. There is no wind, and the pavement echoes with the sharp attacks of my boot heels.

I am walking aimlessly. I left the house with the intention of walking around the block to stretch my legs and clear my head, but now I seem to have set out for the city centre. There is a tearing feeling in my heart like thin fabric being ripped. If I keep walking, if I keep running over this knot in my mind, maybe I will reach a point of calm.

As I reach the heart of the city, I see that the Christmas lights have been erected along the main street of the south side. The sight of them makes something break within me a little more. I am irritated, it is not even Halloween yet, it is much too early for this – and still, I am thinking: “I don’t want another miserable Christmas.”

By the time I reach the university, the tears pushing at my chest and throat have ebbed away, and I have reached determination. I pass a woman whose face I recognise – the mother of a girl I used to call a friend – but I look away, afraid of being recognised. My anonymity is what is holding me together. It is allowing me to believe that I am a different person, in a different life, who will not break apart if this is unfixable. Who will not allow herself to be unhappy in this way.

Once inside the university gates, a feeling of coming home envelops me. The small flat I left only half an hour ago seems distant and alien – it has not seen me through the ups and downs, the terrible lows and the ecstatic highs that these old buildings have witnessed in me. Inside these walls, the greatest love of my life was born and nurtured. And now when it all seems to dangle over the precipice, its memory will be held safe by these monuments of time.

I cross the front square, feet hitting the ground uneven on the cobblestones, and sit down on the cold cement steps of the university chapel.

The world becomes still. I take my heart in my hands and imagine a life on my own until I can imagine it calmly. Until I am serene with the weight of it. I become tall again, my limbs stretching out into the gaps of my independence.

I watch students come and go for a time. A young man in a university society hoodie jogs past, face shadowed by the orange lights; two girls hang out of a dorm room, shouting down at someone below. Above the haze of the city lights and smog, right above my head at the highest point of the sky, pinprick stars gleam coldly. I imagine the worst – my heart rests a moment – and then the world moves on.

The warmth is leeching out of the thin film of sweat that had accumulated at the back of my neck beneath my scarf, between my breasts, under my arms. I feel as though I am sinking into the cold stone steps – or the stone is seeping out into me, turning me icy and paralysed under the Medusa-stare of the chapel. I rise, and zip up my jacket. I consider buying a coffee, and decide against it. It is time to go home.

On my way back up to the main street, I pass a woman crouched in a sitting position against a pillar outside a newsagents. She has the characteristic shabby, mismatched demeanour of all the homeless people in this city – clothes of indeterminate colour, torn and dirtied; hair dry and dishevelled.

But she is not begging; she is paying no attention whatsoever to the passersby. A large plastic carrier bag sits before her on the street, and out of the top of it, a tiny kitten’s head protrudes. It is young, barely old enough to be weaned away from its mother; a scruffy white little thing with a tortoiseshell pattern down its back. The woman dangles a black sock before the kitten, dancing it before its eyes before tugging it away again. The kitten’s tiny claws wave uncertainly, catching on the sock like needles, its green-gold eyes wide and excited.

The homeless woman is as enthralled as the kitten. Her features are tender and smiling, like the face of a doting parent. The moment catches on my heart. I wonder how often this kitten will go hungry in the long nights it faces on the streets, and tears press against the backs of my eyes again. I swallow, look away, and walk on.

 

Outside My Window is a weekly series every Saturday on Sirens & Muses where I write a short story or vignette based on something I see outside my window, outside my door, or on the streets around my area. It’s a little late this week again!

Outside My Window: Where Life Takes Us

When he was a child, as he grew older, he had an idea in his head of what his life might look like, what shapes it might take. It was rarely a definite picture – it was more of a general feeling or expectation. Sometimes specifics would creep in, and he would imagine being married to certain woman, or going to work every day for  a certain job. But mostly it was vague, fleeting. He might see a sunlit kitchen in the morning, a sea of faces of his audience as a lecturer or musician.

It was often drawn up in negatives. He saw the failures of the future: the desk job when he really wanted to be on stage, the poverty of his student days, life in a run-down house in a bad neighbourhood, growing old alone. Or just the smaller disappointments – a life more stressful than it was enjoyable, the realities of mortgages and raising children, a wife he loved less than he could have.

