My writing · Personal

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Ever since I was a young child, I have been fascinated with writing. I remember being about seven years old and elaborately planning and writing my first “novel”: an autobiographical novel from the point of view of a girl called Lizzie-Anna. I obsessively plotted out every aspect of her life – the fictional land in which she lived, her family, her friends, her first crush, her school. I drew out pictures of her with her friends, wrote lists of all the classes that her school would offer, and drafted maps of the her home country. It was such an escape for me. As the years passed, I continued writing and creating stories. More often than not, they were rip-offs of Jacqueline Wilson novels but with the names changed.

Then for some reason…I stopped.

I don’t know if it was because I started high school and my life got more hectic, but suddenly these characters and stories stayed in my head until I was given a task appropriate to my ideas – a creative writing essay, for example. My love for telling stories was still there, and I loved seeing the words weave sentences in front of my very eyes. It was almost like my characters had taken on lives of their own and were just sitting in my head, waiting for the chance to jump out onto paper.

In 2008 or so, I learnt about NaNoWriMo, in which writers (mainly amateurs) from all over the world take on the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel over the course of November. As Maya Angelou once said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”, and NaNo embraces this idea by encouraging everyone who’s ever wanted to write a novel to just get it all out of their system, the focus being on quantity of words rather than quality. The idea really appealed to me, but sounded daunting, so I didn’t make my first attempt at the challenge until 2009. I failed. So, I tried again in 2011. I managed to reach around 26,000 words in total, but again, I failed. It didn’t really matter to me though, because I knew I had tried my best under those circumstances (i.e. being in the middle of my Standard Grades and then my Advanced Highers) and it was just nice to get those words out again.

Last year I missed NaNoWriMo, having just started uni, and more to the point, having just been diagnosed with depression. Writing anything seemed like a chore back then. However, this year, despite still not being a picture of mental health, I decided to give it a go. I have hardly any contact time at uni this semester, so it seemed ideal – I would be able to cram in a good hour or two of writing per day. My ideas started coming to me in September and I wrote them all down, eager to get started.

Then, as the clock flicked to midnight on the 1st of November, I got writing. And damn, it felt good.

I’ve felt over the past few months that my relationship with words has become more and more profound. They seem to be the only things that have the power to hold me in complete rapture. It’s almost like a spiritual relationship. I go to poetry slams, I write observational poetry in my head as I go about my everyday business, I quote Plath and, well, I write novels.

We’re not even halfway through the month and already I’ve written over 29,000 words. I’ve found it an incredibly liberating experience. Whereas in the past, NaNoWriMo was just something I had to fit in around everything else I enjoyed doing in life, this time around, it has been my release. I’ve really been struggling recently with the whole “loss of pleasure in things that you usually enjoy” aspect of depression, but being able to write every day gives me the chance to escape my own banal life and get lost in the fictional world that I made up. It’s the most wonderful escapism I’ve ever experienced. The fact that I’ve toted up a huge word count is another reason I’ve kept going – it’s so rewarding to see the thousands rack up each day, as you get closer and closer to that elusive 50,000. The more words you write, the more words you want to write. Progress inspires motivation.

Another amazing aspect I’ve discovered during this year’s NaNo is the social aspect of it. In previous years, I didn’t know anyone who was taking the challenge as well and being of school age, I didn’t really fancy trying to find “grown ups”, who I didn’t know, to go and write with. This year, I’ve completely thrown myself into socialising with other writers. It was nerve-wracking at first (read: I almost had a panic attack before going to my first write-in and when I did make it, I huddled myself away in a corner with merely more than a hello. Anxiety disorders can be very cruel sometimes), but I persevered. Although I was shy at my first write-in, it made me feel so good, knowing that I’d made the effort and that other people were going through exactly the same stresses as I was. I persevered, and went to my second write-in today, making more of an effort to socialise. It really paid off and I had some good laughs, as well as sprints with other writers. It’s been amazing to find such a supportive community. Despite the seemingly competitive nature of NaNo, it’s actually the complete opposite and you can guarantee that if you’re struggling, there will be somebody willing to cheer you on. It makes me so proud to know that I managed to say a great big “hell no!” to my depression and anxiety and throw myself in there, for better or for worse. For better, as it has turned out.

This year’s NaNoWriMo has been fantastic so far and I’ve gained so much from it – a renewed passion for words, and even more importantly, a better sense of belonging.

My writing · Personal

Dear Mrs Role Model…

Dear Mrs Role Model,

Isn’t it amazing how you have been so significant in my life when I was just a fleeting presence in yours? Every night, you must go home from work, mark homework, stress and strain over current pupils, look after your family, watch TV, play piano. I see no reason why should ever need to think of me again. But that’s the funny thing. I think about you all the time.

I think about how you were so strong and sassy and well…different. Not in a bad way, not at all. Every other teacher who taught me my “ta”s from my “te-te”s were just how you expected a teacher to be, the image engrained into our brains by years of frumpily-dressed primary school teachers. Don’t get me wrong, they were all lovely and I can’t imagine my life having never known them. But they didn’t sparkle like you. I moved on and now, when looking back, all I think is “yes, she was nice.” But you shone like they didn’t. You came across as being in love with your job. You weren’t just some person who dreamt of performing and then settled into a teaching position out of convenience, the kind of person I supposed I would become before I met you. You had style, you spoke with unbridled enthusiasm about Beethoven, you listened to me like a friend, you joined in with my bitching sessions when I was having a hard time with troubled friendships, sometimes you even asked for my advice like I was an equal.

When in the depths of my depression I realised I wouldn’t ever be able to make it as a singer and I gave up all ambition, believing myself to be talentless, undeserving of good fortune and generally nothing special, it was my memory of you I turned to for hope and guidance. Your radiance lit up the dark tunnel that seemed to be my life.

You didn’t care what people thought of you, you got stupidly excited about silly things, you choreographed dance routines on the spot, you travelled the world and went to festivals with your family. I went to your home, adorned in family snapshots, gig tickets, colourful mementos and trinkets, and all I could think was how wonderful it must be to be you, to have lived and loved, learned and helped others to learn.

Thank you, Mrs Role Model, for helping me realise there is more to life than perfection – there’s love, there’s adventure, there’s satisfaction from inspiring others. I keep seeing you in my dreams and I start to tell you all this, but then I awake and you disappear. But my admiration for you will never end like these disheartening dreams. You gave me the directions to the path which I’m now travelling, called me back when I headed in the wrong direction trying to live in someone else’s shadow. You taught me so much, both inside and outside the classroom.

I often listen to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and remember that concert we went to together, and the way your little girl made you buy chips for me then wouldn’t let go of me when I needed to go home. I’m listening to it now. I hear the opening chords of the Allegretto and I feel overwhelmed, because they remind me so much of all these unsaid words. Maybe I’ll share them with you some time. Maybe this week, maybe in a couple of months, maybe next year. And do you want to know why?

You are everything I hope to ever be.

With eternal admiration and respect,