I interviewed John Hutton, English teacher, writer and self-published author of Days Ago Diary, about what can happen when you write every day for a month.
Claire: First, please tell us a bit about you. Where are you from? What is your day job? And are there a few things about yourself you'd like to share?
John: I'm from Creighton, a small green valley somewhere on the edge of KZN. I grew up loving writing and reading and I am now an English Teacher in KwaZulu-Natal.
Claire: What particular creative challenge have you completed? Please tell us a bit about it.
John: The main one that comes to mind is Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It is actually an international event that pits people up against themselves and challenges them to write 50 000 words in the month of November. It is a lot of fun and I have done it a couple of times.
Claire: What were some of the factors that led you to commit to the process? Why did you want to do this?
John: I was in Japan at the time and had nothing else to do. The teaching load was light and I needed the mental stimulation. We lived in Sapporo which tends to be under a few feet of snow by the time November comes around and it was appealing challenge to sit around the heater with a warm cup of coffee and try to get my words done. I had always wanted to write a novel, but lacked the discipline and structure so I threw myself headlong into the project and surprisingly managed quite well.
Claire: What was your goal?
John: My goal was, I suppose, eventually to have a piece of writing that I was proud of... and I am not too sure how easy it is to achieve that. After a number of Nanowrimos and a couple of years slogging away at a “writing practice” idea of a couple of hundred words a day I managed to write something that I am proud of. I really don’t think it’s that great, but I am proud that I did it and proud of the fact that a few people have enjoyed it.
Claire: And what is your novel about?
John: It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, so not everyone’s cup of tea, but my aunt gave me 4 stars.
Claire: How did you start? This is a bit of a technical question - did you have to sign up somewhere, enroll in a class, join a group?
John: The Nanowrimo website is active all year round and there are even “Camps” that they run online during non-November months. So you can pretty much sign up any time and go for it. Once on you can join separate “Cabins” and write along side others who are on a similar quest to you. They will even organise you according your novels’ genres etc. So a couple of people writing the same genre will end up together.
Claire: Was there any preparation you had to do before the challenge started? If so, what was it? This could be practical prep (find a writing space), time prep (make a schedule), emotional prep (sticky note pep talks on your mirror) - you get the idea!
John: The prep is key. I think psyching yourself up and getting a few mates to join in really helps. The guys in the Nano-community suggest creating snack-packs and goal rewards for certain milestones. I kept a running count of how many coffees and teas I drank that month, which was pretty fun. Writing space has its pros and cons. I sometimes worry that having a specific space gives you too much of an excuse when that space is invaded or changed or far away. Putting time aside daily is key; you need to hit at least 1700 words a day in order to keep up with the daily requirement.
Claire: How would you describe your emotions on starting out?
John: It was like every time you start a new thing. When you get that first sparkly rush of inspiration it all feels so possible... of course it is hard to keep those emotions topped up hence coffee and camaraderie.
Claire: Were you worried at all about not having the commitment to stick to the challenge and see it through? If so, how did you deal with that?
John: There have been two or three years when I have failed Nanowrimo. Those were the years I tried to do it alone. Those were the years didn’t put time aside. Those were the years my writing space wasn’t as organised or my priorities were skewed.
Claire: Was there anything you did for ‘accountability’ sake - something to help you stick to your plan?
John: I was lucky enough to do Nanowrimo with my wife and a few friends who lived nearby one year. That was the best year. We all crammed into their small apartment in Northern Japan and spent the weekend drinking hot drinks, eating chocolate and reaching our goals. When we weren’t nearby we kept graphs of our word count somewhere online everyone else could see them.
Claire: Tell us a bit about the challenge on a daily level. What did it entail? What did it look like for you? What was it that you did every day, and how did that process feel on a daily basis?
John: 1700 words a day. Struggle is the word. Getting up early was the best way to do it, leaving it to the night is sometimes risky, you can’t always be sure the night will be available. The first few days are easy. Everything is new and you haven’t started to doubt your ideas yet. The honeymoon phase doesn’t last long. Soon enough you are dreading the last hour of the day and resenting yourself for leaving it to the last moment. Ignoring the 1700 only results in 3400 the next day and sometimes that is what keeps you going.