At some point in his twenties, he started to feel himself stepping into this future. He lived the college days he had envisioned; he moved into a shabby apartment that wasn’t all that bad considering his lack of money; he had a relationship with a girl more real and more vividly beautiful than he could have ever dreamt up.

And every now and then he found himself in a moment that defied his expectations entirely. He became skilled in things he had never dreamed even existed, and felt things he never would have expected. Sometimes he caught himself living out a life that he would never even dared to imagine for himself – a snapshot of the life of another, luckier man.

Outside My Window is a weekly series every Saturday on Sirens & Muses where I write a short vignette based on something I see outside my window, outside my door, or on the streets around my area.

Outside My Window: Cat Fight

It’s mid-morning of an autumn day and the sun is leaking out a last burst of rays before the rain rolls in. My small home office, so dark in the afternoon and evening, is filled with sunlight. This is my favourite time of the day; when the house has emptied and the day is still ripe with possibility.

As I raise my second cup of hot black coffee to my lips, there is a sudden explosion of sound outside the window, and my arm jerks, hot brown tears of coffee spilling over the sides of the mug. The noise is indeterminate at first – a crashing or violent hissing, maybe – and then a piercing banshee wail erupts from right below the windowsill.

A cat fight. The hideous howling is familiar, and I am on my feet and at the front door without having made a conscious decision to intervene. By the time I get there, a small but agile tabby cat is slinking away, slipping through the wrought-iron gate into the street. Kitts trots over to me from the undergrowth of bushes by the window, proud and purring, a precise and vivid line of blood dashed across her white nose.

And I realise; Kitts has no conception of her own mortality. At fifteen years of age, she is comparatively slower than she used to be – she spends the vast majority of her days sleeping, and when I stroke her back I can feel her bony shoulders through the still-sleek orange fur. But in her mind, she is immortal, invincible. A young, fit cat dares to invade her territory and she retaliates. For Kitts, there are no greater consequences beyond the now.

I hold my hand out for her eager rubbing cheeks; her stiff whiskers bristle against the back of my hand. And for a moment I wish I could share her sense of timelessness.

Outside My Window is a weekly series every Saturday on Sirens & Muses where I write a short vignette based on something I see outside my window, outside my door, or on the streets around my area. It’s a bit late this week due to illness!

Outside My Window: Feeding Ducks

Outside My Window is a weekly series every Saturday on Sirens & Muses where I write a short vignette based on something I see outside my window, outside my door, or on the streets around my area.

Laura crouches at the edge of the canal, crumbling pieces of bread between her tiny fingers with the kind of focus only three-year-olds can muster. She frowns at the crumbs as they escape her hands to float on the top of the scummy canal water, and is transformed with glee as the ducks dart about pecking at the pieces.

I stand behind her, a firm hold on the back of her red coat, and can’t believe how tiny she is. The smallness of my daughter is just part of life, and if anything I sometimes can’t believe how big she has grown, how the tiny creature that made its way out of my wife’s womb could have turned into this little person. We marvelled at her smallness then – it took weeks to get used to the delicate hands and feet, the paper-thin miniscule fingernails, the tiny whorl of her soft pink ears. I felt clumsy and huge at first, afraid I would hurt her with my big awkward hands.

Her hands still get lost within my palms, but now she has a soft nest of dark hair, vibrant green eyes, and an increasingly expanding mind. She is like a flower unfolding, waking up to the world. She asks questions about the world around her and I can see her soaking it all in. Every day of her life builds her personality – every sentence spoken to her, at this age, could change the rest of her life.

In five minutes’ time, her focus will have shifted – she will lose interest in the ducks, distracted maybe by a passing dog or a sudden fierce longing for ice-cream. But right now, this moment, this action of crumbling the bread between her fingers and letting it fall to the waiting ducks below is her entire world. Her sparse eyebrows knit together, the smooth baby skin rumpling slightly between them; her moist rosy top lip pouts in concentration. She achieves without thought a state that most adults can only begin to achieve in meditation and mindfulness exercises.

