The one-month misery memoir

As announced 30 days ago, I decided to take part in the 2007 NaNoWriMo contest  and accept the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in  30 days.   And I’m pleased to announce that I chested the 50k line two days before the month was out and can now officially call myself a NaNoWriMo ‘winner’.

But let’s hold the champagne. I may have written 50,000 words in a month but my novel is still unfinished, which means I’m still waking up every morning and reaching straight for the laptop and writing 2,000 groggy-eyed words before breakfast (alas, the word counter doesn’t recognise when you see double).

So I’ve now set myself a new deadline of 75,000 words before Christmas, which should be a piece of piss if the last 30 days are anything to go by.

I have to confess, though, that I have cheated just a little bit with this. Although, hear me out. I’d like to explain how I don’t think it’s cheating at all.

First of all, I didn’t actually write a novel. What I wrote was an autobiographical account of my mother’s five year illness with vascular dementia and eventual death in a care home. I believe the current hot publishing buzz word is misery memoir. But I approached it as a novel and tried to write it as one, so I do  think of it as a novel.

Secondly, with it being so autobiographical, it meant I had lots of material to draw on. Over those five years I shared the stress of coping with my mother’s uncontrollable descent into dementia with a number of friends through emails and online chats, all of which I saved as a sort of epistolary diary, seeing as I stopped writing longhand in journals round about the same time I stopped writing actual letters to people (the internet destroyed all that). But there were those old journals too, in which I found a (frustratingly small) number of  entries that set my relationship with my mother in context.

So, on some mornings, I would sit tapping a whole entry into the laptop with a diary open at my side, or just paste in a lengthy email and then  rewrite it. So in terms of reaching my daily word count, I have to admit, there were a few days where it was relatively easy. But there were also many days where I had nothing more than a two-line descrition of a memory:

Getting off the 50 in town on a Saturday afternoon to  find her waiting for me at the stop, even though we hadn’t arranged to meet.

The woman on the balcony – she thinks her reflection in the window at night is a woman who looks just like her.

These were memories burned into my mind that I thought needed only a brief note to trigger an avalanche of words.

In terms of NaNoWriMo and its rules and recommendations, I accept that I didn’t have as hard a time of it as most other entrants who were writing completely new stories from scratch and struggling every day to stay on the surfboard as the wave took them. I always knew who my characters were, I knew what the story was, I knew all the events and had a nice proportion of them already written.

But is that cheating?

Well, no. The key aim of NaNoWriMo is to force writers to get their story down on paper in a rush of creativity whilst keeping the critical part of the brain gagged and bound. I viewed my journal entries and emails as a great way to get that story down, quickly and easily, without thinking about structure and tone and whether any of it was working. Just get it in there. You can spin that straw into gold later once you’ve got the whole novel in place and it’s time to become a critic.

My diary entries were just another technique to achieve that. Not entirely in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, but I used the scheme as a tool to get my novel written, improvising with it and adapting it to suit my needs. That’s what tools are for.

I wrote the first chapter of The Longest Death two years ago, the day before my mother died, on this same laptop, in the back seat of my sister’s car as we drove up to Newcastle for our aunt’s funeral. My mum and her sister had always been almost supernaturally close (they would buy the same dress from Marks and Sparkswithout knowing it even though they lived miles apart) and now they were both dying within a week of each other. When Mum died the day after, I couldn’t face it any more.

It was a MS I avoided for over a year. I was scared of entering that dark labyrinth. I knew what horrors were in there waiting for me. What I needed was some way of writing it where I wouldn’t end up an emotional wreck every day and need a ton of Prozac to get me through it. I needed a crazy deadline that would give me no time to do anything other than write, with nothing more to worry about than whether I was making 1667 words per day.

Step forward NaNoWriMo.

The discipline of it made me sit down and   do it every day and amaze myself with how much was actually ready to pour out of   me. There were many mornings when I thought I had nothing in me, but ten   minutes into tapping away it would always come.

A reminder yet again (because I forget it so easily) that the only solution   to writing is to just sit down and force yourself to write. The solution to any writing problem will always be solved by the very act of writing.

And treating this misery memoir as a novel  gave me that emotional distance I needed to get it written, as well as allowing me to make discoveries about my relationship with my mother as if I were reading about two characters in someone else’s novel.

The Longest Death is a novel full of anger and despair and outrage, but thanks to NaNoWriMo, I wasn’t consumed by any of those emotions while I was writing it. There was only ever time to get out of the way and allow the words to write themselves.

So in that sense I think I stuck to the spirit of the contest and am allowing myself to feel proud of the achievement.


For more info on NaNoWriMo, see my previous article.

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