How NaNoWriMo Saved My Life

My family has always been a little skeptical of writers. My grandmother, especially. “Oh, they’re being paid,” she’d say, as if the act of accepting money nullifies whatever idealism and feeling the author poured into the piece. It really annoyed me. I mean, I’m a writer, aren’t I? I’ve even been paid for some of what I’ve written. As any self-respective content-creator, I was duly offended. I’ve since learned that she’s only half wrong: There is writing that is purely opportunistic, words penned to promote a specific agenda or idea with no feeling behind it; voiceless words, pushing platitudes that a thousand thousand other people have pushed, each varying only slightly from the empty words of their predecessors—those variations being only a way of shoehorning the same tired, irrelevant, manipulative idea into something designed to hook the brainless masses. Those writers should be dismissed for being paid.

And then there’s writing you feel in your core. There is writing that makes you want to laugh, cry, jump for joy, punch walls, pull off your clothes and jump into a pool wearing nothing but your skivvies, and sit curled up in a corner alternatively talking to your security blanket and shoveling half-melted ice cream into your already caramel stained mouth, all at once. There’s writing that changes you. There’s writing that calls to your soul with a voice that demands to be heard. There’s writing that is born of passion, experience, and a burning desire to share with the world a masterpiece, painted by pen, one word at a time. There’s writing that alters the life of the reader—that can save or destroy the life of the reader. Such is the power of the written word. Like any other implement, it can build or destroy, beautify or befoul, inspire or devastate. Trust me, reader, when I tell you that it has the same effect on the author as it does on you.

Writing has been my outlet, the method why which I heal, and my contribution to a damaged world I hope to do my part to heal. Through writing, I can express what I can’t bring myself to utter. I’ve felt everything I’ve made my readers feel, and more. The more I’ve written, however, the more I’ve come to realize that as cathartic as the experience of writing can be, nothing compares to the power of a reader’s feedback. The timing makes this all the more significant for me: It’s November, and NaNoWriMo saved my life.

Those of you who follow my blog are familiar with my story. For those of you who aren’t, here’s what you need to know. My life completely fell apart six years ago. It took me a while, but after around a year, and with some help from a certain special someone, I was finally ready to write about it. I wrote a very long article for Ami Magazine, which was published. It’s hard to describe how liberating it felt to tell the world about my life after suffering silently for so long. I knew I needed to do more. For months my friends had been buzzing about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is a sort of contest put on every year by the Office of Letters and Light, to see who can write a novel within 30 days. There aren’t really any prizes, but you do get serious bragging rights. There are write-ins, and all sorts of motivational tools on their website. If you’re going to write a book, November is the time to do it. And I wanted to write a book.

And so, I did. Fifty-some-odd-thousand words in two weeks. I barely ate or slept. This book was going to be the meaning for everything that had happened to me; it would give reason to all the suffering—it would be my reason for living. It took everything out of me, but there it was: My story. It was a memoir, not a novel, but still. It was pretty cool. I spent the next week and a half editing the thing, rewriting parts that needed fixing, correcting the odd typo here and there. Finally, about a week ahead of the deadline, I had something I thought was publishable. (It wasn’t, but I was a kid, so what did I know.) Proudly, I walked to the Fedex office three blocks away, and had my manuscript printed and bound. And there I stood, holding what had kept me going, my raison d’être, in my hands, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that.

I remember feeling at once profoundly euphoric and profoundly meaningless. Those pages in my hand had been my life, from the time Ami had published my article to the time my manuscript came out of the printer at FedEx, and now I had it, and I wasn’t sure what was next. What if it was rejected. What if it was never published. What if my purpose never came to fruition. I walked out of that FedEx Office smiling and crying, and into a nearby subway station to catch a train home. And as I stood there on the platform, watching the train coming, a voice niggled at the back of my consciousness, asking “What if?” For the second time in my life, I considered it. Indeed, what if. I’d never see my purpose fulfilled, but then again, I probably wouldn’t anyway. What if. What if I didn’t have to wonder. What if it ended right there, with my life literally in my hands. What if.

I got on that train instead of jumping in front of it, but that feeling of meaninglessness didn’t go away. The euphoria did, though, and the next day I showed up at the last write-in of NaNoWriMo profoundly depressed. As I sat there flipping through my manuscript, my laptop dinged, notifying me of incoming email. It wasn’t from anyone I knew, but the subject said it had to do with my book, so I opened it. It was from a friend of a friend who had seen the summary of my book on my NaNoWriMo page and had a similar history. We chatted a little bit, and got to know each other, and then she sent me her story. It was remarkably similar to mine, right down to the family history of mental illness, abuse, anxiety, and PTSD. She told me how much it meant to her to see someone writing their story—her story—knowing that there were other people out there who knew what she was going through, and who cared about her.

And right then, I knew what my purpose was. That feeling of meaninglessness went away. I knew that my purpose was not just to get my book published, but to use my abilities as a writer to help others who don’t have a voice, who are either not ready or able to express themselves, tell their stories, or begin the process of healing. My purpose was to be there for those people and tell them that they are not alone. As I wrote in another piece on this blog:

…I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

So, yeah, that’s how NaNoWriMo saved my life. What’s your NaNoWriMo story?