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!

NaNoWriMo: Here Goes Nothing

Despite clamouring about it on Facebook, Twitter, and in comments on other people’s posts, I haven’t actually written a post about NaNoWriMo yet. I’m pretty sure I mentioned it in passing, but I’m surprised at myself for not writing about it properly, as it has been a major decision for me.

I had already decided I was going to write a novel this year. But I had given myself the highly unambitious deadline of 12 months for a first draft, and a measly 2,000 words a week. I was non-committal – writing a novel was just one of many things I wanted to achieve in 2013. Other  goals including doing academic reading and writing, starting to paint again, doing more photography, finding a job, getting my Etsy shop up and running again. Basically, I was spreading myself pretty thin.

But then I had this realisation – I was just spreading myself this thin because I was afraid of committing to any one thing.

I have been afraid of failure.

I have always been afraid of writing. Despite primarily identifying as a writer (and a musician, but that’s a whole other story) for the majority of my life so far, I have done very little writing. And for a long, long time the quantity of my writing was decreasing with every year. In university, I was “too busy”. And eventually I got out of the habit entirely.

Sirens & Muses has been revolutionary for me – it has got my writing juices flowing again for the first time in half a decade. But still, I was holding off.

You see, the thing is: I did my Masters in Library and Information Studies because I decided I did not want to be a writer.

What a thing to decide, at the age of 21. When I hadn’t even given it a go. I still held onto a vague idea that I could write in my free time, but I spent a few years trying to let go of the idea. I wanted security, supposedly. A mortgage, a husband, a dog, 2.4 kids.

But really, I just didn’t want to fail.

I was absolutely terrified that if I tried to really write – tried to really be a writer – I would fail. And then I would really and truly have to give up my life’s dream, not just because I “decided I wanted to take another path” but because I couldn’t do it.

Something clicked in my head.

One day I just thought: I’m going to write a novel. And I’m going to do it now.

National Novel Writing Month was originally going to be a means for me to get 50,000 words down of my original novel idea. But my boyfriend soon convinced me that this was a bad idea. My “actual” novel is something precious to me, and he reckoned that if I tried to write 50,000 words of it in a month I would stall, would be paralysed. He suggested that I take November as a time to experiment with my writing habits – to start with a fresh idea and not have to worry about failing at it.

At first I was dubious. I had this idea that I was bad at coming up with stories – that’s one of the reasons the short story form has never really worked for me. But when we got home that afternoon, I just took out my laptop and came up with a story idea, just like that.

It turns out I don’t think I’m so bad at it after all. I just never really tried. The thing about writing – about anything – is that you have to actually do it. Story ideas aren’t going to pop into your head that often if you don’t sit down and think about it. Your writing is never going to get better if you don’t practice. And you can’t be a goddamn writer if you won’t goddamn write.

What I hope to get out of NaNoWriMo.

I realise that building NaNoWriMo into such a big, momentous deal in my head is not particularly conducive to not freaking out about it once I start. But it’s not really about “winning” for me.

What I do hope to get out of it:

  1. Writing discipline. I’ve already gotten better at sitting down and putting metaphorical pen (fingers) to metaphorical paper (keyboard) through maintaining this blog. But it hasn’t exactly crossed over into large amounts of creative writing. Aiming for 2,300 – 2,500 words a day (mon-fri) will be the first time I’ve set myself a challenging writing goal, and it will force me to actually sit down and JUST DO IT.
  2. Writing habits. Similarly, I have yet to find out how I work as a writer. I have no idea if I’m more productive in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening; if I work best in my flat, or in the library – in a quiet environment or in the midst of hustle and bustle. I’m already starting to feel that extensive planning prior to writing might be a very good thing for me, but I won’t be able to tell until I get going.
  3. Letting go of my inner editor. This is a big one. I have come to realise that this has been the main barrier to my writing – the invisible force field slowing me down to a maximum of 500 words a day. All drafts need editing and rewriting. And ultimately I will be more productive by letting the story flow and polishing the sentences later. If I want to achieve the 50,000 words I will absolutely have to do this, and I think it will be a very valuable lesson for me.
  4. Accepting the need for rewriting. Conversely, or maybe subsequently, I have been terrible at rewriting, too. My tendency to try to force out the finished product as I go has inhibited my ability to go back over what I’ve written and pull it apart. But by allowing myself to write more freely, I automatically necessitate a major rewrite come December.
  5. A rough first draft (fingers crossed). If all goes according to plan, I will have my first draft of my (sort of) first novel. And that prospect alone is exciting enough to propel me through the month. Having previously envisaged slaving away for a full calendar year just to get the words on paper, the idea of getting such a large chunk of prose down in such a short space of time is exhilarating. Even if I don’t get the full 50,000 written, it will almost certainly be an infinitely bigger step in the right direction than I have ever taken before.

So wish me luck!

I will be keeping you updated on my journey once it begins. It all starts, funnily enough, the day after I turn 24, which is the age my parents got married. I haven’t been looking forward to 24, and I think it helped propel me to really shake up my life and get going with this properly.

