Telling people that I’m a writer is always a test of how patient I’m feeling that day. I can think that I’m feeling perfectly calm, and then it starts: ooh, that must be fun. I dabble, you know. I’m writing a novel, I’ll get it published one day. Must be nice to have such a great life. Maybe that’s where the stereotype of the reclusive writer comes from; not because we’re hermits, but because we’ve run out of patience for patronizing small talk. Once we start cringing at well-meaning chit-chat, it’s easy to start cringing at first-time writers and hobbyists as well. Not only do they look suspiciously like card-carrying members of the dabbling guild, but they’re also – well. They’re a little embarrassing sometimes, aren’t they? Earnest and eager, pen at the ready, prepared to spend 1000 words on the pain and pleasure of writing for every 500 words they commit to a story.
With National Novel Writing Month rolling around again, the first-timers are out in droves. Some of them are adults finally putting down the story they’ve been carrying with them, but many are in their teens (NaNoWriMo requires writers to be thirteen years old to register). Hundreds of thousands register, but only a small percentage of them ever “win” (by reaching 50k words), and on bad days I imagine the project as a vast machine to supply cocktail parties with awkward small talk for decades to come. You’ve written a novel? I did it in a month, once. Yet for all my grousing, I love NaNoWriMo. I love that so many people are writing without even caring whether they’ll be published or not. I love the participants who are shameless with their uncertainty and stress, who meet in coffee shops across the world to tell each other that this is how writers behave. This is how writers feel, because they are writers, and this how they feel.
If writing is your livelihood, it’s easy to get bogged down in the pragmatic nuts and bolts of it. You bristle when people tell you how wonderful your life must be, because you stayed awake last night listening to your dog snoring and wondering whether your newest project was on-trend enough to warrant any more effort. The joy is still there, of course, and so is the wonder, but they often take a back seat to whatever you’re fighting through today. Spending time around NaNoWriMo writers helps me remember why I’m doing this in the first place, why I’m willing to sit down at my desk and write through backaches and nicotine withdrawal: being a writer is better than being anything else. Being a writer is cool. It takes me back to my first teenage experiments, when all I needed to feel like I’d won the lottery was the chance to nudge two plot points together and watch them stick. (What if this happened? And then – what if that happened?) Over 200,000 people are going to spend November shouting at each other about how miserable they are and it makes me very, very happy.
Writers write. This isn’t an exclusive club, although I occasionally like to pretend it is, like pretending there’s something special about me will somehow make me feel better. Instead, it’s opening the gates wide to the messy, frantic carnival of newcomers that makes me feel my worth. I may not be special, but writing certainly is. Someone strings words together, and suddenly you have the all-consuming need to follow those words to a foreign country. When you get up the next morning you keep looking at your neighborhood like you’ve been sent there on assignment. I carry my notebook to the all-night pancake place and end up talking to the waitress about the time she decided to hitch-hike to Seattle with nothing but her wallet, some clothes, and three romance novels. I finish 10k words and feel proud and cool, like I’m somebody that the teenage me would actually like to meet.
Let’s face it: writing is kind of a weird thing to spend our lives on, but it has enough myth and excitement and life-changing amazement to make up for it. Sometimes writing feels like endless drudgery, but even that can be exciting if we let it. There’s something glamorous about that toil, something important in the heart of hours spent getting hand cramps with nothing to show for it, and sometimes it takes a lot of earnest, eager first-time novelists to remind us of it. This is how we feel. We’re writers, so this is how writers feel. It’s that easy, and besides – as people who lie for a living, believing in our own myth is probably an inalienable right.
I’m also reminded of Richard Wilbur’s poem ‘The Writer’, about watching from the sidelines as his daughter writes a story. I can’t promise that I won’t roll my eyes again the next time someone tells me they have a manuscript lost somewhere, but I’ll try. After all, it was probably life or death for them too. It is for all of us who start writing, because when the workaday routine brings us to our laptop (or notebook, or typewriter) we have to let go of our fears and preoccupations and try to dream something new.
Claire Eastwick took up writing when motherhood changed her outlook on life. Before that she’d worked all hours making designs and advert ideas for an advertisement agency. Now she is able to combine her love of the arts with her love of writing. When not working, she looks after her daughters and takes her dogs for a walk.