One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back
Updated: Jan 9, 2020
The final week of Nanowrimo is quickly approaching and my personal word count is glowering at me.
For those who may be unfamiliar, Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November for the past twenty years, Nanowrimo has challenged people to write a novel in a month. That’s 50,000 words total, averaging 1667 words each day for 30 days. It is an insane, exhilarating, exhausting, and all-together amazing experience.
I first discovered Nano as a sophomore in high school, drawn by the challenge and the community of writers who rallied together each November. I was inspired and encouraged, putting in around 23,000 words that year. I have won twice (winning being that you reached the 50,000 word goal) in the years I have participated since then. Yet I am still most proud of my valiant first attempt because it drew out more words in me than I thought I possessed.
But this year feels more desperate than the others. Part of it, I think, is the story I am working on. I have been chipping away at this novel since December 2015. I fell short of winning Nano, working on this same novel, in 2016 by only 7000 words. I put in nearly a third of my word count in that final week but there were still 7000 words I could not conquer. To be honest, I felt like a complete failure after that attempt even though the only expectations came from me.
Even outside of Nano, this project has continually vexed me. I’ve reworked and rewritten so many aspects, cut characters and scenes and many of my darlings. I’ve labeled this year’s project as “Draft 2.5,” in the hopes of finally making it through the maze of this plot and ending up with something I can carry into revisions.
I’m just shy of 25,000 words and running out of words to give. Unlike my very first 23,000 words for Nano, there is little pride in what I do have for this year’s project. I struggle not to feel like I need to have something solid, something real, to show others so that I might prove all this effort and time spent in writing has been worthwhile. That I’m worthwhile. I fear that I will have put all of this time into something that will never work.
The Nano community has always been full of grace and encouragement for all, no matter what your word count come that 30-day mark. And yet my own expectations for how much progress I make or the quality of my writing all too often drowns out their positivity.
I have loved writing since I was little. It was my constant amid all the changes of growing up. Anxiety was my constant too, and all too often I think it bleeds into my writing (or lack thereof).
When I was in therapy, two cognitive behavioral practices stood out to me. The first was the recognition of the word “should” in my thinking, and to start removing it from use. The second was the mantra “One step forward, two steps back,” and to focus on the progress made despite the setbacks.
I have been thinking about both of these in regards to this project. No one else has expectations for me about my writing and yet...
I want to - need to - finish something. I feel I have to prove to myself one way or another whether this dream is reality or whimsy. To be honest, I don’t often feel like I have what it takes to be a writer. You must be disciplined in your craft and receptive to criticism when it comes to revisions and publication. And I think, on some level, you need to be able to trust your gut to commit words to paper. To trust your gut that the words you have to offer are worthwhile.
I wish could leave you with a bit more positivity in this post, but sometimes there are hard days, and I want you to know you aren’t alone. Some years Nano is tougher than others, and sometimes it’s just not the right time for that particular project. Sometimes you take one step forward and lose ten. Sometimes you have to wrestle the doubt and go back to the drawing board.