Laura turns her head and looks up at me, cheeks flushed and eyes bright. ‘More bread, Daddy!’ A tidal wave of love rushes over me as I smile at her imperious tone. I tug the plastic bag out of my coat pocket and hunker down beside her, tightening my grip on her coat with my other hand. We crouch together on the cold stone paving and look out on the still, murky canal water, the willow trees reflecting in its glassy surface.

9 to 5

Sarah was exhausted. Two heavy bags of grocery shopping pulled on her elbow sockets, the plastic threatening to rip and spill their contents all over the grey streets of Rathmines. Living on the city outskirts was convenient and even picturesque when the sun shone and the canal was relatively free of debris. But pushing her way home through the rush-hour pedestrians made her sad in the pit of her stomach. In a few months’ time it would be pitch dark on her way home, but in the autumn months like this it was usually all just grey – grey buildings, grey streets, grey sky.

On evenings like this, Sarah’s life began to seem ridiculous, consisting as it did of a strange hamster-wheel 9 to 5, the uncomfortable boring clothes, and the tired non-conversation that usually ensued when she and her husband collapsed onto the couch together in the evenings.

Once a week, she would make a detour to a supermarket on her way home, elbowing past hoards of flustered-looking professionals searching freezers for frozen petit pois and angrily examining packets of lean beef. She once saw two women fighting over the last free-range whole chicken.

Today, she had not had the energy to do a full week’s shopping, and instead bought some half-hearted fruit, a few microwave meals and two bottles of red wine. The ten-minute walk home still seemed to take twice as long as usual, and she stopped twice, readjusting the plastic bags and wishing she had remembered to bring a shopping bag.

Come the weekend, they would try to get out of the flat and do what couples were supposed to do – go for walks, buy coffee or lunch, sit by the canal contemplating the floating crisp packets and naan breads, the anchored shopping trolleys and traffic cones, and the fish that darted between them. And Sarah knew that she would enjoy those weekends, would revel in the bottle of wine shared or the pints of lager consumed in the pub, and would forget this empty feeling.

She arrived at the apartment just as Mark was slamming the car door shut and locking it with a blip and a flash of orange light in the falling dusk. ‘Hi sweetheart, let me take those,’ he said warmly, kissing her on the lips and peeling the chafing plastic handles from her sore fingers. And all in a rush, she felt the sad emptiness well up with something. For a moment, there was a sort of tender poignancy to the delicate skin of the forehead emerging from beneath Mark’s receding hairline, the slight soft bulge of his stomach under his navy jumper. She thought inexplicably of the surprising softness of his flaccid penis in her hand. Tears began to well up inside her.

‘Yes, please. Thank you.’ They were tears of relief. Sarah followed her husband inside and shut the door.

Mr Brown

Mr Brown was a man in his forties with a receding hairline and a fondness for tea. His hair worried him. He began to grow his fringe further down onto his forehead, and felt an increasing affinity with those old men you saw in pubs with truly awful comb-overs. He let his fringe grow, and hoped that when the time came that it could be hidden no more, he would accept his baldness with grace and dignity. His wife, he thought, would surely never let a comb-over in the house. But then, he supposed that she too might be caught unawares, lulled by the gradual decline. So, every now and then, Mr Brown peered into the bathroom mirror and pushed back his hair, inspecting the damage and wondering if it was time to succumb to his impending baldness.

He liked his tea strong with a dash of milk and a small bit of sugar. If he was honest, he actually liked it with a bit more than a small bit of sugar; but he didn’t like to admit this, and slipped in the extra spoonfuls when his wife wasn’t looking. He told himself that it was his little luxury, like the bars of chocolate his wife kept in the drinks cabinet. Mr Brown was fascinated by the way she savoured these bars, nibbling on one or two squares every evening as they watched the nine o’clock news. He himself was not overly fond of chocolate. Sometimes he tried to enjoy his evening cup of tea in the way she enjoyed her squares of chocolate, but he always felt unable to grasp her passion.

His wife was called Rosemary. Although she was frugal with the chocolate, she had a multitude of similar little indulgences, and it seemed to Mr Brown that she spent half her life in their grips. She liked to take frequent long baths – she would light an alarming number of candles, add several salts and bubble mixtures to the hot water, and lie in complete silence for upwards of half an hour, leaving steamed-up mirrors and strong feminine scents in her wake. She also had her hair done every month, another ritual which seemed to take much longer than necessary. The rich, auburn shade of her hair was so vivid that it had erased Mr Brown’s memory of her natural hair colour.

