Why It’s Okay That I Quit NaNoWriMo

Photo © Alana Saltz

It looks like I won’t be finishing NaNoWriMo this year. Despite my best efforts and intentions, it just didn’t work out. I fell way behind after a deep bout of writer’s block and needed to give priority to my grad school writing project due a few days ago. And after the semester I’ve had (and the ups and downs in my personal life), I don’t want to scramble and stress to make the word count. I made it to about 22,000 words.

Although I had hoped to finish my series of NaNoWriMo posts with a happier ending, this whole process has made me think a lot about the way people view successes and failures in the writing world and beyond. I think NaNoWriMo is a good example of this.

I admire the aim of NaNo and the community surrounding the project, but I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that this kind of deadline isn’t right for everyone. Only about 80% of people who begin NaNoWriMo make it to 50,000 words. Even those who are the most determined and motivated may not be able to cross the finish line. Life gets in the way, or inspiration fizzles out, or the project hits a dead end.

So, is trying and failing better than never having committed to the project in the first place? I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I gave it a shot. Some people may consider that a failure, but I think that’s a dangerous way to look at life. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps people from trying anything new or difficult. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right?

People are often surprised at how adventurous I can be. My friends and family are still amazed that I applied for a last minute travel grant to go to Japan for 10 days. For someone with a life-long anxiety disorder to take a trip across the country by herself to a country where she doesn’t even speak the language is a little surprising. But I wanted to take that chance.

I tried, and I succeeded. If I had never gone for the grant, I wouldn’t have had the chance to embark on an amazing adventure that taught me how self-sufficient I really am. Sure, I got horribly lost and frightened several times during the trip, but I always found my way.

I see NaNoWriMo as being a lot like my trip to Japan. I got lost, but at least I gave it a shot. I put myself out there and took a chance. I think that alone is worth a lot. And I’ll probably even try again next year. So for everyone else who chose to try NaNoWriMo this month, I commend you on your courage, and congratulate you for participating whether you make it to 50,000 words or not.

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Who Am I, Really?

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who I really am. I’m not sure there’s a “true self” exactly. I think all of us are a big mess of contradictions and personalities. For example, some people would describe me as being a quiet person while others have told me that I talk too much. Both things are true. When I’m in a new social situation, I’m often shy. When I’m with close friends, I might end up talking a lot.

I guess we present different sides of ourselves to different people…or even to the same people at different times. Yet there seems to be this idea floating around that we need to embrace our “true selves.” But what if I’m not sure which self of mine is the true one? And what if my true self is not the one that other people want or need me to be?

I’m really struggling with this issue in my writing because I’m not quite sure who exactly I am now or who exactly I was as a kid. I’m trying to write about my childhood and teenage years with honest self-reflection, but it seems impossible to pinpoint what the hell was actually going on back then or even what’s going on now.

Part of me feels like I need to censor myself, and I think that’s the problem. I’ve been told my entire life that I’m too emotional. I’ve been told that I cry too much, complain too much, and that I’m depressed and/or anxious too often. Despite the strides I’ve made and all the work I’ve done to change this, there are still people out there who look at me this way.

We’re rarely encouraged to talk about our emotions in real life. Mental illness, despite its prevalence, is still a taboo topic of conversation. I’ve been hesitant to mention it here even though it’s the focus of my memoir. But in writing, expressing honest emotion is a necessity. Even in blogging, some sort of emotional connection to your reader is required.

I think that’s why the writing I did as a teen feels more honest and uninhibited than my recent work. I hadn’t learned to control my emotions and impulses, so they flowed easily into my writing. At the same time, I had a lot of trouble making and keeping friends because they were overwhelmed (and occasionally annoyed) by my emotionality.

Is there a way to be open yet reserved, emotional yet controlled? Is there perhaps some sort of happy medium I just haven’t found yet? I don’t really have an answer or conclusion for this post because I’m genuinely struggling with all of this right now. Maybe I’m chasing a sort of self-awareness that doesn’t really exist.

 

Do you think we, as people, have a true self?

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Getting Over Heartbreak The Writerly Way

I haven’t been sure whether or not I should talk about the biggest change and challenge in my life right now. About two months ago, the relationship I was in ended very suddenly. Part of the reason I hesitated mentioning it was because I thought he might read my blog, and another part of me wasn’t sure it was okay to open up here.

But as a memoir writer, I think it’s important for me to express myself openly and honestly on my blog. So here it is: The past two months have been really, really hard on me. I haven’t been single for more than a few months since I was 17. I went from one long term relationship to the next. I don’t exactly regret my decision to do so because I learned a lot from my last relationship, but I think I would have benefited from more time on my own.

One of the ways I’m going to try moving through this breakup is by focusing my NaNoWriMo novel around a relationship. I want to explore the way relationships work, especially those first or second relationships one has as a young adult where you’re really just figuring out who you are and how to be with someone. I also want to try to understand what makes relationships tick, and what makes them end.

The great thing about being a writer is that you can always channel difficult experiences into your writing, which makes it more unique and authentic. It can be painful to revisit or work through those emotions, but I think, ultimately, you come out of it with an honest work and a better understanding of yourself.

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How to Structure Your Memoir

First of all, the winner of the Publish This Book giveaway is Dawn! Thank you to everyone who commented on my interview with Stephen Markley. I hope to make author interviews a regular feature of this blog. If you’re an author interested in doing an interview, please let me know. I welcome both indie and traditionally published writers. Now, onto today’s overdue blog post:

Structure can be one of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir. Contrary to popular belief, writing a memoir isn’t simply spilling your life’s story onto the page with no regard to plot or narrative.

