When my sister died, I knew I would write a book. I can’t tell you how or why I felt this way; except to explain that I am one to birth things from my thoughts. That is, I think about something, I dwell on it, I dream it, and then I bring it into fruition.
First it was months, but then it became years. The memories of my sick sister and her subsequent passing replayed over and over in my head. But my brain started to weave the trauma into words and scenes and sentences. I didn’t write them down until one and a half years later, when I finally felt like my body wouldn’t collapse if I attempted. I was in Sofia, dreamily reading Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, when I started planning an escape out of my own head. When I started planning my novel. By the time I went to Paris and fell in love for the second time, I already had a title, a plot, and a first line. When my lover told me he would pay 1,000 euro for my thoughts, I told him I was writing a book about them, and he would have to wait until it was released. I whispered the title to him like a mantra, the first lines like a prayer.
On the plane back to California I wrote the first chapter of my first novel; words that had been pent up inside of me for the last two, last three, last twenty-six years spilled out of me like a wound that had been festering too long. I wrote the whole plane ride back, hand to pen to plain paper. When I returned to the Bay Area, jetlag fueled my productivity. I’d wake up at the first ray of sunshine, streaming through my musty Rochdale window at 6:00 AM. Then, I would write. After a week of blowing through this invigorating energy, I had written forty pages of my first novel. It was a manifestation of the silent declaration I’d made at my sister’s death. It was a sublimation of multiple tragedies, a purposeful rewriting of a broken life.
It was the beginning of healing.
A couple weeks later, I put the novel aside for a few months. I started full-time teaching again and also moved back to my mother’s house. On October 31, 2017, I picked it up again. That Halloween, I had cross-dressed as Salt Bae, the popular meme of a Turkish chef seductively sprinkling sea salt on juicy slabs of steak. It was an excuse to sprinkle rock salt on my students as they walked into my classroom. After work I sat in my coworker Maria’s classroom, unwinding from the day and turning back into a woman. That’s when she told me about National Novel Writing Month.
“Forget Halloween Emmy, do you know what happens at midnight?”
“Don’t tell me you turn back into a pumpkin.”
“Na. No. Wri. Mo.” she said, in enunciated syllables. “It’s National Novel Writing month, you have to write a novel with me!”
She explained the whole process to me: the online community, making an account on the website, the daily word count of 1,667 words, the monthly goal of 50,000.
I started my monthly word count before the clock even struck twelve, I was that invigorated. That month, I spent many a night at Maria’s house in the hills of Grizzly Peak. As the violet-orange sun set over the Bay, we drank wine and broke bread and tapped away on our keyboards while our laptop screens lit up our faces in the dark. It was our own Writer’s Communion. I often stared at a blank page, uninspired or merely exhausted. That year, I only wrote 13,000 words. I was working 50 hours a week and I could barely force myself to write 500-1,000 words a day. Many weekends, grading and planning lessons got in the way of writing. I often wondered how others could write a novel and maintain a fulltime job. A family wasn’t even part of the picture for me either. I didn’t finish all these things i never said that year. But I would, the next year. Nine months later I packed up my bags and moved halfway across the country to Hanoi, Vietnam.
My first NaNoWriMo: in the Berkeley hills
There, the Novembers were humid and bright; I wore my polka dot skirt to the Highlands Coffee riverboat on Truc Bach Lake and write about the time I fell in love during a past Parisian summer, atop the cobblestones and basking in the 10pm sun. With no fulltime work that year, I managed to write 35,000 words. The only reason I stopped writing that November was because I finished my novel as-was. The only thing left for me to do was to was to edit. That year, I had written myself back in love and back in Paris. Thus, a few months later when I packed my bags once more, I found myself in a familiar city, and back in familiar arms.
Having finished my first novel, all these things i never said, this year I embarked on a new project. My second. Prior to moving out of the country, my mother and I embarked on a journey to Yosemite. But on the drive there, my eyes played some tricks on me. In my attempt to navigate the twisting and stacking of dilapidated Oakland freeways, I quickly looked a specific street up and down. What I saw made me blink a few times. It was a fantastically lit-up gated community that I had never seen before. Was I imagining a mystical preserved area amid urban decay, or did I really see Preservation Park?
What I did or didn’t see that day sparked my imagination, which had already been fueled my binge-reading the full Harry Potter series in one month. But I wanted to marry my idea of a secret gated community in Oakland with a story about an undocumented immigrant—a type of protagonist you won’t often find in literature. I started dreaming about an America where birth-right citizenship is denied, homeless encampments are mysteriously cleared off the street, and where descendants can speak to their dead ancestors. Obviously, my dreaming might not that be that far from the current reality. But a good story twists the facts in order to show you the truth. So, I started dreaming about my second novel. That was over a year ago. This year, I write it.
I reminisce about California: her sunshine, her colloquialisms, her institutions.
And like all previous NaNoWriMos, I am writing about a place I no longer live in; a place I miss. I’m creating my own nostalgia.
My second novel, American Trespass is an ode to the immigrants which built that great country, despite her shortcomings. It’s also an ode to National Novel Writing Month. The worldwide community and online event that helped me materialize a dream I once had; a dream birthed from death. And soon, I will soon have two novels to show for it.
Here’s to your current wordcount, however low or high it may be! Happy writing, writers! :)