November is National Novel Writing Month, and I have decided not to miss it this year by getting a jump-start on my novel now. So I visited the website to see what exactly writing a novel in the space of a month entails. As it turns out, there is surprisingly little too it. Simply an idea and the stamina and imagination necessary to churn out roughly 1500 words a day. The key to this is resisting the urge to revise as you write. A mighty urge in my case, as I revise with the same amount of thought I give breathing. Drafting and revision are nearly synonymous in my mind. Like twins conjoined at the chest, it would require a painstaking separation. Thoughts and emotions are tangled in sentences and paragraphs in my mind, and perhaps I am not up (or down) to the standards of the true novelist in training. So I googled up some random thoughts on writing to see what true writers think about the craft.
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” This is according to Anais Nin (1903-1977) the French born American novelist. To some extent I agree with that. Writers, good ones anyway, have the ability to make mental movies in the minds of their readers. Their words are like paint on a canvas. Their keyboard is akin to the keys on a piano. Letters to words to sentences and then suddenly paragraphs take shape and form a world in which the reader can live along side characters they will come to know as intimately as lovers. Fight Club author, Chuck Palahnuik (b.1961) described it best when he said, “The unreal is more powerful than the real because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”
I wasn’t born knowing how to write. There was a time when I could not quite take thoughts and transport them to paper. I did arrive in this world with a natural affinity for words and a need for an inner-life rich with story, internally generated and externally fed. I wasn’t taught to write either though I have taken many creative, and not-so, writing courses on a variety of writing related topics. And, I can’t teach anyone to write, and this in spite of my twenty years as an English teacher. Doris Lessing (b.1919), the Persian born British novelist, said something interesting about learning to write that I had never really thought about before, “I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work, and two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.” The hard work I agree with, most of the time, though there are those times when fingers fly and seem to almost be writing for you. The sacrifice of personal life I hope is not the norm. I have been captivated by the page, my own and that of another writer, but I am not certain that I would chose writing, or reading, over husband and family at this point in my life. As much as I long to be a writer professionally, there are things more important and more precious. I prefer the American feminist and author, Brenda Ueland’s(1891-1985), take on writing, “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten, absorbed, happy, and quietly putting on one bead after another.” Can one write the great American novel, as a Canadian in training, this way? At a 1500 a word per day clip?
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), a New Zealander and a writer, is quoted as have said, or written, “Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.” I can relate to this because until Will’s illness, I was much the same way. I am rapidly returning to it, and much like the American writer/activist Gloria Steinem ( b.1935) who has said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else,” I also feel that writing is the only thing I do over the course of a day or week that is not a waste of my time or an imposition on it.
It was the American playwright, Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), who provided me with the most useful tips. The first being this, “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”
And the more useful still, despite her own admonishment, “Nothing you write, if you hope to be good, will ever come out as you first hoped.” A reminder to tape to the side of the screen as I prepare for November at a probably more modest pace than 1500 words, but six months is a decent amount of training time for any type of marathon.