However, on the occasions when Mr Brown chanced to see his wife’s pubic hair, he noted that it was turning increasingly grey, like the fur of a badger. The sight of these coarse white hairs made him think of his receding hairline, and he always found himself raising a hand to his forehead at the sight of Rosemary’s naked body.

Emotions

When the tears come, she doesn’t know what to do with them. She lies in the dark and her pillow becomes damp and cold, but she can’t be sure what she is crying about.

At times like this, she wishes more than anything that she could pinpoint the source of her misery. There are always triggers, but never anything that warrants the depths of despair she plummets into. Is she lonely? Dissatisfied with her life? Bored and stagnant? Or are these just chemical imbalances that flood her brain, as random as nature?

Usually, when the morning comes, the sadness has washed away, as though sucked out of her by her dreams. It takes a day or two, maybe, for her to slip back into contentment. And she forgets that she was ever miserable.

It’s like the difference between waking and dreaming. When she is happy, these emotions feel as though they are her real life, and the sadness becomes a shade, a dreamworld. It seems less real, illogical, and unimportant. A character flaw she needs to move away from.

She fears the dreamworld of sadness. Because in her fantasy of life, this dark side of emotion is a bad sign, a red flag, an indication that all is not right, that something needs to change. It feels like a setback to happiness, to everything she has worked for in the wakefulness of contentment.

So she wakes in the morning and feels better, but worried. The sun is struggling to break through a soft blanket of cloud, and she struggles with it. She knows everything is fine, but the niggling worry still holds tight to her ankles, slowing her down. Because how can you tell when enough is enough? Where do you draw the line?

Together

There have only been a few times in my life when I feel like the person next to me is an extension of myself. It happens very occasionally – that someone understands you, you understand them so well that the walls of identity slip, just a little. There are probably very few people, of all the hundreds of people you meet in a lifetime, who you could ever feel that close to.

And when it doesn’t happen for a while, for a few years, you forget how it feels. Other kinds of closeness start to seem just as special, and you forget what you’re missing. You can become consumed by people, totally immersed in them and your love for them, whether romantic love or just pure friendship. But that feeling of slotting together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – you know it when you feel it, and suddenly you see what you’ve been missing for all these years.

With other people, it has only happened maybe twice or three times, with one or two very close friends. People with whom I shared transforming moments, moments of epiphany and growth. Often, it’s helped along by alcohol, on those hazy nights when identity becomes so blurred that I have full conversations with myself in the mirror.

But only you make me feel this nearly every time I am with you. Only you can look at me in that way that makes me feel like you can read my soul. With other people, I don’t even believe in souls – I am a sceptic, rational, an atheist and a nonbeliever to the core. But lying in your arms gazing into your eyes, I could believe in anything.

The ticking forward of the world draws gently to a halt. The thoughts and feelings dispersed in my mind rush together like the tide, becoming a single unified feeling washing over me. I become still. And this life that we all embark on alone becomes complete – because I am no longer alone. Because you are in it.

Humiliation

Getting life right was proving to be more difficult than she had bargained for. And really, she admitted to herself, when she said ‘life’ she really meant ‘love’. When things were ticking along romantically, she could pretend to herself that the other parts of life were large and significant – succeeding in her career, achieving things creatively, keeping friends close. But when the love was taken away and its chasm yawned at her feet, everything else became tiny, miniature, like furniture in a doll’s house.

Love was supposed to be grand and overarching, all-consuming and devastating, and in this it had lived up to her expectations. Love had been like learning a new language, like finding a whole new person in someone she knew, like picking something up by accident off the ground and discovering it was your whole life. But with it came the darkness of fear, and the unpleasant truth that for someone people, love was not everything.

She had been prepared for heartbreak and loneliness, had known all about what the longing and missing might feel like. But she hadn’t expected the cruel realities, the gritty detail. The promises broken, the cold gazes, the unreturned phone calls, the refusals and betrayals. She had not been prepared for the humiliation.