When NaNoPrep starts gnawing at your creative soul

What happens when your NaNoPrep begins to gnaw at your soul?  Here’s what it looks like for me: preparing is fun and awesome until about a week before.  I’ve been learning all about outlines and craft and cycling through possibilities, sorting things out, feeling like progress has been made.  But then I see that I don’t have a complete outline, which is what I wanted before the start of the writing challenge. Then doubts set in. I start to see plot holes and parts of the story that need to go together seem to butt heads relentlessly.  I find a way through, then I question it.  Then I’m happy with it, and then I panic. I start wondering if I should work on one of my other stories. I start worrying that maybe, as the Oracle said to Neo in The Matrix, this story has “got the gift, but it’s waiting for something.” Another writer, maybe.

This is the first time I’ve recognized the pattern of prepare-and-despair, but it’s the third time I’ve gone through it this year. For the last few days I’ve been moody.  I’ve felt actual anguish over this thing that I do for fun.

Yesterday was the first day of Camp NaNoWriMo and we were going away for the day, so I got up dutifully and coughed up some words on a summary I’m working on, came up with some new possibilities, circled back to my dead ends and met my despair again.  I’m not sure how it is that I can be such a jerk to myself for days or weeks without realizing it, but there it was. My scared ego pushing me around and ruining my story party.

Our day trip involved beautiful weather and a lovely garden on the water with a dock and a kayak. I stood in the breeze and felt the annoying weight of my unresolved outline issues and the fear that I won’t ever get to the bottom of this story.  And the fact that it was taking away from such a lovely day when I should have been able to relax and renew – that was unacceptable.

I had to remind myself: THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN.  I don’t do it for a living, and even if I did, this approach of prepare-and-despair certainly wouldn’t get me where I want to go.  I don’t expect it to be easy all the time, but I want to be able to enjoy the challenging aspects of it.  Thinking about this reminded me of something that Sharon Salzberg says about meditation, “Rest your attention lightly—as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower.” I was not being the butterfly on the flower. I’ve had the story in a chokehold and I was trying to wring the outline out of it.

So I told myself I needed to lighten up.  I want to have FUN this month.  I love these characters. I love some of the ideas I’m playing with.  I need to stand next to the story instead of trampling all over its personal space.

In June I got really analytical and Type A about all of this.  I made maps, I interviewed my characters, I worked on the premise and the theme and the moral dilemmas and how the characters would change relative to one another and how they would drive each other. It was a blast, until it wasn’t.

So now that it’s July and it’s Camp NaNoWriMo and I have the best cabin mates ever, how about I just put my visor down over my eyes and use the freaking force.  Trust that I’ve loaded up my subconscious and given my muse some requests – not marching orders – and just take the month of July and WRITE SOME SCENES.

I made that deal with myself. I’m going to try to lighten up and write some scenes, and just enjoy this.  Because my iron-grip approach is not working, so what do I really have to lose?

I may have to remind myself throughout the month, but yesterday’s promise made today a whole different writing experience. I put on my playlist and said to myself, Self, I’m going to make a latte, and while I’m doing that, you just enjoy this music and if you happen to come up with something fun, we’re going to write about it. And we won’t worry about how it fits or doesn’t fit. We can do that later.

And just like that, as the espresso machine whirred its life-igniting brew, my little creative spirit told me how old my main character is. And how much older her best friend is than she is. And how they’re not just roommates, they’re roommates in the funeral home where my main character works.  And there was this one time when my main character stuck up for her best friend at my main character’s high school graduation…

And so on. I got very excited and easily met my word quota for today. And I have a hunch that the reason things weren’t working before is that my ego was trying to dictate the story to me to get the job done – and getting it wrong – instead of letting my love and excitement lead me to suggestions.

I know it’s a balance between structuring a coherent story and letting my imagination run wild, but I’m giving my ego the month off and promising, because I know this is true, that when that ego comes back, some of my questions will be answered. Or they’ll be irrelevant, in which case why was I worried about them to begin with?

Patricia A. Powell

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