It’s Nov. 30. This time last year I was copying and pasting the project I worked on all month into an online word counter to confirm that I had successfully participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the challenge that encourages writers to finish 50,000 words of a single project during the month of November. The goal isn’t to complete a polished product, but rather to push past internal editing to get all of it — the good, the bad and the grammatically ugly — out onto a page.
For a professional editor whose job involves cutting words from every communication material that crosses my desk, this is truly an Olympic challenge.
Last night I ran my project, working-titled “Omaha,” through the word counter: 1,459.
Staring at those four digits I started questioning why I can’t commit to any of my projects, even without the annual challenge as motivation.
During this 10:47 p.m. self-audit, I realized that my inability to focus on a project doesn’t have anything to do with my lifestyle. I live alone, my work schedule leaves me with time in the evenings, and my liver is healthy enough to handle a Hemingway-worth of writing whiskey. There’s no reason for me not to write, and yet even my promise to devote Sunday nights to my creative craft dwindled sometime in August.
The answer finally came to me around 10:54. In growing up, I’ve also grown out of being able to compulsively create.
I wondered when the switch happened. When did I stop being able to, as they sing in “Hamilton,” write like I’m running out of time?
When I was 14, I would sit at the family desktop in my dad’s cramped home office, open my 85-pound world history book and pretend to “type my reading notes” while really crashing across the keys while fervently writing my first book, “Identical.” It was certainly a 14-year-old’s product: It used two font styles to delineate between the alternating perspectives of twins named Fawn and Faye. Seriously. Two font styles. Alliterative names straight out of a fairy tale or harlequin romance.
It wasn’t good, but it was ambitious. There were well-written descriptions and some downright doozies — “She pulled away from the hug like I was her favorite teddy bear infected with Ebola” is my favorite head-shaker — but overall it was proof to myself and others that I could write a full-length book before learning how to drive.
And that’s what I did four more times by the time I finished high school. None of the books were worth writing home about (that pun was originally unintentional), but they gave me the opportunity to explore different genres, experiment with style and avoid reading about how King Henry VIII started the Anglican church.
In college, journalism training got in the way, but not enough to keep me from completing he first book in a trilogy that remains tucked in a folder deep within My Documents. My passion for these projects outweighed even the most stringent academic requirements I faced as a high school and early college student. I may have bombed that statistics test, but I finished three whole chapters the night before.
But then something happened: I stopped being able to spend my free time writing uninhibitedly. I had no problem coming up with book premises, or dashing off a line or two of description, but I couldn’t creative-write for more than an hour at a time, and I never stuck to one project for more than a month.
Last year’s NaNoWriMo temporary broke the spell. My zombie-apocalypse-turned-relationship-study book soon turned into a screenplay treatment that ebbed between pages of dialogue and pages of action sequences — hardly a readable book. It got me to 50,000 words, but I haven’t looked back at it since.
So what’s the remedy to this? The answer to my “Hamilton” problem can be found in a far lesser-known musical, “Title of Show” and its song about overcoming creative barriers,”Die, Vampire, Die.”
“Listen closely: A vampire is any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative expression,” Susan sings. She describes the three types — the fear of being derivative, the pressure to avoid controversy and the worst of all: Self-inflicted despair.
“(The vampire of despair) will wake you up at 4 a.m. to say things like ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’ ‘You look like a fool,’ ‘No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough,'” she and her back-up singers recite. “Why is it that if some guy walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things I would think he’s a mentally ill asshole, but when the vampire inside my head says it, it’s the voice of reason?”
And that’s the biggest thing standing between me and my creative writing right now. It’s not a lack of time, energy or opportunity, but a lack of confidence and even a lack of hope. For all the self-assurance I’ve cultivated, I’ve somehow lost the ability to block out the voice in my head that keeps me from putting fingers to keys, stories to Word document.
Sometimes even blog post to website.
The answer in the song is to kill that fear, pressure and despair and create. Although that makes for a catchy end, it fails to describe how to kill those fears — apart from extending the vampire metaphor to say “grab it by its neck, by the trachea…drive a stake in it.”
And here’s we’ve reached how I concluded that failing at NaNoWriMo is OK. In recognizing that I got less than 1/25 into the challenge, I could no longer ignore that I’ve allowed myself to become Renfield, not Dr. Van Helsing, to the creative vampires in my life.
I don’t know how I’m going to beat them back. After the election, I thought I might be able to convert the anger I felt at the Disunited States of America into something, but apart from adding an obtusely placed five-word descriptor — “fingers like orange Tic Tacs” — it didn’t help. Looking back at the similar post I wrote almost two and a half years ago about writer’s block and writer’s doubt, I ended it by telling my readers (and myself) to “just write.” Ha. Ha ha.
I’m not doing that this time. I’ve learned that no one can or should be told (and subsequently expected) to “just write.” It’s more complicated than that. Here there be vampires.
But here there be pencils as sharp as stakes and the creatives able to wield them. And with some training, discipline and luck, I’ll be one of them.