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.

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I would say it’s been a long time since I finished a story, but that’s not exactly true: even with how slowly I write, and with grad school and my first few years teaching on top of that, I can think of about four stories I’ve both started and finished in the past five years.

The problem is, the first three didn’t work. The first two were unsalvageable, so fundamentally flawed that almost immediately after finishing the first drafts I wrote them off as extended writing exercises. The third one almost worked, and I might still go back to it someday, but I finally had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have enough of a handle on who my characters were as people, and until I figured that out their story would continue not quite working.

It made me nervous. All of the stories I’ve had published before — all the stories I’ve been able to revise to the point where they worked — I first wrote in college. Sure, I made all of the important revisions for “Lily” and “The Castle That Jack Built” during or just after grad school, but I’d had the basic material for both while I was still an undergrad. What if I couldn’t do it anymore? I couldn’t help wondering.


Over the summer I fell in love with Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s art, especially this poster. I even did a little bit of freewriting inspired by the counting rhyme and the feeling of her art, if not the specific images. I wrote one scene, and I read it over afterward and thought, “Hey, that’s really neat! I have no idea what it means!” and then I more or less put it aside until suddenly, a couple of months later, the rest of the story came to me.

At that point I made a deal with myself: finish the story, and you’re allowed to buy the poster.

It turns out that was a really smart deal to make, and I wish I could take credit for having realized that in advance. Mostly, though, I was worried about what would happen if I bought art that I associated with a story, and then the story didn’t work or I just never finished it. Wouldn’t that just remind me of my failure? Better to wait, and be sure, and then I could buy the art as a celebration of my success.

Really, though, that poster is what kept me writing. At first the story came quickly and easily, almost as if it existed already and my job was just to record it. Then I kept rethinking what it was about, and who my characters were, until dozens of small shifts had turned it into something a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult to write. (The fact that it was better than the version I’d started out writing was not as great comfort as you might imagine.) Whenever I got frustrated, though, I’d find myself looking at that poster online and thinking, “I really want this on my wall,” and I’d sigh and get back to work.

I’d like to think I would’ve finished eventually anyway, but I’m not honestly sure, and even if I had I’m sure it would’ve taken a lot longer.


I finished the first draft of my magpie story, and then I had a decision to make. You see, my deal with myself was that I had to finish the story before I could buy the poster, but I had deliberately left “finish” undefined. Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft”? Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft and revisions and be ready to submit it places”? Did it mean something in between?

Really what “finish” meant was “finish enough that you’re sure it’s going to work,” and I hadn’t defined it further because I didn’t know when I would feel that way. Certainly I didn’t know when I finally typed the pound signs at the end of my first draft, already sleep deprived before staying up until nearly two in the morning writing, whether it worked. At that point I was just excited to have a beginning, middle, and end.

It’s funny, though: I’ve been looking back through old e-mails and online posts to try and figure out when I bought the poster and what, if anything, prompted me to decide I was ready. I thought I remembered waiting a day or two, but as I looked at timestamps I realized that actually I waited about twelve hours. It couldn’t have been based on critiques/feedback, because I didn’t have any until a week later, and I was much too anxious at that point to have read it over myself.

What I do remember is that I still had doubts. I told myself that yes it was a first draft and it probably had problems, but it was a solid first draft, and I sort of believed myself. I still worried, though, that somewhere out there was a shoe with “this sucks” scrawled all over it in permanent maker just waiting for me to build up my confidence before it dropped.

I ordered the poster anyway.

This morning I worked a little bit more on the revisions for the second draft before deciding to switch gears and (finally) write this blog entry. I’m more confident now that the first draft was pretty solid (as far as first drafts go), and that the second draft will be even stronger, though I’m pretty sure I’ll need at least one more draft after this one. We’ll see if I manage to finish the second draft before I have to go back to work on Monday, but even if I don’t that’s okay. I’ll keep working at it, and the work will get done.

I’m still nervous about it, of course, but I’m also pretty happy with where it is and where it’s headed. And I’ve gotta say, that poster looks pretty damn good on my wall.

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To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) . . . .

(No, it is not actually possible for me to think that phrase without hearing the song in my head.)

The other week I was chatting with a friend about different seasons, and he mentioned that spring often reminds him of fall because as the weather gets warm he remembers the last time the weather was warm. The logic was obvious once he said it, but the idea of warm weather reminding him of warm weather without regard to season fascinated me because it is, for me, an utterly foreign concept. Fall and spring look different. They smell different.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how much my impressions of different seasons are informed by the cycle of the school year. With the exception of one semester off between undergrad and grad school I’ve been in school for as long as I can remember — first as a student, now as a teacher. For me, the new year begins in September and ends in August. Fall means the start of school. Fall means I have reserves of energy even when I’m exhausted. Fall means looking forward to cooler weather, and changing leaves, and Hallowe’en, and thinking even beyond that to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Spring, on the other hand, is about clinging to each new flower and extra minute of daylight to get through the last leg of the school-year marathon. Fall begins with a flurry of events that then settle into a routine, while spring means watching my routine be slowly overrun with end-of-year events and trips and final projects.

