In my time as a writer, I’ve taken part in maybe five or six NaNoWriMos. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an event where participants around the world sprint towards writing 50,000 words in the month of November. The idea is, we all want to write a novel ‘someday’ and the best way to get started is to Just Write It. Fifty thousand words in a month works out to 1,667 words a day. It doesn’t look like much when you break it down like that, but in practice for me at least NaNo is always a wild ride alternately peppered with coffee, tears, and typing the same sentence over and over again in different ways to pad my word count.
The exact number of times I’ve done NaNo escapes me now. I remember several attempts where I didn’t hit 50,000 words, one where I did but didn’t finish my story (my hubristic ambition and I were, in fact, less than halfway through the story when I hit the target), and finally 2013, when I actually managed to finish in about 50,000 words. This first completed novel of mine was a young adult fantasy heist called The Shadow of Curzon. After I finished it, I logged on to the NaNo forums and found someone to exchange novels with. His name was David and he was the first person to ever read a novel of mine.
About halfway through my novel, David was involved in a car accident. His car, less than a year old and in which he’d just installed a new stereo system, was completely wrecked. Insurance provided monetary compensation, but came nowhere near how much that car was worth to him in intangible ways. He wasn’t too hurt, physically, but he was stressed, upset and frustrated.
That weekend, David wrote to tell me that to calm his nerves through this ordeal, he read The Shadow of Curzon. He could have gone to any of his favourite authors for a familiar comfort read, he said, but he wanted to finish my novel because he had grown attached to my characters. Because he wanted to follow their journey to its end, and because the novel gave him that unique sense of peace that only a story can immerse us in, when everything else around us is falling apart.
As writers, it’s fatally easy to look at our peers and feel like we’re failures, especially if you only started later in your life. You see twentysomethings on their fifth novel, winning awards, speaking on writers’ festival panels while you’re one foot on the wrong side of 30, still in the audience wondering what to make of all the word soup in your head. It’s insidious and awful. You read work your classmates have written and think you will never write a line as beautiful. You resist the urge daily to delete all your half-completed WIPs and take up a less stressful hobby, such as binging Netflix, teaching yourself the ukulele, or baking macarons. Surely all those things are more relaxing than continuing to sit and grind out one word after another only to realise they all suck.
I think something I had to internalise very quickly, when I first started sending my work out into the world, is that writing and publishing are in fact two completely separate and distinct practices. One is an act of creation between you and your words, the other is a process governed by a myriad of factors beyond your control, from editorial whims to market forces to sheer dumb luck. But it is so tempting to conflate success in writing with success in publishing.
At my admissions interview for the MA in Creative Writing I’m currently doing, I asked my programme leader what his hopes for his graduates were. Did he want everyone to publish? Well, he said, it’s nice to see people publishing, of course. But writing just makes you a better person whether you publish or not. It gives you an outlet to dive deep and interrogate your experiences, your emotions, your view of the world. And that’s a perfectly good reason to write. In fact, maybe there isn’t a better reason to write.
Six years on, I still think of what David told me. I will never forget the feeling of hearing from someone that something I wrote brought them peace. That my novel was a companion to someone in a tough time. To this day, David is still the only person to have read The Shadow of Curzon. The manuscript sits comfortably in the bottom of my digital drawer and I don’t intend to take it out again, but I’m happy I worked so hard through November 2013 to write it because it made a difference to one person. I won’t publish that novel and I don’t want to, but it was a success to me.
This is my last post as guest blogger for Margaret River Press. I’ve had a wonderful time, and I wanted to end on this note: that the greatest thing my writing practice has taught me is patience, and compassion, towards myself most of all. I have bad days. We all have bad days when the words won’t come, and when they do, it’s like turning on the tap only to get dripping sludge. But I am not my writing. I haven’t done a NaNoWriMo since I finished The Shadow of Curzon, because I no longer feel like I need to write like I’m running out of time (to quote Hamilton). To me, success doesn’t look so much like rushing towards publication anymore. I’d like to be writing for a long time yet, and to that end, there are days when success is simply making it through the day without burning out.
I don’t think I’m a failure if I wake up some mornings and the last thing I want to do is write. If I wake up with the patience to get on with my life and show up to the page, bit by little bit, I believe I will find my own way to define success. So will you. And when you find the answer, you don’t have to tell anybody else what it is. This is for you, and you alone.
Chen Cuifen was born and raised in Singapore where she now lives and works, having spent many years abroad in the UK and Australia. Her poetry has been published in Southeast Asian Review of English, while her fiction is forthcoming from Ethos Books/Margaret River Press, and her creative nonfiction in the journal Fourth Genre. In 2018, Cuifen was the first prize winner of the UK’s Troubadour International Poetry Prize. She is currently pursuing a MA in Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts.