Monday, September 14, 2009

Writer's High

People often refer to ‘Runner’s High’ to describe that euphoric feeling they get after doing a run. I’ve experienced it myself. And now, thanks to my participation in the 3-Day Novel Contest (, I’ve experienced ‘Writer’s High’. Who’d have thought you can get the same energy, excitement, and endorphins out of sitting in a chair for 3 days straight as you can running a marathon? Alright, I’ve only ever actually ran a half-marathon but this was a marathon of writing!

With a mixture of fear and excitement, I approached the contest weekend. Labour Day. Every year, I’d thought about entering the contest, just to see if I could do it, write an entire novel in 3 days. But every year, the dying summer called out to me, whispering of warm, sunny days filled with friends, outdoor adventure, playing, and reveling in the weather before the chill of fall made me put away the shorts and bathing suits and dig my long underwear out of storage. So every year I thought, “next year” and made my getaway plans. This year though, I have dedicated myself, more than ever, to my creative writing so I did it – sent in my registration and the entry fee. No turning back now because I’m too well-trained to pay the money and not do the work. I told friends, family, and my classmates at SFU’s Writer’s Studio I was doing the contest. I announced it online. I left myself no way to save face if I chickened out. I was eager and excited!

I was also obsessive-compulsive, surpassing even the limits I, in my detail-oriented Virgo brain, knew I was capable of. I painstakingly planned my story, using an idea I’d worked up at a novel-writing intensive course last summer at UBC but had never written. I pulled out the storyboard I use to plan some of my short stories. Not able to find my notes from the course, I started from scratch again. I was on a mission. I wrote character worksheets, created an index card for each major scene, made notes about setting and the plot.

I created a food list, knowing no one else would be around to feed me and I put in comfort foods and ones that needed, at most, a quick few minutes in the microwave to be edible. I bought protein powder with greens in it, for energy. I added chocolate and chips to the list to feed my sweet and salt cravings and even managed to pile in some fruits, vegetables, herbal teas, and sparking mineral waters to keep myself hydrated and thinking clearly. (Later on in the contest, I would realize that thinking clearly is a relative thing, but it sounded good at the time).

I made up a schedule of meals and an overall schedule for the weekend, including writing, eating, sleeping, and yes, even a short exercise break for each day. (Those of you who have done the contest will realize how naively optimistic I was being.) A writing friend gave me some great advice and I took the schedule and superimposed it on my scene cards, adding different colored notes to show where in the story I should be at the end of Day 1, at 6 pm on Day 2 (when the contest website says you should be halfway), at the end of Day 2 and, of course, when I should finish on Day 3. (Knowing this helped me see I was on target and relax and enjoy the writing.)

Then, the first challenge arose, even before the contest started. A friend of mine was going away for the long weekend and needed someone to look after the cats in her house. I’d planned on sequestering myself in my apartment and taking occasional view breaks from the balcony, but she really needed someone. And her house is lovely and comfortable and I’d be able to write in several spots inside it and on her deck, just by moving my laptop around. But I’d be interrupted midday on the Monday to make my way home and finish, once she returned. I weighed the options. I added in packup and move time into my Monday schedule, thinking I should just about be finished my first draft when she got back and I secured her promise to transport me and my car back to my apartment if I was too sleep-deprived or too lost in my story-world to be able to drive safely. And my friend took my shopping list and stocked her cupboards and fridge for me. So, it was settled.

I arrived at her house Friday night. I set up my storyboard and my laptop, turning her dining room into my work area. I had brought a bouquet of sunflowers, a ‘Power Card’ to boost my self-esteem in moments of writing despair and a couple of ‘Angel Cards’ that I picked from my deck – love and adventure (fitting for both my own endeavour and, it turned out for my protagonist too). I found her CD player and moved it within easy reach and stacked the CDs I’d brought with me on the table. I put snacks (raw almonds and a banana) within easy reach. I ensured the lighting was good, the ergonomic keyboard was plugged into my laptop, and I could access my friend’s internet. All good. I cleared a space in the living room and spread my yoga mat on the floor, thinking I’d need to stretch and pry my body out of ‘computing posture’ from time to time. I was ready to start writing. I just needed to wait for the weekend to start.

I took a picture of my computer with the word processing program open – to the infamous blank page. Then I figured out how to set my friend’s alarm clock, climbed into her bed about 11 pm, and fell asleep. I woke about 2:30 am Saturday morning, got up with my brain buzzing, and wrote some more notes on the characters, then went back to bed just after 3. At 3:30, I realized I’d finished sleeping for the time being and got up to have breakfast and make coffee. I put a load of laundry I’d brought into the washing machine. I’m not sure whether I was thinking I had time to multitask or if I was just stalling, afraid to start.

