The Blocked And The Brain-Dead: How I (Didn’t) Fail At Being A Writer

By Robyn Robles – Each year on the first of November hundreds of thousands of people from all different walks of life sit down in studies, in cafes, in libraries, on the floor…

By Robyn Robles

Each year on the first of November hundreds of thousands of people from all different walks of life sit down in studies, in cafes, in libraries, on the floor of their kid’s playroom – and they start to write. November has been enshrined in the minds of many of us who feel this gravitational pull towards the written word. Arranged by nonprofit National Novel Writer’s Month, November is set aside by many as authors from every walk of life attempt to write an entire novel in just 30 days. It is a mammoth task, as this writer found out in 2017. Encouraged by tutors and family, I set out to write a fiction novel based in the Spanish Civil War that would form part of my bachelor’s dissertation, hoping to kill two birds with one stone.

And I failed. Miserably in fact.

Out of the goal of 50,000 words, I managed 9,812, a number that pales in comparison to the task I had set myself. For this chronic high-achiever and general vortex of academical anxiety, it was a number that haunted my nightmares frequently in the weeks that followed the 30th of November deadline. In an attempt to stem the guilt, I thought I would reach out to the Cambridge Wrimos, a local group who get together each year to help each other through the stresses of the month with grace, weekly write-ins and lashings of coffee. I will not lie, I went into it hoping to find others who had fallen short of their goal and wallow in the self-imposed misery of failure together. I spoke to a handful of other writers who were kind enough to shake off the post-NaNoWriMo exhaustion and talk to me about their experience.

I found, almost to my surprise, that no one else I spoke to had this same problem. Every one of them had completed the 50,000-word goal. I was curious and, assuming that they must have had an easy time of it, I set out to learn whatever secrets these success stories possessed.

I understood one of my biggest errors when speaking to Jane Chan from Cambridge. Jane told me, “I have met a lovely group of writers from last year’s NaNo, and that truly encouraged me to try it again”. I had tried to complete the project alone, locked in my room, and so missed out on one of NaNoWriMo’s greatest strengths – a support system. In 2016 there were 384,126 people who took part ( That is a lot of support to missing out on when you are miserably chugging Irish coffees at 2am in an attempt to squeeze out something that could reasonably be called a sentence from your frazzled brain.

If I had reached out to this wider community, I may have found that many others were also struggling with daily life issues that made it difficult to find the time to write. I myself am a busy student with a host of deadlines and mental health problems that regularly impede my ability to be anything resembling a productive person. Jane told me about how her full-time job would leave her “pretty exhausted when [she would] come home, and the thought of sitting down to write 1,667 words was not so enticing in those moments”. Jac Harmon, 56, also from Cambridge, touched on the “family issues” that plagued her throughout November. Another of my interviewees, Joanna Costin, is a busy doctorate student with a part-time job and she admitted that 2017 “was probably [her] hardest year yet to find time to write”.

And yet, they come back to it over and over. It was Jane and Jac’s second and third time respectively taking part. And when I spoke to Joanna I was shocked to learn that it was her eleventh time doing NaNoWriMo! Whether they have plans to publish, like Jac and Joanna, or simply write for the enjoyment, like Jane, there is something about NaNoWriMo that inspires a usually-solitary sub-culture of society to come together and form a community every single year and pour themselves into writing a lot of words in a very short amount of time.

The process of writing this article taught me one very important thing: that my November was not, in fact, a failure. I ended the month with more words than I started, and that will always be a triumph for any writer.

For me personally, it was not a system that worked this time around. Never having participated in NaNoWriMo, I was woefully unprepared. I had done little of the necessary research ahead of time and had planned virtually none of my novel’s progression. These are crucial steps that seasoned NaNoWriMo participants are well aware of.

We are now half-way to April when Camp NaNoWriMo begins. I am going to have another stab at finishing my novel then. This time with more planning and less reckless naivety, but certainly not with any less enthusiasm for this craft that I love with my whole heart.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock License

The discussions, views and opinions made by individuals in this piece have been obtained first hand by the author. They have been given permission to use these individuals details. 

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