Writing for the sake of words 

On April 21, 1915 Craigie Lorimer interrupted her diary description of the old town in Salonika:

“What awful rot this sounds, I wonder if anyone will understand and not think I’m writing for the sake of words.”

Craigie’s words struck with me, and have stayed with me every since I first read them (more years ago now than I like to count). She intended her diary to have an audience, even while she was constructing her words (and interestingly for a historian, that means her awareness of her potential audience likely had an effect on what as well as how she wrote). Obviously all of the diaries I read in my research ended up having an audience, but many of them, unlike the letters or memoirs, were intended as private aide-memoirs. I believe that Craigie intended to share her diary with her family on her return from Serbia, and likely that is what she did. The version in the IWM documents collection is an undated typescript, transcribed (and likely edited) by her husband. The typescript is undated but I suspect it was done at some later date, to form a family heirloom, before being passed onto the museum. But that is a story for another time.

I think about the above quote, which marks a usually private form of writing as intended to be public, when considering the private value of a usually public form of writing: the novel.  

I’ve been writing, seriously, for over three years but it feels strange to be to discuss it so openly because I’ve always been a bit secretive; I didn’t want to jinx my success. But recently I’ve come to realise that success (or however I’d previously defined success) is not the point. The point is: words.

Words. 50,000 words. This somewhat arbitrary number is what, by definition makes up a novel during the month of November (NaNoWriMo). 50,000 over 30 days works out to 1667 words per day, and would-be novelists are obsessed by this number. We are obsessed by word counts. “What’s yours?”

Words. By the end of the month, many of us are just writing for the sake of words, any old nonsense, adjectives galore, just to get to that magical, mythical number.

I’ve done “Nano” for ten years but this year is my real anniversary, because it was ten years ago that I became a London Nano-er. I was new to the city but had been here long enough to realise how hard it was to make friends and how easy it was to feel homesick, even when you no longer have a home. I didn’t want to stay in on Halloween, and I saw it was the kick off party at a pub in West London, so I went and, on the back of that, decided to write a novel. I can honestly say that decision changed my life: the people I met during Nano, and the people I met through them, form the foundations of my career, my romantic life, and most of my important friendships. The novels are almost beside the point.

Last year I calculated that I’d written my 500,000 Nano word. Half a million words. That’s not including any words written outside of Nano, but with one notable exception there aren’t very many of them.

For years I was a November novelist. Like fair-weather cyclists, some of them accept and own this about themselves. Others have more ambitious intentions. They take December off, but their new year’s resolution is to edit their novel. They form writing groups with their Nano friends, in their favourite Nano cafes. But before they know it, it’s November again, their red pen is still full of ink and a new idea is beckoning.

For years I sat in judgement of those people, despite the fact that I was one of them. You’ll never get anywhere in your writing unless you work on it year round, I’d think. I had a good excuse — I could justify taking one month off PhD work to dash out a 50k draft of a novel, but the rest of the year I had to be dedicated to my research and writing. Someday, once I finished my PhD — then I would edit that novel.

Actually, I learned a lot about writing from Nanowrimo that helped me in my PhD. The year I decided to write 50k even though I was going on holiday for the last two weeks of November was when I discovered I could get up early and write for an hour or two, which is how I finished my thesis while working full time. The classic Nanowrimo strategy of turning off your internal editor and bashing through a rough first draft so at least you have something to edit applies just as well to non-fiction writing, I’ve since discovered.

The irony is, if I’d worked as hard at my thesis as I did at my novels and spent less time organising my spice rack, I could have written and edited six novels in the additional time it took my to finish my PhD. 

Never mind. You can’t change the past. In June 2014 I finally did Phinish. I got married in July and in August I picked up my notebooks. November novelist no more! 

Lucky for me, I loved (almost) every minute of writing and editing my novels, but when I decided to pursue publication writing stopped being fun for me. Then Nanowrimo reminded me how to seperate the words from the process. November 2016 came at the end of a long, hard year plagued misfortune and marked by a period of such misery that I had to ditch the perfume I’d been wearing because the scent of it made me sick. My American friends and I have a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving day in the American bar at the Savoy. I remembered the previous year’s glass of champagne: my beloved cat had terminal cancer, I wasn’t pregnant despite years of effort, the best thing I’d written was getting rejections everyday, and quite frankly Paris in 1919 was a more appealing time and place to be, mentally. A year later I was sipping an overpriced mocktail because I’d just finished a round of IVF and dared either to hope nor to take any chances. Writing was, once again, a chance to escape.

I wrote the last words of my novel the day before I had my first ever positive pregnancy test. I hurried to finish early because I knew I wouldn’t feel like writing if it was a thin blue line.

I haven’t even opened those two notebooks since that day. Nine other novels are in a similar state but in a scrivener file on my laptop. Maybe one day, in a different form, they’ll see the light of day. Or maybe not. In a way I don’t really mind, because they’ve served their purpose.

So I’m a “serious” writer now, but I’m also still a November novelist. As disheartening as the publishing rat race is, writing is still fun and it still makes me happy, and I’m going to keep doing it even if no one sees the words but me. How liberating, to write with only the goal of indulging yourself. Writing, not just for the sake of words, but for the pleasure those words bring.


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