Unraveling: Fiction as Life and No, No NaNoNette

canstockphoto4401375I put my 5th grader on a school bus this week for the first time. It’s not much to parents who have been doing this since day one, but I worked from home for many years. I felt like taking her to school was an opportunity. I got to know other parents and the school environment. Some of our best mother-daughter talks happened in the car and I was loathe to give it up. But for the sake of her growing independence, give it up I did.

Six months ago, I quit working for the company I’d worked for off and on for 13 years and I stopped training in Taekwondo. A stress fracture ended running workouts four months ago. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the president of the parent-teacher organization. This week I stopped driving my daughter to school. Today I’m stepping off the National Novel Writing Month ride.

A friend likened my experience to diagnosing food allergies. You delete all possible offending foods from your diet and slowly add them back in, one at a time, to see what causes a reaction. I’ve removed many defining features of my daily life. The parameters have expanded and the responsibility lies with me to shape my days.

All this effort to change my life is an effort to sit with emptiness. And there’s an echo now. Busy is no longer an adjective I can use. I believe living slowly is important. Sitting still has value. But I’m fighting years of indoctrination. You must be busy. You must be useful. You must not be seen to be a layabout. If you do something, go all the way. Work is purpose.

I’ve worked hard at everything my whole life. I never sat still for long. I am nothing without my effort, my discipline, my drive to do my best at anything. This is a blessing and a curse. It has made me a responsible, conscientious and reliable parent, employee, wife, daughter-in-law, volunteer and friend. It has also made me impatient, irritable, moody and fatigued.

My friends and family keep making sly asides. “You’ll fill up the time with something else.” I started NaNoWriMo thinking that, since I’d quit everything else, time was my oyster. It took me about a week to start resenting the pressure. I’ve hated every sentence and I am not enjoying this process. It became that something else to fill my time.

I’ve gone through my life to this point, like most people, rather haphazardly. I survived a rough and tumble childhood, joined the Army, went to college, got a degree and worked, worked, worked. Most big decisions got made with a youthful shoulder shrug. What have I got to lose? I moved, quit jobs, took up a variety of ill-thought out relationships, ran up bills, dug myself out of debt, married, had a child, tried new hobbies and interests.

It seems different now. I’m irrelevant to the young, a caregiver to the old. I’m wiser, but not inherently smarter. Life is swirling and changing around me, but I feel frozen to this moment, disconnected from the lives around me. As an older parent than most of my peers, my fears for my child are darker. I don’t care about what school she gets into, I just want her to live long enough to experience it. I want to live long enough to experience it.

I’ve been immersed in senior care issues all week and my shoulders and neck tighten at the thought that, if I am lucky, I will be there in the next few decades, hoping that my caregivers are kind and patient and that I won’t have to be afraid.

I am still working. My sandwich generation schtick puts me hollering at my daughter to get ready for school in the morning and helping my mother-in-law dress for her day after the bus leaves. Walking the line between burgeoning independence and regretful dependence, I feel like I’m in a canyon where my needs seem murky at best. Food and water and maybe a walk in the park is the best I can manage until I can get my head sorted.

As an adolescent, I lived in a gutted school bus for six months. You can imagine how very wealthy I feel now, living in my little suburban ranch house with a yard and a lovely family. This is how I feel about time, as I watch my daughter and mother-in-law grow older in tandem. I have the good fortune of being done with the awkward, sometimes painful lessons of youth and am healthy enough to still move on my own steam.

The fears I have now are the ones with which I sit in an increasingly empty room. I smile wryly at the thought that I’ve come round to full navel-gazing when that seems to be the cultural trend. Perhaps I’m more hip than I think. The recurring thought is washing over me: Don’t mess this up. Freedom of choice means the freedom to write a better story. Word count is irrelevant.

32 Comments on “Unraveling: Fiction as Life and No, No NaNoNette

  1. I have a busy, stressful job and I’m planning to make big changes in the next year (either go part time, or find something altogether different.) Although I know this is something I need to do, change is hard so it’s a bit overwhelming. I enjoyed this post about how you’re managing your transitions.

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    • Part of my problem is that change is really my modus operandi. As soon as one thing is gone, I move quickly to replace it. This change now, trying not to do anything or add anything, is making me very twitchy and uncomfortable. I’m just trying to ride it out and see what emerges.
      I wish you luck as you work through your own transition. Hopefully, you have more patience than I!

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  2. I end up quitting NaNo every year I participate for the same reason. I felt like I was just writing a bunch of nonsense that isn’t any good because I was trying to fit the schedule. I never like that feeling.

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    • I think NaNo is a great program to jump start writers and I did complete it in 2012. I think it just doesn’t work for me this year. I tend to be a slow, plodding writer and right now, that pace just works better for me. I’m also concerned that, like my first novel, there is so much unworkable nonsense that I’m overwhelmed by the editing process. Some people really thrive doing NaNo, though, so I’m not knocking the event.

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  3. I missed the challenge of NaNo last year, and I’m gladly participating this year even though I don’t think I’ll make the goal. Just to get back into writing after the roller coaster ride of this past year has been therapeutic. And sitting quietly in contemplation isn’t as easy as it sounds. Thoughts are continually intruding and have to be pushed back out. Keep going; you got this.

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    • Thanks, Ruth. I thought about your enthusiasm and pleasure in being able to do it this year and I hope you continue to enjoy the process, regardless of the month-end result.

      It finally hit me that I needed to re-write nearly all of the 7,000 words I’d written. It really bothered me and I’ve been going back and doing re-writes instead of adding more words. When I started doing that, I began to enjoy it much more. So – still writing, just much more slowly and enjoyably!

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        • I’ve found that I prefer to edit as I go – despite much advice to the contrary. Nothing thrills me more than reworking a paragraph or sentence until it reads as I wish. Hence the inability to ride the NaNo train without feeling grumpy and/or behind all the time.

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        • I almost always did that when writing. I decided to follow the advice to not edit as I went, and you know what? It came out fairly close to what I wanted. Probably because these things tend to percolate in my brain when I’m asleep or doing something else.

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  4. I’m doing NaNo and feel that the word count is driving me crazy. I’ve told my story and ended up with a 31,500 novel. There is not much else to add. I feel that the story is finished. Right now I’m working on blogging, and getting some of my other “stuff” onto a flash drive. I’ll be counting in those word counts, too. Just do what you need to do. Worry about what’s right for you. 🙂

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    • I’m continuing to work on my second novel draft, but I feel like there’s the potential, with a little more careful planning and slowing down, I might have a workable novel at the end. It’s going to be a long winter here in Minnesota – plenty of time to plod away.

      Congrats on finishing your story! On my first novel draft, I barely crossed the 50K line, but the race to the end turned it into an unworkable train wreck. I was disappointed at the end and very burnt out. If you can avoid that, good for you!

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      • I’ve decided to stay home and not work right now. I’ll probably need to go back at some point, but not right now. I’m hoping to take the winter off and work on writing, creating a website, etc. Good luck to you and I’m glad that you’re writing. The thing I don’t like about NaNo is the need to get 50,000 words written. I just end up with crap when I feel so pressured to get those words done.

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  5. I just hope you don’t quit blogging, because I find following your thoughts as you move through this phase of your growth so very relevant to what I’m working through myself. It is extraordinary to me how often what you write reflects what I’m thinking – even though I suspect we’re about as different as two people can be. In fact I think I feel a blog post coming on…

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    • I had been mulling over the blogging thing and while I’ve taken breaks over the last three years, it is something that I enjoy doing. It always helps me to keep writing even if I’ve put away a fiction piece for awhile. Bring on your blog post!

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      • Yeah … I started, but then realized that one probably is better left unwritten. I love the way you share the process you’re going through inside yourself. Living with a critic, I’ve learned to be careful of where I “spread my dreams”. So I’ll simply share that I’ve been struggling SO MUCH with NaNo, longing to quit, terrified of quitting, loathing the book and increasingly convinced that it’s not worth writing. Reading what you wrote, I realized that although we’re in a similar place, for me it’s important that I push through. Even if it’s crap – ESPECIALLY if it’s crap – I need to get it out of me, as part of the process I’m going through of getting unstuck.

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        • From where you’re at, I see the importance of getting through NaNo at least once. It is a confidence building exercise to say the least and will be fun for you to refer to your first novel draft over the next year. Keep pushing forward. You are fully capable of seeing this through – I’m rooting for you!

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  6. My lesson of late (after having had years of naval gazing) has finally been to get it that I don’t have to strive to be a better me. Being me, just as I am is enough. It’s finally slowly actually sinking in. I hope you discover something similar while naval gazing. You don’t have to write a better story, you’re already enough even if you never do another thing.
    Alison ❤

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  7. Maybe part of the process is being willing to tolerate the discomfort. I know stretching that envelope has helped in my journey. And that every task can be a meditation–done with awareness and watching your reactivity rise. Just being willing to stand with yourself no matter what comes up.

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  8. Hi, Michelle. You write about your pruning down process so clearly and lucidly. Good stuff. I myself am working toward doing less and sitting more. The more I “sit,” the more I like the person I am with those I love. Good luck, and I’ll be thinking about you. Peace, John

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    • That’s an extremely important point, John and really, maybe the crux of all of my changes. It struck me, with all the volunteering, that I was sometimes kinder and more patient with veritable strangers than with the people who mattered to me most. Good luck with your pruning as well, John and thanks for the kind words.

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  9. I have that recurring thought too (Don’t mess this up), and I wish I could make it stop, because I don’t think it’s helping.

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    • You’re right about that. I have to keep saying to myself “Settle into the moment” to fend off the anxiety that I’m really screwing up by shedding whole parts of my identity. But beneath all the neuroses, I have a hard coded sense that I know what I’m doing – everything else is just white noise.

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  10. This post made me reflect on how differently things work for us as individuals. I’m still pressing on with NaNo only because I know myself – I have to. I’ve wanted to write this book about my time in Africa for a long time. I thought a lot about it. I started it. But I couldn’t get myself to write it by sitting down every now and then writing a few hundred words, or a half chapter. When I had little time to spare, I always found something more interesting (and honestly, easier) to do. So when November approached, I tried to empty other stuff from my plate so I wouldn’t have an excuse…I wanted to get a first draft on paper. I work best when I have a deadline, even an artificial one like NaNo. Sigh. So I’m still hopeful…13 days to go.

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    • I think I’m just going through a very particular transition in that having guidelines or deadlines or any sort of structure, is making me react like a belligerent child – with a resounding “no”. Even things that might be for my own good. I wanted to do NaNo and couldn’t figure out why I was so resistant to the current novel, but it finally clicked when I realized that what I need is nothing right now, except time and space and the impetus to unravel.
      That being said, I see a lot of positive reasons to do NaNo and think it’s a terrific event to get the writing wheels turning. I wish you the best in your efforts and look forward to reading about your time in Africa(eventually)!

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