For those of you who are also taking part, feel free to look me up on the NaNoWriMo website – my username is Áine Warren (aine-warren). And most of all, good luck! It’ll be an interesting month.

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!

Over-thinking

The last couple of weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions for me. I don’t deal well with transitions in my life, usually – and the past couple of months have been one transition after the next. Getting back together with my boyfriend after two and a half years, getting one of my molars pulled, finishing my Masters, realising how emphatically I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being a librarian, realising how much I do want to get serious about my writing, trying to decide whether or not I want to do a PhD in the next few years… the list is practically endless.

My biggest problem is not so much to do with the turmoil and readjustment that comes with change – conversely, I do relish the freshness of a new start – but with the way I over-think things. As soon as a new world of opportunity opens up for me, I start trying to plan it.

Planning is good. Planning can help to alleviate anxiety, can lead to greater productivity, and can even provide motivation and inspiration. Planning the next few weeks, or even the next few months, seems to me to be a generally positive activity. The problems start when you realise that you are trying to plan things that are going to happen in 10 years, 20 years – when you start trying to plan out the rest of your life, and think you can act now in a way that will influence these things directly.

This is my downfall. As soon as I decided I was going to give writing a real go, that I was going to actually start writing a novel, I started to worry that I wouldn’t have enough money in 10 years’ time to settle down and have a family. Not to mention all the worries I had about the 10 years running up to that – whether I should be trying to get a part-time job, how difficult it might be for me to get a job later with a big gap on my already sparse CV, how I was going to keep paying my rent if I wasn’t making any money.

Last Friday, I got turned down for yet another library job, and I decided to partake in National Novel Writing Month this year. I got up the following Monday at 9am (early for me, shame on me, I know I know) and started planning not one, but two novels – I wanted to work on something different for NaNoWriMo in order to avoid the paralysis that might ensue if I tried to work on my “actual” novel. I was excited, enthusiastic, and felt like I had a purpose in life for the first time in a long time.

But meanwhile, every night when I went to bed I started thinking about careers and mortgages and how many words I might be able to write in a day and what I could do part-time on the side of writing and…

By Wednesday I was exhausted. I went to bed early, feeling anxious, and fell asleep almost instantly for an hour – then woke up and couldn’t sleep again until after 4.

Yesterday was not pretty.

I’ve no idea why I didn’t just stay in bed for the day. I turned into a ball of misery and ended up sitting my boyfriend’s flat crying about EVERYTHING.

I knew that my thinking pattern was highly self-destructive, but it just helped to hear him say it. He looked at me and said: “No-one can plan what they’re going to be doing for the rest of their lives. Even if there’s something you really, really want to do, all you can do is try, or just do it as long as you want to or can do it. Sure, what you do now affects what happens in the future, but decisions you make and how you spend your days right now does not have a direct bearing on what you’ll be doing when you’re 40 – not in the way you think it does.”

Wise words. I really hope I’ve learned my lesson on this one. Sometimes you just need to take each day as it comes. I do have to do some thinking about whether I need to look for a part-time job, but beyond that I really should be taking this year to just try things out and see how I enjoy it. See if I can bear sitting down every day knowing I have to write a certain amount. See if I can actually do it.

So I’m taking the rest of today off. And if I have insomnia next week I’ll sleep in as late as I want to!

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.

Fox

The body was unmarked, undamaged, laid out in such a way that it might have been asleep. He started and hesitated when he saw it, for a moment thinking that it might wake and run away. But something about the way the fox was stretched out on its side, its felt-like ears pointed forward and unmoving, made him realise.

Someone had obviously moved the corpse, placing it on the grass verge of the narrow path over the railway bridge. It was a strange place for roadkill – the side of a footpath, where the only roads nearby were through a small housing estate on one side of the bridge, and the town’s church car park on the other. A car in the night, perhaps, had swung through the estate too fast, seeing the darting fox too late – but why carry the body so far from the road? He thought of poison, but this was somehow too upsetting to contemplate. The swift blow of a car bumper, the sudden stunning flash of the bright headlights, before everything went dark – it seemed more dignified. The thought of a slow, choking death was too gruesome to contemplate.

He had been living in that suburban housing estate for over twenty years, and was accustomed to the autumn surge of wildlife activity. Foxes would regularly steal across his garden, going unseen but for the flick of a tail as they dashed through the fence. And in the past couple of years there seemed to be a new colony of grey squirrels furrowing their way into the landscape. But he had never before seen a dead animal in this neighbourhood. These tragedies usually belonged to motorways and dark country roads – badgers, rabbits, and the occasional unfortunate cat.

He was not a sentimental man, but something about this poor animal brought a sting to his eyes. The thick, healthy coat, perhaps. The perfect turn of its ears and the thick sheaf of grey whiskers.

On his way back home, made slightly lopsided by four pints of Guinness, he forgot about the dead fox until he reached the apex of the bridge. With a half-stumble, he briefly contemplated turning and going around the long way. Then he raised his jumper sleeve to cover his mouth and nose, and stepped past the body into the light of the street lamps.

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.