Two months ago, I was hugging a hoodoo in Utah and smiling toward the camera when the phone rang.
“We would like to offer you a spot in our MFA Creative Nonfiction program.”
Not sure if I heard her correctly, I asked, “Does this mean I’ve been accepted?”
Accepted indeed, I realized the real work was ahead of me, specifically, developing the discipline of a serious writer. Through a year of self-guided studies from my front porch in Tennessee, one key message emerged, a writer doesn’t truly know what their book is about until they write a first draft. Writing a first draft helps a writer see beyond the events of “what happened” to a universal theme, a story in which we can all relate.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was set to begin November 1st and the timing was perfect. I could write a first draft in November, process it in December, and be ready to start my MFA in January. Besides writing a first draft, I hoped participating in NaNoWriMo would help me develop a daily writing routine and learn to write first, edit later.
Now that November is behind us and I dropped 50,000+ words into the Word-O-Meter validation box, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the lessons learned during November 2015.
1. I learned the stories we tell each other aren’t always true.
As I wrote, I revisited notes, letters, journals and other pieces of documentation for the first time in over a decade. As I reviewed them, I realized the stories I’ve been telling myself and others over the years varied from reality. We mold our stories by choosing which to tell and how we frame them. By revisiting documentation compiled in the moment, different stories emerged, ones of uncertainty, vulnerability, fear, confusion, but also humanity, kindness and transformation. I re-experienced the events of the moment and contrasted them with the perspective of distance. Writing a first draft helped me see themes I hadn’t anticipated and gave me a better idea of the tone, focus and structure for the rewrite.
2. I learned to schedule writing time.
The past year, I tried writing in the evenings after I came home from work, but my mind was tired and writing strained. I realized I’m most productive in the mornings, so I decided to devote my most productive time of the day to writing. I started waking up at 4:30am so I could write for 90 minutes before going to work. That meant going to bed at 8:30, eating dinner earlier, and saying “no” to some evening activities. Writing became my priority and I shifted my day around scheduled writing time.
3. I learned to reach out to a writing community.
Writing is a solitary process, but support and accountability from a writing community are invaluable components. Without a writing community and accountability, I won’t write. I didn’t know anyone participating in NaNo in person or in my social media network, so I sought out a community online. I connected with other participants through a support group on Facebook, which I learned about from my favourite Australian podcast for writers. I also connected with participants on Instagram I found using the #NaNoWriMo hashtag. I communicated with my writing community daily and their support and affirmations helped keep me motivated.
4. I learned it probably would be better if I rewrote it.
I wrote a blog post about NaNo the first week in November and asked Steven if he could give me feedback. I read it to him, thinking he would love it. He loved it so much he said, “It probably would be better if you rewrote it.”
Tough love, maybe, but he was right. He helped me pick a couple themes from the post that stood out and ditch the rest. I rewrote it and it was better. With anything, first drafts usually suck, but within them exist snippets of potential.
5. I learned we are influenced by one another.
A writing community and friends can provide support and accountability, but as humans, we judge ourselves based on others’ successes and set backs. Novice or instructor, creatives are all on a path to reach their full potential. Defining our work based on the successes or failures of others is a sure way to stray from the path. Just as many have done with me this month, I strive to congratulate others’ successes and offer encouragement in their set backs.
6. I learned I can write anywhere.
Before November, I waited for a mysterious muse, an old man with a purple beard and wand, to show up and hit me with some writing magic. I rarely saw him, except once after too much sangria. This month, I created my own muse by carrying my laptop in my purse and declaring snippets of writing time throughout the day. I found time to write after yoga, waiting to meet a friend, and sitting at the hair dressers.
7. I learned to manage distractions.
By day six, I was 3,500 words behind my overall word goal and the culprit was social media. It was easier to read my news feed than write, so I let it take up a chunk of my morning. I was determined to write 50,000 words by the end of November and at the rate I was going, I was setting myself up to fail. My phone was the main source of distraction, so I started leaving it on the other side of the room while I wrote. I also turned wi-fi off on my laptop and wrote in 30 minute increments, then turned wi-fi on for 5 minutes. I treated myself like a kindergartener and rewarded good behavior. Each day was a struggle though, but my self-discipline improved over the month.
8. I learned procrastination and productivity are like two beans on a stalk.
I wrote four blog posts, a letter of recommendation, organized my socks, created a website and social media accounts, all in an effort to procrastinate from writing for NaNoWriMo. The next time I have several small projects to tackle, I will plan something big and rely on procrastination to get them done.
9. I learned talking helps me write faster.
Determined to catch up the first week, I experimented with the dictation feature on my Mac and watched my writing speed triple. I wrote 4,000 words the first day I used dictation and finally saw my cumulative word count surpass the line on the graph.
10. I learned mornings are my favorite time of day.
Waking up at 4:30 the first week was difficult. I spilled coffee, fell into my writing chair, stared at the wall. By day 7, I adjusted to the 4:30am schedule and started waking up a couple minutes before the alarm went off. I made coffee, fed the dogs, lit a candle and sat down to write. I enjoyed the calm mornings and the time I gave myself to reach a personal goal. I felt a sense of accomplishment as my story progressed each day and the cumulative word graph grew.
11. I learned November is just a month.
If I can write 50,000 words in November, what’s keeping me from writing 50,000 words in February or August? I was determined to write 50,000 words in a month, and I found a way to do it. The self-discipline is empowering and I realize I have it in me to do another month and another.
12. I learned declaring victory meant shifting into unfamiliar territory.
I reached the 50,000 word milestone November 25th, but I didn’t validate my word count until later. I waited. I was coasting in the familiarity of being a NaNo participant, sharing my word count, but keeping my writing to myself. Validating my word count meant this current story was over and a new, unfamiliar, story would begin.
I wondered, if I validated my word count and NaNo comes to an end:
- Will I continue this new writing discipline that I created?
- Will I keep the same schedule and find snippets during my day to write?
- Will I continue to write without the encouragement of my existing writing community?
- Will I continue to say yes to myself and my goal, or will I start saying no to myself and yes to others again?
The answers to these questions will be the true test of success and ones I plan to answer in my next post. Now that I validated my word count, I realize this part of my story has ended, and a new story is ready to begin.