On Taking Part (by Petra McQueen)

So you’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo. You fool. Don’t you know that you’ve committed to writing 1666.6 words every day?

Two hours every day of tapping, scribbling, pen-chewing and screen blur. Sure, you mightn’t have regrets now: you’re feeling heady with the sweet smell of pencil-shavings; your laptop is gleaming with ‘ScreenClean’; and, by your side, are beautifully colour-coded notes detailing character traits, turning points and pathetically fallacious weather.

What could go wrong?

Nothing.

For a certain sort of person.

(The type who can run a multi-national company while knocking up a dozen mini-Baked Alaskas for a school fete.)

The rest of us will feel the burn. At some point your shoulders will ache, your eyes will be raw and your creative spirit will limp through a sand-storm clutching a soggy tear-stained handkerchief, wailing ‘Why? Why?’ You’ll dream of what you could be doing: watching Casualty; clearing your teenage son’s bedroom; learning to clog dance. For a bit of light relief you’ll offer to do your neighbours’ ironing (note the apostrophe – yes, that desperate.)

But take heart. At the very nadir of this experience, you are as much of a writer as when you are tripping along like Barbara Cartland, effortlessly churning out a book in a month. In your frustration and tiredness, you are up with the best of them. Hemmingway said ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit as a typewriter and bleed.’ He bled in his way and you’ll bleed in yours.

From despair, great things will come. For a start, you’ll have a first draft in front of you. How fantastic is that?

Editing is the best bit – you’ve stopped lumping the clay on the pedestal and can now go in with a scalpel.

Even if, God forbid, you decide that everything you have written during NaNoWriMo deserves to be filed under ‘my shame-filled inadequacies’, you’ll have done yourself a service by the very act of writing. Studies carried out by Social Scientists, James Pennaker, discovered that writing down traumatic experiences significantly increases psychological well being and, incredibly, strengthens immune systems. Of course, if you’ve just penned a book on mutant unicorn bank-clerks, this may not ring true. However, most authors writer of their deepest fears and joys. (How can they not?) By the very act of writing ‘what you know’, you’ll have unleashed and tamed some demons. You will be wrung out but your ‘long term serum measures, antibody levels, cell activity, enzyme levels [and] muscular activity’ will have improved. Go tell that to the naysayers!

Salman Rushie likened writing a novel to running a marathon. When completing NaNoWriMo, you may be footsore and weary, but you’ll be fitter and more flexible than you’ve ever been before. You’ll know your limits and you’ll know where you need to push yourself. You’ll have explored the parameters of your mind. Importantly, you’ll have learnt what your particular circumstances allow you to do. Because of this, you’ll now have the knowledge to make plans for a new and exciting writing future. As E.L. Doctorow said, ‘Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.’ That is true, not only in terms of your novel, but also in terms of your life. Good luck!

Petra McQueen is a published writer with more than twenty years teaching experience. A wannabe academic she has a BA(Hons) and PGCE in Drama, a MA(Dist) in Creative Writing, as well as a TESOL qualification, which allowed her to teach abroad in her distant youth. She is widely published both in the UK and abroad. Her life-writing has appeared in the Guardian and her fiction has won prizes in various minor competitions. When writing, she sweats over every word. Her dream is for one of her short stories to be published in The New Yorker. She has a long way to go. Her aim is to give students fulfilling, fun lessons. She believes those that attend her lessons have a clear sense of progress and achievement.

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