This year, I participated in that national phenomenon in which hundreds of writers succumb to mass insanity and attempt to write a full, 50,000-word novel manuscript in a single month—more commonly known as National Novel Writing Month. After the event’s conclusion, as I chattered incessantly about my experiences, my novel, what would come next, a friend asked what I learned from NaNoWriMo. I responded quickly, with a thousand different answers flying from my mouth, but later, when I contemplated the question further, nothing I had said felt genuine. And from there, I started to think.
I don’t know when I started writing; as far back as I can remember, since I learned to read and even before, there were always words in my head. It was an unscratchable itch, a compulsion to tell stories that led to elaborate role-playing games and twenty-three mostly empty notebooks. Yet, I remember a distinct hatred for writing, as clearly as I remember constantly writing. In middle school, I dragged my feet and moaned and groaned at every essay prompt, and my disdain only grew as years passed. Teachers compounded my lack of enthusiasm with “polite” suggestions: “Writing just isn’t your strong suit” or “Perhaps writing just isn’t for you” or “Not everybody can write”.
My participation in NaNoWriMo this year was almost a complete accident―a random chance of fate. On the suggestion of my history teacher, I enrolled in Creative Writing as an elective, and I thought that writing an article about NaNoWriMo for the magnet’s blog would make an excellent additional major grade, and then there I was, committed to writing a novel. I suppose it wasn’t completely a coincidence, though. There was a story idea that kept banging around in my head, keeping me up at night, plaguing me in my dreams. My Google Drive was full of half-written ideas and paragraphs. It seemed like the right time to finally put it to rest.
However, actually participating in NaNoWriMo terrified me. The thought of writing an article on my experiences was even more frightening. For a week, I did fine, but then I stalled, as insecurities crowded through me. “I’m not a writer,” I thought, “and I’m not good at writing, and I’m not going to be a writer.” I was just a girl, posing as something bigger than I was, pretending like I could do something hundreds of thousands of grown adults, with more experience and more drive than me, couldn’t do. These thoughts and more grew like angry weeds around my carefully cultivated story garden, too thick for me to hack through on my own, and stealing the vitality of my ideas and words.
I reached a low point around the end of the second week. I was ready to give up, to call it quits; I wasn’t behind yet, but my word count for the whole week was somewhere around 2,000 words, and my confidence was lower than ever. To make matters worse, I’d lost a scholarship essay contest I felt certain I would win. It seemed like a sign that I couldn’t do this. But then—then an old friend saved me.
Her name was Ella, and I met her in fifth grade. I was a new transfer student then, and somehow she ended up with the green panda notebook I used to scratch the writing itch, full of half-finished chapters and nonsensical words. Reading through it, she must have seen some potential in my ideas, because then we started writing a book together. We never came close to finishing, and our characters were flat, static monstrosities with every power under the sun, but we wrote gleefully, in love with our ideas. I came across a file of that old book in my email archives, and could hardly believe my eyes. I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that I had written so much with her.
From there, old memories flooded through me. In eighth grade, my best friend Haley and I tried to write a romance novel. It died too, but not until after we’d written fifteen chapters. In ninth grade, I’d written twenty pages of a fan fiction fantasy novel. Memories I’d forgotten, things I’d written, projects I’d started—I searched for them, in my old papers and notebooks. I spent hours reading through every bit of writing I’d saved, since elementary school. (In third grade, I’d written thirty pages of a bad horror story.) When I finished, I sat, staring at my old papers, staring at what I’d written for NaNoWriMo, and I thought.
For years, I’d been telling myself I wasn’t a writer. Other people had been telling me I wasn’t a writer. The internet had been telling me I wasn’t a writer. But there I was, surrounded by piles and piles of evidence to the contrary. A writer isn’t determined by how much she has written or how much she has published—a writer’s status is determined by whether or not she writes. And clearly, I wrote. A lot.
Which meant I could claim the title.
That realization changed the entire way I regarded myself. For so long, I’d stamped down the part of me that loved to write, and I hadn’t even realized I was doing it. I’d let other people tell me who and what I was, and what I could do. I lost a part of myself in doing that, but those heavy stacks of paper brought it back. NaNo redefined who I thought I was, and gave me back the confidence to call myself a writer. I won the next week, finishing my first draft on November 25.
I don’t know what I was expecting at the beginning of November. I was hoping for a completed manuscript, but I didn’t expect to accomplish it; more likely, I thought I’d end the challenge with a bunch of unrealistic characters and pages and pages full of plot holes. Instead, I wrote a novel, and gained a greater knowledge and appreciation of both writing and myself. Like NaNo veterans say, a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, just finished, and I don’t need to be good at writing to be a writer. I just have to write.