Milam’s Musings, milambc@miamioh.edu

Writing, good writing, I should say, in its purest and rawest form is akin to bleeding on the page. Forged in those bloody pages is a connection between the
author and the reader.

There is nothing to writing, Hemingway said, but to sit down at a typewriter and bleed. With respect to Hemingway, he’s only half-right. To follow through with Hemingway’s description, bleeding is easy; it’s bringing the knife to your skin that’s hard.

Macabre for sure, but that’s how I see it. But what’s lost on people that don’t write is their perception of writers.

Thomas Mann once said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. I’ve found that to be the case, no matter the assignment or the length.

My first memory of writing a story was in my first grade class. I forget what the assignment was, but I kept asking my teacher for an extension because in my mind, I was writing a masterpiece and I just needed to keep adding more to the story.

Instead, I wrote a meandering eight-page story about a guy in a trench coat scaring this couple in a mall by popping out and yelling, “Boo!” I grew up on R.L. Stine, so emulate him, I tried.

It was obviously garbage and I like to think I’ve written better stories since then, but writing has never come easy.

Even so, that doesn’t stop my family or friends from thinking I can disappear in the basement for a few hours and return with a publishable, soon-to-be New York Times bestseller before dinner.

Sure, there’s a certain romanticism I ascribe to writing, like I need to be Thoreau and disappear in the woods to write, but there is undoubtedly a bit of craziness that goes into turning a blank page into a page of legible and meaningful squiggles.  

As Neil Gaiman said, being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.

I’ve been conquered and consumed by that blank screen enough times that my face ought to be a blinking cursor.

Nevertheless, this month that’s a battle I’m hoping to win. Taking place until the end of the month is National Novel Writing Month, shortened to NaNoWriMo, a creative writing project to “write a novel,” created 15 years ago.

To “win,” you have to write 50,000 words by month’s end (logged into their web site) or 1,666 words a day. Some notable books to come out of NaNoWriMo include Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Reportedly, by 2010, some 200,000 people took part.

Last year, I took part for the first time and “won,” but the “novel” I created still sits somewhere on my computer untouched since then because it was something I’d be embarrassed to put in my dog’s bowl.

The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to make you write, which is a feat in itself. Starting that first word and that first sentence has always been the most difficult part about writing. Aside from the plethora of distractions a click away, writing is draining. After all, you’re bleeding.

I’m under no illusions. I do not think writing a novel under the umbrella of NaNoWriMo makes me an author anymore than I think taking a selfie makes me a photographer, but the purpose of the project makes it worthwhile all the same.

This time, I’m going into it with a better plan. As in, I’m actually going to have a plan, as opposed to last year where I “pantsed” it, as the NaNoWriMo folks call writing by the seat of your pants.

There is just no way to wing it with 1,666 words a day. I regularly take part in flash fiction contests where the word maximum is, at most, 360 words. In that instance, pantsing it is okay.

Even then, I fail repeatedly. I submit my flash fiction to a variety of online (and less frequently print) literary magazines and am routinely rejected. If you looked at my Submittable, a site that helps track your submissions, it would be filled with precisely 25 submissions listed as “declined” out of 30 submitted.

There’s only one submission “accepted” on there. That’s not counting magazines I submitted to outside the purview of that particular tracking service.

The point is, failure is hardwired into a writer because it’s sure to happen a lot and in many cases, it’s necessary as a mechanism to improve the writing.

It can be hard. Consider, I just bled onto this page for you only for it to not be a match. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Now what?”

Bleed again, I suppose.

Some writers will say they only write for themselves or for the art of the language itself, which are both good reasons. Writing can be cathartic and language is beautiful, but it’s a delusion to think they don’t write for others.

The end game is for a stranger thousands of miles away to find your words and connect to them. There is no greater high than someone else feeling something from the squiggles that splooged out of your brain onto the blank screen.

Writing for NaNoWriMo is an exercise in daily masochism with the sliver of hope that excellence resides on the other side of Dec. 1.

Now if only I could find that old typewriter I used to have and some sure-to-be-used whiteout …

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