The Writing Life: Bite-Sized by Jim Gray

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Last fall a friend of mine suggested I join her and her boyfriend for National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s known, involves cranking out 50,000 words in 30 days. “Bill and I did it last year and are doing it again,” she told me. “It’s a blast.”

“You like doing your own taxes, don’t you?“ I said. “And don’t you have a job and a fifth-grader?”

The truth is, I admire her enthusiasm and inventiveness. Like the thousands of others who sign up for NaNoWriMo, she has story lines and plot twists and developed characters inside of her just itching to be put into words. For her, it provides the perfect kick in the pants, an imposed timeframe and collective sense of conquest—like participating in the Boston Marathon. Or a hot dog eating contest. For me though, the idea of drafting a novel in 30 days just isn’t a challenge I can rise to. I no more have a novel in me than I do a uterus.

Neither do I have a memoir, or at least not at this point in my life. There’s something too intimidating and “big picture” about a memoir. Rather, my compulsion to write involves a much narrower focus: revisiting the bits and pieces of my days that, for one reason or another, have stuck with me. A second chance at being present.

“You should have a blog then,” she said. “I love writing mine.” Given what I write about, a blog does make more sense than a novel. But again, I just don’t have it in me. Part of this is insecurity. I don’t know that I have that much to say on a regular basis, at least not anything beyond my mother’s interest. The other obstacles, the bigger ones, are my lack of discipline and speed of writing. I’m not exactly prolific. I tend to take long breaks between drafts, stretches where I write in my head or on Chipotle napkins pulled from my glove compartment while sitting in traffic.

“It takes me too long to finish whatever I’m writing about,” I told her. “I don’t want to post anything that doesn’t feel finished.”  As though anything ever feels finished. I can chew endlessly on a life moment that sparks writing, trying to answer the what-am-I-really-saying-here question as well as crafting the words. It’s never easy, whether it’s a standout event like the colonic my girlfriend talked me into (stay tuned), or something as simple as words from my son’s mouth.

“If we had a water snake,” my 9-year-old boy once said, “and you were to race it from that stick right there to that big rock, I bet you $1,000 he’d win.” This to his friend during a day of fishing and climbing rocks together along the Potomac River. Maybe it was the mental picture he drew for me. Maybe it was the intensity with which he scanned the gravel path for suitable markers, as if his proposed race would lose its official sanctioning if he chose the wrong distance. Maybe it was his friend’s reaction, suggesting a head start and continuing the “What if’s” that endlessly spew from young boys. Or maybe it was the competitiveness that defined my relationship with my brother while growing up. Whatever the reasons, that moment—that day—still lives in my head and asks to be explored.

Maybe a finished essay will come from this afternoon along the river. If I pick at it long enough, I may better understand why it lingers and communicate the experience in a way that others can relate. It’s like the slogan made famous by Fidelity Investment’s Peter Lynch: “Invest in what you know.” What I know, and hope to articulate, are the events of my life. They’re what compel me to write. So for now at least, I’ll stick to my personal essays—my individually wrapped, Fun-Sized memoirs—and cheer the participants of NaNoWriMo from the sidelines.

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  1 comment for “The Writing Life: Bite-Sized by Jim Gray

  1. Hi Jim — so happy to read this here! As with your other captivating essays, I love the rich details, the bits and pieces that make the experience — your experience — really come alive. Bravo! And, to tell the truth, NaNo scares the stuffing out of me. Too much pressure!!! Like you, I have to marinate. And find napkins. And naps. Cats help too, right? Cheers!

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