The other day I was reading through my 25 Things in My 25th Year list, and wondering how I had failed so dismally to fulfill the big-ticket items I had really wanted to go after this year. Grad school? Waved those deadlines goodbye as they wooshed past me with beating wings. Spend some time in Melbourne? Not going to happen this year either. Continue working on Flyleaf? Kind of a moot point (moot goal?), since I basically did away with Flyleaf and have undergone a 180 degree change in my blogging goals, namely that I no longer have any.


And then my eye fell on the last item on the list: Participate in Nanowrimo. For those who don’t know, Nanowrimo is a challenge in which participants write a 50,000-draft of a novel in 30 days. When I read it, something inside my brain began to hum.


It’s an indication of how far off the mark my actual accomplishments for this year have been in comparison to what I intended to do, as well as a sign of my tendency to overestimate my time management skills that I actually thought that of all the items left on my list, writing a novel in one month seemed to me rather…doable.


So as late summer turned into fall and while I was sitting on a series of trains traversing the length and breadth of some of Switzerland’s most beautiful sights, I started toying with the idea of writing a story about winter. I thought it would be perfect. All the long, hot, sticky Beijing summer I had dreamed about winter. I longed for cold weather, hot tea, woolen leggings, oversized cashmere sweaters, the feeling of coziness conjured up by the sight of snow drifting outside your windows while you remain inside, safe and warm. 


I came up with a plot. I invented a character I liked. I made up a world I wanted to live in myself. I drafted out outlines of chapters, created a writing schedule. And inevitably, I have discovered, as no doubt generations of writers before me have discovered, that between ‘I think I’ll write a story about winter’ to 50,000-word first draft of a novel is a veritable sea of slogging, procrastination, obsessive snacking and tea-drinking. I’m currently at roughly 26,000 words which puts me about 4,000 words behind schedule. I haven’t even reached my first plot point. At this moment, every sentence  I write triggers an avalanche of existentialist angst and self-doubt.


How do people do this? 


The most unexpected thing that has resulted from my foray into Nanowrimo is finding that I have a renewed appreciation for good writing, especially when that good writing is sustained over the course of a sizable novel. When I read books before, it was as if all I could see was the product, as if it was all about me and my enjoyment of it. But now, I appreciate it when a novelist turns out descriptions that are spot on, when his pacing is exquisite, when his dialogue is so illuminating it makes the lightbulb in my brain go crazy. Because I now grasp more fully how goddamn difficult it is. And I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever get there.


For years and years I said I wanted to be a writer, and it’s only now that I’ve realized the arrogance of that statement. Because to paraphrase Thoreau, how vain it is to stand up and say one wants to be a writer, when one has not truly sat down to write.