The look my son gives me when he walks in the room and I’m playing Risk of Rain 2 instead of finishing the chapter that’s due tomorrow. Not a look of admiration, which you might expect from a fifteen-year-old. That’s my mom! She’s almost killed Mithrix, and it’s not like I was ever going to read her novel anyway. My mom is cool!
I am not cool. My kid expects more from me. He tells me this, reminds me that I have fifty pages due in two days and I have completed a miserable nineteen.
“Not that your writing is miserable,” he says in response to my hurt look. “But that’s not many pages, mom.”
“You’re not my dad,” I tell him. He shakes his head like my dad and closes the bedroom door behind him as he leaves.
Mithrix murders me during the brief span of this interaction. I shut down the game. It’s not even a very good game, 4 out of 10 stars if we’re being honest. I open my novel draft and start typing.
I write three pages, double-spaced. I re-read them and they’re pretty good. Maybe this novel will amount to something!
I open Risk of Rain 2 back up. I deserve a break. I’m exhausted.
Discord pings me. I forgot to mark myself offline. Bubbles in the chat. My son is writing his own novel, apparently, about what a terrible role model I am. I close Discord and open my novel back up.
I have three kids, all of whom are now old enough to question my advice and raise an eyebrow when I behave in ways I would never allow them to behave.
“Maybe we should do our homework together,” my thirteen-year-old daughter suggests, as I log into Raft. I’m close to winning with this new update. My son, once again, refuses to enable me.
“We can play when you hit your wordcount,” he tells me. I respond by telling them both to empty the dishwasher.
Here’s the thing, though: I did finish this novel. The first draft, at least. And I did this, wrote over two hundred and fifty pages in under five months in a start-and-stop fit of video games and head-down writing. In between rounds, I’d record a monologue into my voice recorder about my book, about my protagonist and what she wants, about what she would and wouldn’t do. About why chapter four is unbelievable and potentially problematic and needs to be re-written. About the lack of a linear narrative and how that only works if 1) you’re Charles Yu or 2) you’re doing this on purpose, God damn it. Then back to my game. Then another two pages and I’ll go make dinner.
Bubbles in the chat.
Here’s the thing: I have ADHD and anxiety, as well as both editorial and teaching jobs, three kids, and now a semester’s workload in a low-res MFA program. I spend a lot of time reminding myself about all the ways I am failing. I love to compare myself to other writers, my friends especially, and list how I’m falling short. I am an awful writer, I remind myself. Probably the worst writer. Definitely the laziest writer. Are there any plans for a Risk of Rain 3?
But when I write for twenty minutes and then take a (too long, it’s true) video game break—I don’t think about my faults. The bubbling hot water, the spiraling panic, in my brain-pot stops threatening to overflow. Gaming is a redirection, a break, and it removes the rattling lid. The water settles, maintaining a calmer, measured boil. When I’m not distracted by murdering aliens or expanding my draft, I end up holding the lid down with all my might. Until the boil is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Until I’m ready to explode in a blast of heated self-loathing.
It’s hard to write a novel when you’re covered in third-degree emotional burns.
This is a terrible metaphor, I know.
The “should haves” and the “if only’s” can sink a novel, though. Just write every day, even a little, experts say. It’s about the routine. It’s practice. It’s self-care.
None of this is true or helpful or constructive, though, if it doesn’t work. If it makes you hate your book. If it makes you feel even worse about yourself than you already do as you walk around your weird house in your weird city on this weird planet. Whatever works is what works. Whatever works for you is what works.
I’ve started setting timers for myself, the way I used to for my students when I taught elementary school. Fifteen minutes and then you can have a water break, I’d promise my fifth graders. Particularly during a non-preferred subject. Twenty minutes of this multiplication skill drill and then I’ll play a round of War with you, kiddo.
I’m that kiddo now. WRITE, Hannah. Write your heart out and then kill Mithrix. Even if it takes too long to win during this break, at least you’ll be ready to write after that. Your brain at a settled boil. Repeat, repeat. Succeed.
Novels get written in a thousand different ways. No way is inherently better, even if some ways are admittedly less chaotic than others. But I am chaos. I am a gamer. I am a middle-aged woman who spent her entire life up until now convinced that she had nothing new to say, nothing inside her that this world would want to hear or read. Then I wrote a novel while shooting aliens, like a kid, like the chaos I am, and I’ll revise the same way. Probably query the same way.
“You’re killing it, babe,” I told my son when he got straight A’s this past semester.
“You’re killing it, mom,” he said back when I typed The End for the first time ever. “Want to play Risk of Rain?”