National Novel Writing Month kicks my ass. I mean that in the best possible way. Maybe I should say it saves my ass. Either way, it gets my ass in the chair, gets me past my own resistance, my own mind games, gets me writing again.

I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2002. That was the most amazing year I had ever experienced as a writer, and probably ever will. My first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, came out that Spring, and while I was on my book tour, I got a call from Barbara Kingsolver (my favorite writer in the world), informing me that my novel, The Book of Dead Birds, had won the Bellwether Prize and would be published the following year by HarperCollins. Oh, and the other judges had been Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, my two other favorite writers in the world. As you can imagine, this was mindblowingly thrilling (I still can barely believe it) and deeply affirming for me as a writer. Problem was, I started to believe that everything I wrote needed to be worthy of these luminaries’ blessing, and the weight of that expectation became too much to handle. I stopped writing completely, and felt like a huge fraud since I was still touring around, talking about my book about writing while not doing any writing, myself. When I heard about National Novel Writing Month, I realized that it could be my ticket back into my own creative process--if I tried to write 50,000 words in 30 days, there wouldn’t be enough time to worry about whether or not Toni Morrison would approve of each sentence. So I gave it a go, and it did just what I hoped it would...brought me back into my own organic rhythm. I wrote The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, that month--I loved catching up with all of my characters, seeing what they had been doing since we had last spent time together. Now, nine years later, I am releasing The Book of Live Wires as an ebook to celebrate NaNoWriMo and the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize. It feels wonderful to have found a way to honor NaNo and all it has given me (including my second published novel, Self Storage, which started as a messy November draft).

The best way to honor NaNoWriMo, though, of course, is to write. It’s been a few years since I participated in this writerly marathon, and they’ve been discombobulating years, to say the least. Between 2008 and 2010, I got divorced, got laid off, got pregnant, got married, moved four times (ultimately buying and renovating a house), gave birth 19 years after having my first child, lost my mom to suicide one week later, and lost my mother-in-law unexpectedly four months after that. I also had two new books, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, published last year, one the same week my mother in law died, and between adjusting to life with a new baby and trying to process crushing waves of grief, I wasn’t able to give either of the books the focused marketing attention they deserved; I watched both of their Amazon ratings dwindle, feeling helpless and a bit hopeless as a writer. The fact that I wasn’t writing much didn’t help my state of mind. I’d been juggling three book projects, not fully committing to any of them, writing in fragments, fits and starts that weren’t really going anywhere. I was low on time and energy and inspiration (although my life’s been full of sweetness, as well; I’ve been channeling my creative energy through my breastmilk, it seems, watching my son flourish, grateful for the joy he’s brought to our lives). Part of me began to wonder if my time had passed as a writer, if I was done for, even though I’ve been writing since I was four and writing has always been central to my identity, my life. “Well, that was fun while it lasted,” I remember telling myself.

Now, less than a week into NaNoWriMo 2011, I am starting to get my writing mojo back. I decided to take NaNo very seriously this year--I arranged for extra child care, and even bought a new laptop, which makes writing a pleasure (especially compared to my old laptop, which is missing keys, and some of the remaining keys require several punches before they leave a letter on the screen, which is barely hanging on by one hinge.) So far I have exceeded my target word count daily, and find myself so excited to have committed to a single story, so excited to have recommitted to writing, itself.

I don’t know if I’ll maintain this pace (it’s unlikely, with various life responsibilities and teaching and my son’s 2nd birthday and the 2nd anniversary of my mom’s death and family coming into town this month) but I am okay with that. It would be great to reach 50,000 words, but honestly, I’d be fine with half of that. I am just so happy to be writing again.

I look forward to sharing my NaNo journey with you each Friday this month on SheWrites. I would love to hear about your own NaNo experiences, and wish you a wondrous journey with your own NaNo writing (and beyond!) May this month kick (and save) your ass in the best possible way.

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Comment by Judy c Kohnen on November 11, 2011 at 6:42pm

Thanks for sharing. Really. It is encouraging to read about the discouraging moments, in particular when others (such as Gayle) have had a worse cycle than your own... Is that fair? is that kind? is that right? No, yet we all have our lives, sisters in writership - we battle on! I enjoyed you books, good luck on nanowrimo all,  you can all find me there, the one with the very lowest word count, and wonderful story-dreams at night, judyconibere

Comment by gayle brandeis on November 8, 2011 at 12:28am
Thanks so much, Sandra--I really appreciate it. I'm cheering you on, as well--may we keep finding ways to push through that weight of expectation! xoxo
Comment by Sandra Beasley on November 7, 2011 at 8:08am
This is a great article. I have felt that weight, too--trying to write not for myself, but for the audience of those I've ever most wanted to impress--and it is so creatively inhibiting. Congrats on pushing through, and know that you have a lot of people cheering you on!
Comment by gayle brandeis on November 6, 2011 at 8:25am

Thank you, Ann and Cristina--I am so grateful for your comments. So glad NaNoWriMo is helping you, Cristina--it definitely is a wonderful way to burrow into a new project. :) Good luck with your novel that's finding its way into the world now...the journey changes so much when the book flies out of our hands! xoxo


Comment by Cristina Trapani-Scott on November 6, 2011 at 7:31am
This is exactly why I am doing NaNoWriMo. Well, not the Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston part:) That would indeed be mind-blowing. But, I spent 10 years on my first novel, which is under submission right now. I needed something to get me focused on the new novel and it seems that NaNoWriMo is helping.
Comment by Ann Douglas on November 5, 2011 at 3:16pm
I love this post, Gayle. It is so honest about what happens to us as writers when we get sideswiped by grief; and how we can be our own worst enemies when we sit down to write. xo
Comment by gayle brandeis on November 5, 2011 at 2:43pm

Thank you so much, Courtney and Kate!


Courtney, your goals are beautiful and important ones. I wish you all the best as you get out the story you need to tell! Amazing that you're already at 17,000+ words (more, I'm sure, by now!) 

Good luck with your revisions, Kate--fun to know you're in the trenches with us in your own way. :)



Comment by Kate Maruyama on November 4, 2011 at 9:22pm
A terrific article, Gayle and how great to hear you have your mojo back! Small kids do get distracting and it's hard to rechannel when the (huge and enormous in your case)life stuff happens. NaNoWriMo sounds like a great jump start. I'm having NaNoReviseMo instead, but the clock is ticking before life takes over in big hairy way in December, so I feel like I'm in the trenches with you!


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