While many writers will intuitively be drawn to chronological order, that’s not always the best structure for a memoir. Remember that memoirs are not the same as autobiographies. You don’t have to start the day you were born or even with your childhood. A memoir could cover a single year in your life, or it could follow a common thread or theme in experiences you’ve had throughout your life. It could even jump around in time, starting with when you were 18, flashing back to when you were 7, and going forward to the year you turned 30. You aren’t limited to a linear narrative.

One of my mentors, the fantastic Jennie Nash, told me that your memoir should start with the event in your life that knocked you off course. This is known as the “inciting incident” in fiction writing terms. You could also structure your memoir similarly to a novel in that you have a glimpse of your every day, normal life before it gets thrown off track by a life-altering event.

Just keep in mind, though, that trying to fit the structure of a memoir into the same structure you would use for a novel will likely be difficult and somewhat limiting. Life doesn’t always unfold the way a novel does. However, I do recommend looking at traditional novel structure because it will give you ideas about how you could look at your life as if it were a structured narrative. Most likely you will have an inciting incident, a series of conflicts that comprise the middle section of the memoir, a climax, and some sort of resolution at the end.

I recommend reading up on novel structure and looking at published memoirs to get new ideas about how you could use structure to shape your memoir’s narrative. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and remember that structure can always be added or changed later. The most important thing is to write the events you feel drawn to without getting too caught up in the technical stuff. Structure often reveals itself through the writing.

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An Interview with Stephen Markley, Author of “Publish This Book”

I first read Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book, shortly after graduating college. Stephen’s book chronicles the unique journey that he took in becoming a published author. Stephen was only 26 when he started the project, and has since added himself to the growing list of talented and accomplished young memoir writers.

I found Stephen’s memoir to be incredibly funny, honest, and inspiring. It really spoke to where I was in my experience of being a recent college grad with no real idea of how to navigate the complicated and highly competitive literary world as an aspiring author. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Stephen for this blog. To learn more about Stephen and Publish This Book, please visit Stephen’s website.

1. How did the process of writing Publish This Book, a memoir, compare with your fiction and journalistic writing endeavors?
It was a strange experience because I had to form a narrative as events were happening. The process was on this kind of hyper-drive where I was reflecting and assimilating my conscious and sub-conscious observations–the way you would normally do as a writer–only at this accelerated rate, while also dealing with a whole host of very personal subjects. It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime idea and experience.

 

2.  You call Publish This Book a “premature memoir” among other things. In what ways do you feel the memoir was premature? Have people questioned your decision to write a memoir at a young age?
The “premature” was kind of a joke I threw in last-second. Conjuring images of the author disappointing women sexually was great fun, but I also think people have this tendency to go “You’re 26? You can’t write a memoir when you’re 26! You haven’t done anything!” As it turns out, if you’ve got the right juice, you totally can.

 

3.  A lot of writers feel concerned about the reactions of friends and family if they were to publish a memoir. How have your friends and family reacted to the book now that it’s been published?
I’m sure there are parts that everyone wasn’t 100% thrilled with, but no one’s questioned the book’s honesty or intent, and I certainly haven’t lost any relationships over it. One of things you have to understand when you’re writing and intending to put your soul on the page, in a public forum, is that you can’t please all the people all of the time. If you get hung up on that, you’re finished. You’ll lose your mind. My aim was to be as true to the emotional reality of events as I could be.

 

4.  In a review, Publisher’s Weekly made a remark about how you may have been better off cutting some of the “more self-indulgent sections” of the book. Do you think memoir is an inherently self-indulgent genre? Where do we draw the line between honest self-expression and unnecessary self-indulgence when it comes to writing a memoir?
Ah, Publisher’s Weekly, those scumbags. No, just kidding. I think the part they objected to was my experience as a columnist in college, but I’ve received many e-mails and Facebook messages from fans who cite that as their favorite chapter. It’s one of those books where the way the reader feels about different sections says almost as much about them as it does about me. I think all art is inherently self-indulgent, which is okay. There is no hard and fast line separating honest self-expression from the rest, but my feeling is that a successful memoir usually has the reader reflecting about themselves and not just following along the bitching of some other guy. I like to think that’s what I achieved, but as I said, everyone’s cup of joe comes differently.

 

5.  In Publish This Book, you talk a lot about the process of getting the book itself published. After this experience, what do you think about the traditional publication process? Do you have any thoughts on indie/self-publishing as an alternative?
Publishing has changed so much from the time I finished the book to now that I can’t believe it will be the same in the next five years. Technology, the recession, the decline of readers–writers face challenges now that they couldn’t have even imagined a decade ago. I think it’s getting much harder to be successful without some serious luck, connections, or divine intervention. Self-publishing may be practical for some, but you have to understand that for every success story where a self-published author gets big, there are probably 10,000 who sold 36 copies to friends and family. It’s a tricky thing, this “writing”.

 

6.  What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new projects for us to keep an eye out for?
I’ve finished a novel, which my agent is shopping around to different editors and publishing houses. Also, it seems as though there is a strong possibility that “Publish This Book” will be a movie, which would be so surreal I haven’t even really wrapped my brain around it. I’m kind of at the point where I just want to dispatch any pay-the-bills writing and get to work on full-blown epic projects that will require days and days locked in front of my laptop. I’ve forgotten more books that I want to write than I’ve had hours to sit down and put them into words.

 

Book Giveaway
You can purchase a copy of Publish This Book on Amazon.com or at your local bookstore. I am giving away one copy of Publish This Book to a random commenter, so please leave your thoughts about the interview in a comment for a chance to win a copy of the book. Trust me, it’s a great read.
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