A Novel Month

Winner CertificateI told only a few people I was attempting it. And I always said “attempting,” as if this was word was a magic talisman to ward off any accusation of failure.

Usually I am all bravado at the beginning of adventures. I’ll declare them, like a European explorer, then push my ship off into the unknown with impunity. I’m going to climb Mt. Rainier! I’m working on a farm for the summer! I’m moving to Europe! This time, I wasn’t so sure. There was a real possibility of failure, and I wasn’t sure what I would do with failure, so I merely whispered the attempt to a few friends.

“I’m going to–I’m going to try to–write a novel in November.”

National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo for those in the know–has long been familiar to me. I’ve been tempted a few times, but never felt that my schedule had enough holes in it for me to insert the required 1,667 average words a day. This year, with a somewhat lighter teaching load, I was willing to risk it.

Each day, I’d sit down for an hour or two to hammer out a tale based on a premise that had been rattling around in my head for a few years. Along the way, I added characters and settings and names. Many of the experiences and places were ones that I’ve had before, so at times it felt like I was making a mosaic out of torn-up snapshots from my own life. There were moments when, I confess, I was desperately afraid that I’d accidentally written a contemporary version of Heidi. Sometimes I wrote more than I was supposed to, often I wrote less, and one day I wrote nothing at all.

This morning, I typed the last words of my novel. And while it was not the glorious summit that I have dreamed of in more idealistic days (though, being a Dahlstrom, it of course ended on an actual mountain summit), it was a learning-rich experience, and one for which I’m deeply thankful.

Though I’m sure I’ll think of more later, today in celebration of finishing I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned in this month of writing:

  1. I can write a novel. With these words, I’ve fulfilled the deepest goal of the NaNoWriMo organization, the knowledge that I, a non-professional writer, can craft a novel-length work of fiction. At all. The month deadline–as I understand it–is put in place to keep writers from endlessly editing and censoring. The hope is that, in the end, we have a draft in all its messy, complete glory.
  2. Writing a novel is difficult. From the outside, it has always been easy for me to dream of the books I could write. In the trenches of crafting a fictional world, I wrote myself into ridiculous corners and spent insane amounts of time on tasks like calculating time zones and poring over Swiss rail timetables. While there were a few days here and there when I felt inspired and words dripped fluidly from my fingers, there were more times when sitting down to write was an act of will, requiring all my patience and faith that the solutions would present themselves, if I just kept writing.
  3. Writing, while it remains a passion, isn’t my only passion. The emails that I received from the NaNoWriMo organization this month were all about overcoming writer’s block or decreasing distraction, and I found both topics annoying. They were predicated on the assumption that I was sitting in some coffeeshop, staring at a blank screen and waiting for words to arrive, compulsively batting away the Facebook tab that was “distracting” me. The reality was that I never had time for writer’s block, and sometimes the distractions really were more important than this experiment. The fact that I finished at all is more a gift from God than a testament to my own skill, because honestly it was far more important that I teach my classes well, meet students to edit papers than needed rewriting, helped plan the Christmas Banquet, made time for prayer and sleep, and actually talked to my husband than that I was able to write the required number of words every day. Like Thoreau, I have many lives to live, and I had only a limited amount of time for this one.
  4. I’ll write a novel again. Someday. Not in a month. But from this sprint I’ll take away the ability to have grace with myself. I’ll accept less than perfection on a first attempt, to pour out words and characters, actions and interactions, setting details that are doubtless gratuitous and more “says” and “replies” than I ever want to see again. I’ll remember what it felt like to follow characters to their logical conclusions, to realize that if someone isn’t completely sure and happy in the end, that’s OK. They’re heading that direction now, and I can rest in the imagination of the many roads they could all take.

In closing, I want to thank most of all my wonderful husband, Timmy, for his support through this month. For letting me write away my afternoons, and encouraging me when I felt like giving up, I’m everlastingly grateful.


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