Friday, October 15, 2010

NaNoWriMo, My Old Friend

2002 was, shall we say, a very unpleasant year for me.

For starters, the country was still reeling with grief and uncertainty over 9/11, and the economy was struggling. Tensions ran high at work even early in the year. At our sister company, employees who had worked the factory floor for decades were laid off, with no real hope of finding new jobs in the local area.

In February my mother--who was truly my best friend, for better or worse--finally went to see a doctor about feeling tired and sick, and that funny feeling in her throat. By April, she'd been diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer that had already metastasized to her liver. It was too far along for chemo or surgery. It was too far along for anything but attempting to say goodbye, really. She passed away on May 22nd, my brother Ben's birthday.

The summer passed by in a sort of blur. I went to World Youth Day in Toronto, with three of my siblings and a small group from our parish. There were enjoyable, enlightening moments to be sure, but I also spent a certain amount of time hiding in bathroom stalls or facing into a window on the bus, crying because I couldn't call Mom and tell her about the places we were seeing, the people we'd met, how much I was coming to love hanging out with my little sister now that she was getting all grown up. For years, especially when I was overseas, everywhere I went, I tucked away facts and anecdotes to discuss with Mom. Now she was out of reach of even expensive long-distance phone calls. I couldn't even write in my journal as a substitute--writing about real life brought me face to face with too many strong feelings. It was still too raw. It would be nearly a year before I started keeping a journal again.

And in October, I lost my job. There was a company draw-down and I was one of the group that was cut.

Just to add to the stress level, I had purchased a house less than a year before, with all the expense and responsibility that goes with that. The winter heat bills were starting up. And Christmas was just around the corner. And now here I was, in a rural area with a very limited job market, jobless and broke and with who knew how many weeks to sit alone contemplating my own dark thoughts.

And that was when a friend of mine told me about this crazy challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the course of the thirty days of November. "You have to do it," she told me. "It'll be fun!" I wasn't so sure, but I was intrigued, nonetheless. Could I actually pull it off? I was curious. And at least it seemed more positive than spending the month counting flowers on the wall and crying. So I agreed to join her (and other recruited friends) in the madness of NaNoWriMo.

And you know, it was a surprisingly wonderful experience. My plot that year was a sort of sci-fi / fantasy thing involving time travel and a sinister secret society bent on fixing history to their advantage. My main character that year was a guy who had recently lost his wife, and into that poor character I poured all my own sorrow and pain and guilt and anger. And I brought him through it. I gave him a happy ending. It was cathartic. The story? Eh. It was probably too big for me. But I finished the challenge. And it, in a way, pulled me through what could have been a much worse time than it was. By the end of the year, I'd had two job offers out of three interviews, I'd been able to go to a midnight opening of "The Two Towers" halfway across the state on account of not having to work the next day (coldest line party EVER at at least -20F...but we prevailed), and we'd managed to live through the first holiday season without Mom with more laughter than tears. And I could say I'd written my first novel. Life was looking up.

NaNoWriMo will never again be for me what it was that first year, but it's largely because of that year that I keep coming back. I've now participated eight years (!!), finishing all but once. Two were hand-written, two were at least partially typed, one was written entirely on the Alphasmart Neo, and the remainder were computer projects. This year, I think I'm gonna go for hand-writing again, this time with pencil. I'll switch to the typewriter if it gets to be too much.

NaNoWriMo Number Nine? Bring it on.


sjb said...

That's an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it.

I have no such story to tell, with this my third NaNoWriMo. For me, NaNo is a symbol that in this modern culture of short attention spans, txtng and Twitter (do you really need all 140 chars?) that hundreds of thousands of everyday people will push themselves to create something long and hopefully meaningful. It speaks to a level of literacy and dedication that rarely gets celebrated, and I love it. I want my daughter and son to grow up in a world where it's just taken for granted that Mummy and Daddy write a book every November.


Justin said...

Man, what a story. That must have been one challenging year, for sure.

At about this time every year for the past three or so I start telling myself I should participate in NaNoWriMo. And yes, this year is no different. I start reading about everyone in the typosphere's plans to type (or handwrite) a novel and I get all inspired. I should do it. I should. Should...

(I did have a goal of writing a novel before I turned 30 and I managed to pull it off. However, writing another one would be lots of fun.)

Anonymous said...

I long ago learned the cathartic benefits of writing to deal with emotion. It might be to deal with rage, sorrow, or even joy. I'm so glad you found NaNo to help you through that time.

This year will be my third go around for NaNo. It will be mostly on manual typewriter, my preferred drafting tool. But we'll be on the road for part of the month and I'll handwrite pages during the trips. Thanks to your recent blog about pencils, my "road desk" will consist of the old style marbled composition books, several Ticonderoga # 2HB pencils and a reliable sharpener with a base that captures the shavings. Of course, I always have one of my Pelikan fountain pens with me.


Strikethru said...

Great post!