Every writer has that thing that haunts them, the evasive, wispy flickering of a story, essay or poem that lingers at the backs of their minds. It makes their fingers twitch, makes them mutter lines of dialogue or exposition that bubbles up from their subconscious to become almost real, almost tangible. It is at these moments that we find ourselves daydreaming, riding that fleeting wave of creative energy before the sensation crashes onto the shores of reality. We blink then, and suddenly, life is all too real, all to urgent and pressing again.
I have been haunted by several of these images over the last six months. I have a notebook half-filled with an assortment of hastily scrawled ideas and quotes that I have obsessively hoarded in preparation for this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I starved myself creatively all the while, settling for splashing in the tidal pools the waves formed rather than jumping straight into the ocean. I intended to dedicate an entire month to my craft when I was free from the limitations of academia.
My creative mind was not idle during this time. While I waited, I gathered resources. I plotted out my writing space and system: a two binder system with B5 pages (one for outlining and the other for actual writing), a standing pencil case, two fountain pens filled with fragrant purple ink and another with black ink. I read about writing and writers, comparing their strategies and problems to my own, taking comfort that so many great writers struggled with many of the same anxieties that drive my creative process. I followed writers on Twitter and dreamed about the creative life that I wanted to lead.
But lingering in my subconsciousness was the fear of the boundless freedom that this month would provide. Writing a short novel would be nothing like the inconsistent creative bursts that fuels my blog, nor would it be the rigid limitations ascribed to my academic and journalistic writing. It would also be very different from the online RP I indulged in for so many years, where I just had to create a single character to exist in a custom-made world. No, this time, I would have absolute freedom and control over my writing, forced to invent my own parameters and work with them over several thousand words. There would be no one watching. It would just be me, my system and I.
On June 30th, I was ready to write, willing to take the plunge into this bizarre adventure in writing. After much procrastination on July 1st, I sat down and cranked out my first thousand words.
On the second day, I cranked out another thousand.
On the third, I hit a wall.
Every word I wrote felt…wrong: raw and unrefined and incomplete. For the last three years, I had been regularly working on articles ranging from 500-1500. When I sat down to write, I would crank out half a draft, circle back, revise, continue. It was a habit, a writing method I had developed to survive UG. What distressed me was that every resource that I read in my preparation to tackle Camp NaNoWriMo told me that I should not worry about how bad this first draft was. A first draft is a place to make mistakes, to find a path toward the elusive vision looming on my mind’s horizon.
Restraining my urge to edit was agonising. I painfully plodded forward with another 500 words before I succumbed to the urge, circled back and wrote another 2000 words in yet another unsatisfactory draft. Afterwards, I felt frustrated and even a little ashamed, almost like I had failed some test of being a writer. I had fallen back on my word count goals because I had caved into that anxious perfectionism that was getting me through school.
This, I realise, is the stage that many writers stop because years ago, it was the stage that I stopped at. It is incredibly frustrating to fail to write a perfect first draft when the image in your head is so beautiful and bright. You could write for hours, but feel like you’re flopping around like beached fish rather than skimming gracefully over your screen or page. I read once that writing is like hacking your way through the untrodden underbrush before, after hours of hacking and stumbling, breaking into a clearing, looking up and gazing at the stars.
This first week taught me that we all find our way to this clearing differently and not every bit of advice can work for you on your first attempt. For me, once I began to continue writing after those initial false starts, the fog obscuring my path to that vision began to clear. I found that I was more intimately attuned to the story and my characters’ psyche than I had been when I started. I knew things that I would not have discovered if I had plodded on with that terrible handful of words I wrote on day 1.
Today, as I prepare to tackle week two, I accept the slothful reality of my method. For me to write a thousand good words, I need to write two or three thousand bad ones, building my stories on the ashes of crumpled papers, long scratches and extensive deletions. This is my method, my semi-efficient method at hacking at the brush obscuring my way to my vision, my way of diluting the muck of my mind so that I can flow.
This first week of Camp NaNoWriMo was frustrating, but also rewarding. I didn’t hit the word count goals that I wanted, and that’s okay. Sticking to this challenge for the first week – false starts, flaws and all – helped to shape my rhythm. I am still nervous about facing the page, and even this blog post was a way of me procrastinating my writing away, but I have learned new ways to deal with that fear and reroute it into my writing.