I’m thinking about this today because I’ve started work on a new story. I actually wrote the first scene as a sort of free-writing exercise a couple of months back but then had no idea what to do with it. I finally figured out where it’s going, though, and I’ve spent a good chunk of my “free” time the past few days scribbling notes, filling in details for myself. I’m excited about it in a way that I haven’t been about my other current work in progress, mostly because that still requires a lot of research while this new story is one I can dive straight into. At the same time, I don’t know that I would have been quite this excited — or, more importantly, this productive — had I known how to continue when I wrote the opening.

You see, just as different times of year have their seasons, so too does writing: namely, whenever I’m really busy and ought to be doing other things.

Maybe it’s a version of the procrastination game (where you trick yourself into doing tasks you’ve been putting off by using them to put off even less appealing tasks), but in high school I’d always get the itch to write around midterms and finals, and you’re much more likely to find me writing when it’s late and I ought to be going to bed than you are to find me sitting down to write first thing in the morning. Stressful as these first couple of weeks back have been, I wasn’t surprised to find myself staying up too late because I thought of more character notes. That’s how it’s always been.

I daydream about someday finding the perfect level of busy-ness to be sustainable: enough to keep me energized and interested in writing, but not so much that it’s overwhelming or I burn out on sleep deprivation. Even then, though, if I’m really being honest with myself I’m not sure it would result in a steady stream of words. Yes, the school year affects my sense of the seasons, but it doesn’t define them entirely. If night is my best time for writing, then the dark months of fall and winter are writing season. Come spring and sunshine I want to get out and do things and spend time with people, and I suspect that would take its toll even on a more structured summer than mine currently are.


In which I am about seventy pages from the end of Dune.

So I’m reading Dune. I’m nominally reading it for work, but I’m also reading it because I meant to have read it ages ago (if a certain former professor of mine is reading this, I’m sorry), and because I write fantasy more than science fiction but it’s still an important work in the field, etc.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of friends who love Dune. They love it intensely. It is possible I have recently seen a picture of a toddler holding a worm with an appropriate Dune reference as the caption, because I am friends with the kind of people who do that with their kids. My friends are also all smart, interesting people for whom I have a lot of respect, and whose respect and affection I value highly.

Which is all to explain why I feel more than a little nervous and/or guilty admitting that I keep expecting to love Dune, and I just . . . don’t?

Let me clarify what I mean by that, or rather what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I’m finding it dull: on the contrary, I’m finding the interplay of religion and politics and ecology very interesting on an intellectual level. I don’t mean that it’s poorly written: the writing often feels abrupt to me, but in a way that suits the harshness of the physical and social environments depicted (and I’m generally a fan of writing whose style either reinforces or complicates its subject). I don’t even mean that I’m sorry I volunteered to read it for work, though my friends could tell you that I seem to do a lot of putting off reading in favor of re-watching Leverage or (finally) reading Questionable Content. (Though, actually, there are a whole lot of Dune references in QC, many of which I would be missing if I weren’t reading the book right now.)

When I started the book, however, I expected to love it. I expected to start reading and get hooked and be unable to put it down. I expected to immerse myself in the story and refuse to come out. I expected to be reading it a lot faster than I have been, and I expected that by seventy pages from the end I’d be anticipating rereading it someday.

Instead it feels like homework. I mean the good kind of homework — the kind that has you continuing to think and learn on your own so that you have something to discuss when you come to class the next day — but homework nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve been slowly working on educating myself about Islam and about the Middle East but am still in the early stages of that process, so a lot of words are jumping out and snatching my attention away from the story. Maybe it’s because when I started reading Dune I was reading in small chunks, so I never really built up momentum. Maybe it’s because the language suits the story but isn’t the kind of language I personally fall in love with, nor is it the kind of language I find next to invisible. Maybe I just have too many other things I’m excited about right now.

Reading it has, however, had one unexpected benefit: it’s been the kick in the butt I needed to get working on my own writing again. It’s kind of funny, actually — I’m used to the art that makes me want to write being the art that I do love. Instead I find myself reading and thinking, “Yes, this is very interesting, but the parts that interest me mostly do so because of how they relate to this other story in my head, and right now I’m a lot more invested in that other story.” I find myself thinking that I’d probably get a lot out of rereading the book at some point, but the thought of forcing myself to do so just makes my research reading look that much more appealing.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the obvious moral. (“Read your metaphorical vegetables, kids, because they’re good for you even if you haven’t developed a taste for them yet!”) Perhaps I wish only to confess to you, my brothers and sisters (and siblings of non-binary genders), my failure to get it. Perhaps I’m waiting for someone to say that thing that will cast the book in a new, more flattering light, like that time I was complaining about having to read The Song of Roland again and my friend protested, “But it’s awesome! It’s like an action movie!” and suddenly the verse after verse of interchangeable guys cleaving each other in two from their heads through their horses clicked for me.

Or maybe I just needed to say, “Hey, this is where I am right now, but I need to hold myself accountable for those last seventy pages before I can move on to something else.”