Reflections on 40k

Today, November 21, 2011, at about 8:20 EDT, I broke the forty thousand word threshold in my NaNoWriMo project: a contemporary zombie survival novel tentatively titled Run-Hide-Survive.

I know, the game isn’t over until I hit 50k, and even then the game won’t actually be over.  From where I’m sitting right now the first draft is going to be “done” at about 65 to 70 thousand words.  I have no doubt that in the subsequent months I’ll polish, revise, edit, and hand wring that up to a nice 80 to 90 thousand words.  Even then the game won’t be over.  I’ll likely spend the next two years soliciting publishers, sending out query letters, getting said letters rejected out of hand, drinking scotch, doubting myself, and then at some point receiving a glimmer of hope that somebody other than me is interested in this story.  Only when I am looking at a printed and finished copy of my first novel, will this game be done.  Then the next game starts.

So why write about this now?  Why invite the hubris of the gods by putting pen to paper when I still have 9,896 words left to write before I can claim to have “finished” the most monumental writing task of my natural life to date?  Because now is the time to do it.

I know now is the time to do it because I used to run.  If NaNoWriMo has taught me anything it’s that writing comes from the same place as running.

During my time as a runner I learned that the hardest part of a half-marathon is the first five kilometers.  If I was going to quit, I would quit there.  By the time I got to the last few kilometers, I always knew that finishing was a foregone conclusion, even if I had to crawl to get there.

To keep my brain occupied through those last few klicks, I would reflect on the day’s run.  How was my pace?   How were my knees holding up?  What did I want to eat when things were done?  How much of the last kilometer would I sprint?  I knew that once I stopped running the essence of those last moments, the connection that I felt with whatever it is that makes a person decide to get up and run, the very flavour of the day, would be gone.  Those moments get replaced with other things.  Praise from friends and family, sore joints, a new training schedule, and a few celebratory beers.  Pride in the accomplishment lingers, but the nuance of the event is an ephemeral thing.

Over the last twenty one days the parallels between marathon training/running and writing have grown all the more poignant.  The feeling of being driven to do something that I didn’t think myself capable of doing is the same.  The desire to keep working if only to test my limits is the same. The fear that taking one day off will ruin my training/work schedule and torpedo the whole project is the same.   The looks of doubt, incredulity and sheer surprise that I get from people when I say that I’m writing 50k in thirty days are the exact same.  Beyond all that though the most important similarity between running and writing is the recognition that I’m not  quite the same person that I was when I started.

Even though the nature of my life is mostly unchanged between now and three weeks ago, I feel different.  For the past 3 weeks this novel has been my mission.  I’ve balanced writing it against teaching, grading papers, going to a con as a panelist for the first time, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.  Not to mention that I have resisted the siren song of The Elder Scrolls V and the release build of Minecraft.  Somehow, I have made it all work.  The race may continue, but I now feel free from the doubt that kept me from taking on a project of this scope for at least the last few years.

At the same time, I find myself reflecting on past “impossible” tasks.  Would grad school have been different for me if I worked on a steady production schedule instead of screwing around for days at a time and then going into insane work cycles that saw me not leaving the house for days at a time?  Okay, maybe I didn’t screw around all the time as a student.  However, what I did back then to earn the letters that come after my name don’t feel quite as grand in scope as what I’ve tried to do over the last three weeks.

Could I have done this without a few key people (you know who you are) cheering me on?  I’d like to think so.  However it’s pretty awesome to have a cheering section.  So to you select few, thank you.  Hopefully I won’t impose upon your respective patience too much as the months to come see me whinging about editing and revision in the finest fashion of Karl Pilkington.

Mostly, I’m excited.  I’m excited because I feel like I’ve turned the corner on something.  I know I should be more articulate than to describe this intangible concept as a “something”, but I find myself suffering from a poverty of suitably precise language for this moment.  I hope that anybody else who has been where I am right now knows what I’m talking about and can maybe explain it to me.  If I can borrow a trope from gaming, I feel like I have just leveled up for the first time in a very long time.

Of course there’s all the doubts and anxieties that my story is cliché crap, that what I hope counts for emotional development will read as maudlin drivel.  But right now, at this moment, they don’t really seem to matter.