Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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On Being a Real Writer

(I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog more generally, but here’s something while I continue to think about that. And I didn’t put “real” in quotes, but feel free to imagine them there if you want.)

When I was a teenager (and I think continuing into college, maybe even grad school) I thought of myself as a real writer. I was serious not just about writing but about revising my work! I submitted stories to professional magazines! I hadn’t been published yet, but I was young and inexperienced and that was to be expected. But I was a real writer, or I was going to be, and certainly compared to most teenagers that was a fair self-assessment.

Then I went to grad school. And then I started working in a public school. And for years, either I didn’t write or the things I wrote fundamentally didn’t work. (I can think of at least three stories I finished and then looked at them and thought, “Yep, that can’t be fixed,” though the realization took longer in some cases than in others.)

That’s not to say I didn’t publish. All the stories I’ve published came out after college, and the last one, “The Castle That Jack Built,” came out after I’d started teaching.

But I’d written the first drafts of all of them in college. And nothing I’d written since college worked. And somewhere along the way I stopped thinking of myself as a real writer, because I was barely writing and had nothing to submit places, let alone anything being published, and can you really be a real writer if you don’t have anything to show for it?


Almost three weeks ago I finished the latest draft of the story I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It’s still not done, and honestly I’m getting pretty sick of it not being done, but each draft is still objectively better than its predecessor and I’ve sent it to a bunch of smart people to read and hopefully they’ll help me figure out what still needs doing. Certainly this draft feels like Progress.

A week and a half ago I was at a bar with friends, including (unexpectedly) some writer friends, and I realized that for the first time in I wasn’t sure how long I felt like a real writer again. I had a story that was, if not ready to submit places, certainly approaching that point. I had multiple other projects to move on to next. I was out at a bar talking with other writers about writer stuff.

It was a huge relief, in the way that publishing my first story was a huge relief. Then it was, “Okay, I’ve been saying for years that I would do this, and now I’ve done it.” Now it was, “Okay, that whole not-writing thing really was a phase because grad school and teaching and figuring out adulting took up too much of my brain.” In both cases I’d validated my self-perception.


If you asked high school me what it meant to be a real writer, I think she would’ve said it’s about being published, or at least writing stories of good enough quality to be publishable. If you ask me now . . . I’m not sure I know. It’s partly about publishing, yes, or the quality of the work, but I think at least for me it’s also about the doing. I didn’t feel like a real writer because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t writing. It was hard when story after story failed because I only had the one project in my head at a time; I didn’t have anything I could point to as coming up next if this didn’t work out.

I can have a writerly conversation about a work in progress regardless of whether that work ends up published or not. I can’t really have a writerly conversation about the fact that I’ve been spending all of my free time crocheting and watching Netflix. (I can have a conversation with writers about that, absolutely, but those conversations aren’t generally writerly, at least not in my experience.)


There’s a part of me that worries that it’s so much harder to make time for writing now than it was in high school because I’m happier now. Happier is a good thing! I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it means that I have to make the time, that reading and writing are no longer my default activities, because now I have Netflix, and now I have friends nearby and a car to get to them, and now I have too little free time instead of too much.

I’m still working out what to do about that.

I’ve added reading/writing to my Dailies on Habitica, because I’ve realized that I feel so much better if I’ve done at least some reading or writing every day. That helps somewhat. I’ve also just set myself a NaNoWriMo-adjacent challenge: since I have about 15k words of the novel-thing from last year, I’m going to try to get that up to 20k by the end of October and then 40k by the end of November. That still won’t be a whole novel, but it’ll be a big chunk of writing, and I think those goals are manageable enough that I can keep with them. (I chose 20k on the grounds that that’s 1k a day not including weekends or holidays, so I don’t have to feel guilty about spending time with friends/family.)

We’ll see how it goes. It’s hard to want to do a million things that all really work better if you can do them daily and know that that’s just not feasible, that I have to pick and choose or rotate them or something. But I think this one is important, and I need to treat it like it’s important, and rotate the others.

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Some thoughts on the first third of NaNoWriMo:

For four glorious days, I was on track for 50k. Each day I thought, at one point or another, “I won’t even make it to 1000 words, let alone 1,667,” and then I would keep writing, and then I would make the day’s word count total.

By the fifth day, I was exhausted. Aside from some short reading breaks I’d pretty much gone to work, come home, written until (past) bedtime, and then gone to sleep. My dirty dishes were piling up, as was the clean laundry that needed to be put away. I hadn’t touched my crochet project, which is time-sensitive in its own right. And I was worrying pretty much constantly about the writing time I would lose to orchestra rehearsals and social plans that were already on my calendar before I’d decided to try NaNoWriMo.