About 4, I began writing. It took me 3 hours to write 5 pages. I told myself the beginning is always hard and it’s important to get it right to set the scene and ‘hook’ the reader. At 7 am I realized I was just too tired and went back to bed, getting up again at 8, feeling better. I wrote, taking many more short breaks than scheduled as I felt my body cramping – behind my right shoulder blade, my neck, my shoulders, my lower back. At various times I stretched out on my mat, relaxed into the child pose, did my morning salutation, a few downward-facing dogs and some cat stretches. I paced around the room, turned the music up full blast and danced around the room, breaking a sweat and breathing hard. I put my hand against the wall at the doorways and stepped through, stretching my shoulders back. I had short naps. I drank litres of coffee, tea, water, and ate lunch and dinner and snacks. I even allowed myself a 25 minute walk outside when it had nearly stopped raining. I posted status updates on my profile online about what I was going through and where in the story I was, to encourage myself and let my friends encourage me as well. It was an amazing support. I narrowly missed letting two furry black and white critters into the house that evening, instead of one - the one who did get in was my friend's cat; the other was a striped skunk who happened to be wandering through the backyard at the same time.

But mostly, I wrote. I allowed myself only 15 minutes of editing, between 5:45 pm and 6, tired of hearing the editor in my brain yelling. “How do you know it’s any good? What about the sentence structure? Do you even remember what you wrote this morning? How about that character development, hey – how do you think that’s going?” I think she was just feeling left out, since I usually give her free rein to jump in any time and overrule my writer. This time though, my writer was in her glory, flying down one track, unsure if it would take her where she needed to go but knowing she just had to go there and see. There wasn’t time to think about it too much. Her fingers flew across the keyboard and she felt great. At times, she didn’t stop typing to think, just leapt and waited to see where she’d land. The story took on a life of its own. The characters did as they damn well pleased. My writer was playing and running and laughing. She was free.

I love being in ‘the zone’ like that when I’m writing and I realized I don’t often enough give myself the freedom to get there. This time though, the thought of the deadline and my schedule kept me from overanalyzing and second-guessing. At one point (on Day 2), I got back from a break and sat down, surprised the story had stopped when I stopped writing. I’d been like a child listening to someone else tell me a story and I thought I’d be able to just read from where I’d left off. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before and I was thrilled because it meant my story was a living thing and that its own momentum would help me carry it forward. At 10 pm, I stopped writing for the day, having finished Day 1 with Chapter 4 and 40 pages.

The next day was much the same. The cat woke me to get out at 3:30 and I chose to sleep some more after I played cat doorman. I woke and started at 6:30 am but, from the start, it felt harder. The weather was on my side though. All weekend it rained, alternating between a light mist and pouring, the water falling with such force from the sky that it bounced a foot back up in the air, coming down in sheets and drumming on the house. I was grateful for the lack of tempting sunshine, feeling safe and cocooned inside (once I turned on the fireplace and the heat to take the chill off). The rain even found its way into my story, drenching my protagonist and helping to make her adventure more challenging.

My friend’s downstairs tenant and his friend came home Sunday afternoon. They left me alone to write except for an hour in the evening, for which I will be forever grateful. For that hour, they came upstairs, poured me a glass of wine, massaged my tired arms, and cooked me a lovely BBQ steak dinner. We ate and talked and I had a break that refreshed both my brain and body. They were wonderful. I wrote until 11:30 and finished Day 2 with 63 pages.

On Day 3, I finally needed the alarm clock to wake up. It went off at 6:19 and I shut it off, noticing the cat was still snoring softly and had no intention of going outside. I woke again just before 8 am in a panic, the way you do when you realize you went back to sleep after the alarm and are now late for work. I jumped up, put breakfast beside the computer and was typing by 8. The adrenaline coursing through me made me an effective writer and I had just reached the beginning of the novel’s climax when my friend and her companions arrived home. It was noon, perfect timing.

From 12 to 1:30 I packed everything up, came home, ate lunch, set up, and was back at my computer by 1:30, about to bring my story to its most exciting point. I wrote for an hour, took a half hour nap, then got up and finished the first draft. Just after 4:30 on Monday I was done the writing!

I cleaned myself up and went for a walk down by the beach. The rain had finally stopped and the sun was out. A walk that usually takes about an hour was done in 35 minutes. I was so high on the experience that I couldn’t slow down. A man jumped down onto the seawall in front of me and started slowly jogging. Despite having to stop and tie my shoe, I stayed the same distance behind him the whole way, him jogging, me walking. He kept looking back at me and was wondering, I’m sure, why I was walking so fast but I couldn’t help it. I also couldn’t help the huge smile on my face. People looked at me and smiled and said hello. Their eyes followed me as I went by. Later I would check myself in the mirror to make sure I didn’t look completely outlandish somehow to attract so much attention. But I looked normal, except for the fact that I was grinning from ear-to-ear and floating about 6 inches above the ground. I was feeling happy and amazed, powerful and beautiful, and incredibly wound up.

After my walk, I came back and sat down to edit. I did a spell check, and a cursory edit to ensure my character’s eyes didn’t change color and no one came back from the dead. I filled in a few blanks for my reader, realized it needed a thorough edit that wouldn’t be part of this initial process and, just after 11 pm Monday, I saved the file.

89 pages and 10 chapters. I opened the bottle of champagne I’d put in the fridge before all this started, toasted the origin of my writing, my friends and family (for supporting me), my characters, and myself. I don’t often drink alone but somehow this time it seemed appropriate. I had given a life to my story and added an incredible story to my own life. I had written a novel!

1 comment:

Adel said...

What a beautiful story Christine! The cat, despite the "in and out" schedule looks so cute :-)

I admire what you do and wish I'll have the time to write too!

Cheers from Montreal