Monday, December 12, 2011

50,000 Words...

Towards the end of October on a Sunday morning at the Unicorn café in Evanston, a man walked up to me as my mouth was full of granola, my hand holding a pen, and my brain was wishing the caffeine from my coffee would make it’s way through my body a little faster. I was trying to find words to turn into sentences for my usual journaling adventure. This is typically how this man finds me upon his sporadic, brief visits to my table. I forget his name but every now and then, he walks up to me and asks how my writing is going when my mouth is full and the words won’t come.
“How’s it going?” he asked, nodding toward my motionless hand.
I nod, swallow and say. “Good.”
“Have you heard about NanoWriMo?”
“Nope.” I said having no idea what he just asked.
“It’s a writing challenge where you write fifty thousand words in thirty days. You should try it.”
Immediately I jotted down the website vowing to look it up when I got to work. I thanked him and he walked away as fast as he appeared.
When I got to work and looked up this challenge I remembered that I wanted to do it last year but had missed the entire thing. A client of mine completed it last year and is currently still working on editing what she wrote. When I asked her how she did it, she said that every spare minute was spent writing.
“The point is to get it all down. You can always go back and edit it.” she reminded me. The perfectionist part of me hates this. She does not believe in rough drafts but in perfect first drafts which don’t exist so I never actually produce anything.
Five years ago I completed a book of short stories that I started when I was about twenty two. I had wanted to write a book since beginning my journey as a stylist but never got around to starting. One day, a couple of years after thinking about writing I had a beast of a client sit in my chair and bitch slap my soul in such a way that when I got home the only way for me to deal was to turn the computer on and let my fingers fly across the keyboard.
To the computer, I got to say what I wanted to say to this miserable idiot and it was glorious. I made myself laugh as I wrote, and felt lighter and happier. From that day forward I was hooked. I wrote constantly. Nothing felt better than writing after a day of lunatics. (well…writing and cookies…) I got to tell my side, say what I truly wanted to say and since it was all stored on my computer I didn’t have to cuss anyone out to their faces.
After Rob died, I got to see a whole new side of people and a whole new side of myself that I had not met before. Mostly people were unbelievably, overwhelmingly kind, and loving. There were a few sprinkled in that I wanted to punch in the face and some that didn’t know I was even dating anyone so it was extra special hard to keep the “happy face” on and pretend that I didn’t have a huge gaping hole where I once housed a kind of love that I didn’t know was possible.
Of course this prompted me to write even more. Since then I’ve bounced around the idea of combining my first book of short stories with the events of the last five years. Upon hearing about NanoWriMo I decided this was my opportunity to simply try and see what happens. I signed up immediately and waited for November first to roll around.
I shared my desire for this adventure with a client days before leaving for Atlanta to run the marathon and she said she had a few friends do it.
“You learn so much!” she exclaimed. “Your story and “voice” will change two, possibly three times but know that it’s all ok and part of the process. You have to write through all of it, allow it to happen and once the month is up, go back over it and see if there is anything you may actually want to use.”
This seemed like an awful lot of work. My “voice” is something I’ve been looking to find for some time now. I never really look too hard for it because it’s exhausting and my ideas seem to change so much while I’m writing. I don’t have a lot of patience but decide that I can dedicate one month of my life to this and see what happens. I may love it or hate it but either way, I need to do it to know.
I read through the Nano website and found that I needed to write a minimum of 1,667 words a day. There was a calendar posted with Chicago “Write-ins” where people meet up and spend a few hours writing together, challenging each other to word sprints. (word sprints are challenges where you write as many words as you can in “X” amount of time.) There was also a Nano Facebook page which I also promptly joined.
Off I went on November first, writing before and during my commute to work. I hand wrote as much as I could while on the train. I didn’t really know where I’d start. I had no actual plan, no outline, just a bunch of words that wanted me to try on to see what would happen. When I let go and waited for the words to come to me instead of forcing them or squeezing them out, it was practically effortless. I was amazed at how quickly I was able to produce the 1,667 words each day. I tried for more on my days off totaling three to five thousand words on those days.
Looking ahead I found that by November 15th, I would need about 25,000 words. I had a couple of days where I only wrote a few hundred words, hence my need for those three to five thousand word days. Plus Thanksgiving was happening and I would be in Florida visiting my mom’s family and doubted much would get done. I started getting up earlier, making coffee at home, and writing as much as I could before work. By November 13th, I had the 25,000 words.
I still had no idea what I was writing about. I had no clear direction or focus. The main character is a stressed out stylist in a long distance relationship and is finding herself desperate to leave the city she’s in for someplace new. I imagined separating the book in three parts. Part One would be the insanity of the character’s life as she knows it and would end in some kind of tragedy. Part two finds the character living in her new city, co-habiting with a man she doesn’t love and flashing back to what she had and Part three would be the shining light of finding new love, and a more fulfilling position at work.
At least that’s where I thought I would go with it. At 25,000 words though, I found myself wanting to switch from writing in first person to third person for some reason. I tried it and discovered my protagonist to be dull and lifeless. That lasted for only a single page before I switched back to first person. I also decided this wasn’t the time to be doing something that I was slower than normal at. I found that everyone on the “ChiWriMo” Facebook page was reminding each other, “December is for editing” so I kept at it in the first person, saving that single page to still add to my word count. This was also so I could remember that I could change anything at anytime.