So I let my friend point out to me that, as far as my original 30k goal went, I was good through Saturday, and I gave myself Thursday night off. I watched some TV, I worked on my crochet project, I went to orchestra, and I felt a lot better. And I didn’t worry, on Friday, when I was too busy running errands and then too tired to write. Or Saturday, when I was visiting with friends.

But then I didn’t write on Sunday, either, because I needed the introvert time, or Monday, because I went to a concert after work, or Tuesday because I was too tired again. And I was really tempted not to write today, to spend the day off from work watching television and catching up on chores.

So here are some things I’ve learned from the first third of NaNoWriMo:

  • I can write a lot more in a day than I thought I could.
  • If I know enough about my characters and what needs to happen it’s easier than I expected to let myself be vague or wrong or inelegant and plan to fix it later in the interest of getting words on the page.
  • Writing 1500-1700 words every day when I’m working full time is too much for me to do and still be healthy. I need some down time for crafts and things, and I need time to see people, and I need time to do at least some basic chores. Aiming for 750-1000 words a day is probably pretty reasonable, though.
  • It really is easier to write if I do it every day, and it’s hard to make myself get back into it after several days away.
  • I feel a lot better — happier, more energetic, more like myself — when I’m writing.

Some of that is stuff that I knew, or guessed, but even with something like “writing makes me feel better,” knowing it’s true isn’t the same as experiencing it in the moment. Mostly I’m glad I wrote down my intentions before I started, and while I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I can write in a day, I’m also pleasantly surprised at how spot-on my intentions (1k/day, aim for writing every day consistently rather than pushing for a bigger word count and burning out) turned out to be.

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What would winning look like?

So I mentioned I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Attempting. Whatever.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually expect to hit 50k. I’m not even going to try to aim for 50k. I’m aiming for 30k. I have a full time job that requires a lot of energy. I have a bunch of social plans I’ve already made for November, including several days around Thanksgiving. If I can average a thousand words a day I will be elated.

Why, then, am I doing NaNoWriMo if I’m not expecting to “win”? I hate losing, and I hate failing at things (or feeling like I’m failing, which I realize isn’t always the same thing). I expect to get good things out of this experience, but part of the point is to have that specific goal; since I’m not aiming for the mutually-agreed-upon target, here’s what I am aiming for:

  • I want to get back into the habit of writing regularly. Having a difficult but achievable word count goal (30k for the month/1k per day) will encourage me to stick with it and make it a priority.
  • I want to try to write faster and worry less about whether it’s “right.” It’s not going to be right on the first draft, and starting this during NaNoWriMo helps me give myself permission to go for quantity over quality. After all, it’s going to need tons of revisions no matter what I do; I might as well focus on giving myself something — anything — to work with.
  • I want to actually write this novel. It’s been kicking around in my brain making me crazy for seven years and counting, here, and I’d like to have something to show for it. If I can, by some miracle, write 50k words of it, that’s a big percentage of the project done. If I manage a smaller number of words — the 30k I’m aiming for, or even 20k — but build up good habits and momentum and keep myself excited about this project, that works too. But I’d rather have a smaller total word count and keep writing than hit 50k and give up.

So that’s what winning looks like for me, in case you were wondering, but mostly in case I get partway through November and forget.

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I don’t do NaNoWriMo.

I have friends who do NaNoWriMo. I’ve had Friends Who Do NaNoWriMo for over a decade now. But I don’t do NaNoWriMo, because I write slowly and I can’t make stories come together to deadlines and November’s a crazy month and and and.

All of my reasons for not doing NaNoWriMo are good ones, and they make a lot of sense for my usual approach to writing. This weekend, though, I was talking with a friend about her novel draft and my novel-thing and I realized that I’ve already done a lot of planning and plotting and character building for this thing. (I’ve been working on it off and on since late fall of 2008, after all.) And it’s already non-linear, so my usual need to let the first draft grow organically (and in order) doesn’t apply so much with this project. And my friend’s draft was peppered with notes about scenes for her to write later.

Sometime in the past 36 hours or so all these facts came together in my head and I realized: I don’t normally do NaNoWriMo, but maybe this year I could. And it sure would be nice to make some meaningful progress with this thing, to have a complete enough draft that I can actually work with it.

So I guess I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year.