Claire: What were some of the challenges you faced along the way? Were there ever moments where you felt, I just can’t do this?
John: Travel pushed my time around and made me feel less in control of my writing schedule, but you have to fit it in. The one year I had wrist issues and we were visiting Kyoto, I had to write by hand because I couldn’t bring my laptop or even use the tiny keyboard. Being sick is a great excuse to avoid writing, but even when you’re riddled with flu you need to think of those 1700 stacking for every day you miss.
Claire: How was your experience of the flow of ideas? Did you ever hit a ‘dead end’ or feel stuck? If so, how did you respond in those moments?
John: The dead end came quite often. I think the beauty of Nanowrimo is that you have more momentum and more reason to force yourself to keep churning “stuff” out. You go for word count and eventually the ideas come. Yes, you might write a whole lot of rubbish but there are ideas that develop with you that would never have popped up if it weren’t for the act of sitting down and starting something. In the dead end moments I sometimes switch from the main narrative to a smaller focus on a character’s background. Getting more personal and changing your perspective on the story can sometimes give me a fresh vision for the work.
Claire: Did you struggle at all with procrastination?
Yes. I strongly suspect I have attention deficit issues and procrastination is one of the main forms of resistance I face. There is always something else I could be doing.
Claire: Was there any sort of community aspect to the challenge - an online forum for people to share their experience and progress etc? If so, how did that impact on your progress (or not)?
John: Yes I have mentioned this aspect. It is very important and Nanowrimo has shown me that even in my own writing outside of November, I need a support structure to a degree.
Claire: How much did you choose to share with your family and friends and how did they respond?
John: Most people don’t quite understand. Family members are very often in completely different life-spaces to you. My wife was obviously with me for most of the times I did it and she was amazing and supportive, my friends who were doing it or had done it in the past were brilliant as well and very positive and encouraging.
Claire: What was the most exciting part of this process?
John: The first day and the last day. The first day for obvious reasons, but once you hit that 50 000 word mark you feel like a huge weight has been lifted and like you have faced a challenge and proven something to yourself. There is no prize except a PDF certificate and street-cred (if your writer friends live on your street).
Claire: What was the most daunting aspect?
John: The most daunting might actually be “Day 32” what now. You have this massive project done. 31 days well spent. Do you begin the Great Edit or do you keep writing?
Claire: What was the most rewarding part of the process?
John: At the end of my first Nanowrimo one of the “Prizes” was a free printed copy of your book. So I edited my story for a while and sent it in to be printed. A few weeks later I received the first printed copy of something I had written. Yes it was a silly story, but it was a personal achievement I had always wanted.
Claire: What, if anything, did you learn about yourself through this process?
John: Learning that I could do it was the best thing about Nanowrimo. It certainly has encouraged me to do more writing than I would have without it.
Claire: Do you feel this challenge changed you in any way? If so, how?
John: It helped me to believe more firmly that I was a writer. I believe there are a few levels to that title but it is mostly about whether you write or not. I realised I could write and even if it was mostly for my own entertainment and satisfaction, that was enough.
Claire: How did you feel toward your work at the end?
John: Great question. Ambivalence. It reminds me of what this guy Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Sometimes you finish Nanowrimo and want to throw your work away. 31 days of characters in your face like that can make them really annoying. I feel like I still remember the texture of my protagonist's skin and the atmosphere of that first story haunts me. You put the work away and let it “settle” for a few weeks and then go back to it for a more objective overview.
Claire: What would you say to someone who wanted to sign up for a creative challenge, and for Nanowrimo in particular?
John: Do it. I can never recommend not doing it. I don’t even regret the times I failed it’s just always awesome. Most people will never really write the novel they secretly want to. With something like Nano, there is a much higher chance that you will, at least, write something.
Claire: What resources would you recommend for other writers?
John: Nano does this thing called pep-talks. Encouraging posts from famous writers that many of us know and respect. Patrick Rothfuss, of the Name of the Wind, Neil Gaiman, of American Gods, even popped up to inspire us one year. It was really cool.