While I wrote I kept a notebook with me always. I calculated how many words I had left to go each day and jotted down notes I wanted to remember for my characters, things I wanted to research and notes to myself either venting or reminding myself that I only had to write a little bit that day. I didn’t have to do all 50,000 words in one day. I had day where I decided not to write at all. I needed a break from the whole thing. I felt a little stale and the words weren’t coming as quickly as they once were. I did my best to trust that I would have a spurt of creativity eventually but it wasn’t happening at the moment I needed it to so I busied myself with other things.
I found a “write in” one Sunday afternoon in the Loop and joined six other writers in various word sprints and a little sharing about our lives and our novels in a small café. The energy of being with all these people alone was enough to fuel my three hours of almost non stop writing. There was no procrastination or distraction, just the silent support of like minded people with a similar goal. I really wanted to find a writing group for when this was all said and done to continue the experience.
My laptop accompanied me on my trip to Jacksonville Florida to see my family. I worked a little but didn‘t keep track of how much I was writing. On my flight back to Chicago, I worked more than I had during the two previous days.
I hit a wall so to speak with a week left to go. I felt I had too much to write in too little time. I was tired and still quite confused as to what I was actually going to end up with. My book would not have an ending at fifty thousand words. I dropped the idea of having the story be split into three parts and also decided to drop the relationship I had my character invested in. This of course created a huge divide in what I had written already and the direction I was now going in. Again, December is for editing right?
I wrote through the damn wall I felt myself hit, remembering the marathon, getting to sixteen miles and freaking out a little but doing it anyway, just to see how far I could go. I have an unfortunate tendency to start things with great enthusiasm only to have them taper off toward the end point or simply losing steam altogether and never finishing. I really didn’t want this to be one of those times. I took another twenty four hour break and got back to it.
On Sunday November 27th, with three days left to go, I found myself at Intelligentisa in the back corner of the café finding out I had nine thousand words left to go. The thought crossed my mind that I could essentially do it all today. I was off of work and had no plans. Jeff was working until five that afternoon. I wanted to spend some time with him and figured that I would work on this project until five, see where I was at, hang out with him then get back to it before bed.
I wrote a thousand words before I posted on the “ChiWriMo” Facebook wall that I was at Intelli and if anyone was up early, and wanted to join me, come on by. I needed some support. Within minutes this woman Connie responded and said that she would be there in twenty.
Connie’s personality is bright and bubbly. I immediately like her and was thrilled to have her company. We did a couple of word sprints after she caughtup to me in her caffeine consumption. I feel incredibly focused despite the busyness of the café and general noise of the espresso machine and the music playing. The longer we stay the more determined I was to finish.
“I think I’m going to go down the street to the SAIC teacher’s lounge. It’s quieter there. Do you wanna come?” Connie asked. She’s a math teacher and yes, something quiet sounds good.
“I do!” I exclaimed and we packed up.
It was cold and drizzly outside. I felt grateful that it wasn’t some bright sun shining afternoon so I didn’t feel guilty for staying in all day. Beautiful days where it’s fabulous enough to enjoy being outside are rare in Chicago and I always hate being indoors when graced with gorgeous weather.
Connie and I got up to the teacher’s lounge and spread out. My notebooks were splayed out on a round table I’m sitting at and my computer is next to them. We’ve dragged over comfy desk chairs from a computer and desk lined wall instead of the smaller chairs that were at the table originally. We do a couple of word sprints before Connie moves to another table to charge her laptop. We’re quiet for about an hour before she pipes up and says she’s going to 7Eleven. For whatever reason I’m craving junk food and walk over there with her. I buy a small bag of banana chips, a Snickers bar and a bag of peanut butter M&M’s for reasons I can’t seem to understand.
Connie grabbed two giant burritos.
Once back in the room and at our respective desks we get back to work. I had all of my purchases laid out on my notebook and was writing in between taking bites of this or that. Connie is doing the same while updating me on the whereabouts of the CTA “write-in”. A group of writers boarded the CTA brown line earlier and were writing together until the end of the line before turning around and coming back. One girl was updating Connie on where they were so she could post it to Facebook. I had wanted to do this one but was ultimately glad I stayed put.
At 4:10pm, I moved over to a couch and calculated the words I left to write before I hit 50,000. I nearly lost my mind when I saw it was only 816. I texted Jeff to see where he wanted to meet up and to share my word count. He wanted to meet back at Intelligentsia at 5:15pm. If I wrote fast enough, I could totally do this.
For the next hour I wrote as fast as I could while still coming up with actual sentences that meant something and were conducive to the story of course. I couldn’t believe how fast it was happening. There was no time or space for my inner critic to pipe up and shoot down whatever I was writing. Oddly enough, I was pleased with everything I had come up with so far.
I hit my goal of 50,000 words just after 5pm. The final word count was 50,022. I smiled at the computer screen before snatching my phone and texting Jeff.
“Connie!” I squealed. “I did it! I made it!”
“You did?!” she jumped out of her chair and came running toward me, both of us clapping and laughing. She gave me a giant hug and we continued the kind of squealing only girls and some gay men can accomplish.
“I’m so happy for you!”
“Thank you!!! I’m so glad it’s done!” I laughed.
“Update your word count!”
I went over to the computer next to hers and updated my final word count on the NanoWriMo web page feeling another giant sense of accomplishment. It was done. A whole month went by and one day at a time, I made it. Despite my brain feeling like absolute mush by the end, I was happy beyond measure to have done this and excited to see where the story would continue to go once I picked through it and figured out what path I would take with it.