Playing to win

Originally published on The Pastry Box November 16, 2014

This is the earliest I’ve written a Pastry Box post for a deadline.

Today is October 25th, and I’m sitting in my favorite local bar playing a pinball tournament that puts new pinball machines in children’s hospitals. I probably should be concentrating on my ticket, but the fact is that I am not going to win this tournament. I’m probably not even going to make the playoffs. There are too many high-ranked players here today.

I’m not here to win. I’m here to play. But ultimately, writing my column today is the priority.

November is coming.

November is National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo is important.

NaNoWriMo is a writing contest, of sorts. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Essentially, a novella, but still well more than most of us have written in a single document for a single purpose in our lives. Like pinball, the “competition” isn’t really against the other players. It’s against your own mind and your own machine. Like pinball, there are people who are superstars, whose sheer talent and/or force of will allow them to do fantastic things. They will write a novel in 30 days, they will clean it up and edit it, and it will be published. I am not in their league.

Like pinball, I’m not here to be the top seed. (There are no rankings or prizes in NaNoWriMo. Everything is made up, and the points don’t matter.)

I have to finish this book.

I started this book when I was thirteen years old, on a Tandy HX 1000 that predated the internal hard drive by about three weeks. I still have the twenty six page dot matrix printout of the horribly written tale of a princess retaking her kingdom from an evil king. She had blue hair and the story was called Sky Blue Princess and trust me when I say it was bad.

In 2005 I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided to dust off the old concept, which I had worked dribs and drabs of for years, and write the prequel, so that I could properly rewrite the original story. I lost that year, with something like 25,000 words written. But for the first time I had a direction (a functioning plot) and a goal (write 50,000 words no matter how bad), and I felt like someday I could be an Actual Writer.

I also understood for the first time what being an Actual Writer means. It means coming home from work at a reasonable time because I’ll be logged into the computer every night trying to write at least 1,667 words. It means writing dreck when the words won’t come. It means writing brilliant sentences that are so out of context with the real plot that they’re bound to be cut. It means false starts, disaster, major interferences from life, confused and frustrated family who don’t totally understand why you’re hiding in a hole with a raft of paper for a month. It means figuring out how to keep a word count up while traveling for pinball tournaments, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and keeping work happy during the busy season. It means a lot of damned hard work.

In 2007 I lost again. In 2009 I lost. In 2011 I won for the first time. I won again in 2012 and 2013. Sometimes I do the November event, sometimes the summer camps.

All told, I have cleared over 300,000 words for the book I started writing when I was 13.

And while I have rewritten and rewritten and rewritten, I have never finished a rewrite since I was thirteen. I write myself into a corner, and then can’t figure out how to get back out.

So despite the fact that I’m traveling in November for a pinball tournament, despite the fact that I’m hosting Thanksgiving, despite the fact that I’m working out an hour a night and changing my sleep habits and just discovered Minecraft and let me tell you that is a time suck like nothing I have played since one-more-turn Civ IV, this year I’m going to finish the damn book.

I have six days to get my act together, prepare everything possible for the house, the meal planning, and every deadline that might cross my path in month eleven. Right now I’m filled with anticipation and excitement and confidence. When you read this on the 16th, I will be in the middle of the depths of despair.

And that is okay.

You can’t win if you don’t play.