jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Getting My NaNoWriMo On, One Bird At a Time

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

mom and me wlking

Two old birds
November 2015

I did something amazing this week. And I don’t mean walking my mother down the great big, muddy hill, and through the bird sanctuary to feed the birds, something she’d never done before, something that she couldn’t have imagined a few months ago when she was laid low by a terrible fall that kept her in bed in the hospital and then limping along with a walker for months after.

mom with bird and hand

A bird in the hand
November 2015

I also don’t mean whipping up an 11 lb. ham for my in-laws with roasted butternut squash and a delicious fall salad on Thanksgiving Eve. Or the Thanksgiving dinner the next night, complete with 19.5 lb. turkey*, homemade cranberry sauce, an apple pie with a homemade crust (which I added way too much salt to), mashed sweet potatoes, green beans with garlic and parmesan, and stuffing I helped my kids make.

And I don’t mean breaking my toe… on my husband’s shin, while wrestling over the icky turkey fat after a shade too much red wine (apparently.)

Although these were all pretty epic moments.

What I mean is this. I finished NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month) which means 50,000 words of a novel (or actually, 51,738, but who’s counting?) during the month of November. Wait. I think I just said that in a whisper voice. I FINISHED NANOWRIMO (in my best screaming, Owen Meany voice.)

Because when you run marathons– and that’s really the best way to describe this, as running a marathon– there is this endorphin rush, the screaming crowd of onlookers, the celebration, the outright awe. People say, “You ran a marathon?!!” incredulous. You get a medal. They take an official photo of you with your time over your head and a look that says Victorious on your face. You walk around in your New York City or Cape Cod or Rhode Island or Philadelphia Marathon shirt at the gym and you feel superhuman all over again. And I get it. I used to be one of those people. And I still can’t give those old shirts away. Because marathons are hard. And I ran a handful of them.

But when you’re writing, there is you and a million things that want to stop you from writing… the whole entire time. You can’t write for 2,000 words in one direction, and depend on the fact that you will now be forced to write 2,000 words on the way back. You write for 421 words while looking at laundry and dirty dishes and some days you check your word count. Every. Single. Word. 

And not in a blog-tastic way where you realize you wrote too much and must now slash and burn 200 words away, leaving a lean and lithe little 1,000 post that will be finished, voila’.  This is strapping on your sneakers and taking fifty steps and then computing how very far the rest of the marathon will actually be. This is getting in a car and driving 26.2 miles and realizing that you can’t even wrap your brain around the fact that you must run that. On your own.

And that’s in your body. But NaNoWriMo is in your mind. Which even at forty-four years old (maybe especially at forty-four years old) is a pretty scary place.

“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Driving home from an ice skating party with my kids today, I got to thinking about how my son gets so clearly embarrassed to be only so-so on ice skates in his snow pants and bike helmet, while so many of his friends whiz and spin across the ice in their very professional looking ice hockey helmets and pads.

He has become the best among his peers at a handful of things, or at least pretty good, and so those are the things he sticks with. But the things he sees himself as only so-so at? Phtttt. Done.

As I drove, one of my kids asked me about the book I was writing and how close I was to finishing.

“Well, I may never finish,” I said.

Silence. And then from the backseat my son asked, “But aren’t you going to publish it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I mean, the first time I entered a short story in a big competition I won, and so I thought it should always be that easy. Then when it got hard I thought I wasn’t good enough, that I should quit. And so I sort of did. I don’t want to do that again. It may take me awhile to get good enough. But I want to try. I want to keep trying for awhile, and maybe I can get as good as I want to be.”

“But I thought the Harry Potter lady, that she wrote that the first time,” he replied.

“Yes. Supposedly she did. But that guy that Dad knows, Anthony Doerr? I don’t think maybe it went like that for him. I think he worked. And I bet she worked, too.”

“Wait. Sometimes you’re just awesome and sometimes you have to work and work and work?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Sometimes I think you’re both. I think sometimes I’m both, and maybe occasionally I think I’m neither. And that’s okay.”

So tomorrow when my kids wake up I’m going to tell them that I did it. I finished my 50,000 words. And they’ll smile, I know, and tell me they’re proud and excited for me, they may even jump up and down and give me a hug. Especially my son.

And then I will tell them that I’m not even close to done, that I have probably 50,000 more words to write and then 20,000 words to cut out, too. And then maybe again. And again. That this book might not even be the one that I try to publish. That this might just be my practice run before the big marathon.

But that’s okay. Because I did it. I took something that I may or may not be good at but that I really enjoy, and I tried hard, even when I didn’t really enjoy it much at all, and even though there were moments (days, paragraphs, chapters) when I’m certain I was actually really bad, and in the end, I did it anyway. Epic.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Here’s to every time we persevere in the face of our own lackluster performance. May we all find greatness in our combined effort to muddle our way through mediocrity, in letting go of even the veneer of perfection. That’s greatness, people.

a hand with a bird

Bird by bird, baby
November 2015


*And actually, my husband cooked the turkey and made the best gravy we’ve ever had. Because… raw, dead bird. Ew.

28 comments on “Getting My NaNoWriMo On, One Bird At a Time

  1. ailsasteinert
    November 30, 2015

    Yay Jenn!!!

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      And yay, Ailsa! I found your lovely poem in my email last week and it filled my heart.

  2. Burns the Fire
    November 30, 2015

    Go, girl!! I’m reading. xo

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      Aw, sweet red yarn lady. Thank you. You warm my red yarn heart.

  3. Brenda Marsian
    November 30, 2015

    Congratulations! Can I make a December goal of 50,000 words?

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      I can’t help but wonder if you made it. Because I couldn’t even find the time to comment in the month of December (apparently.) But just in case you’re looking for me in February (or are looking for those 50,000 more words), I’ve made it NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month.) I already have a fellow writer who’s joining me! Might you be joining us, too? 😉

      • Brenda Marsian
        January 2, 2016

        December was a no go. I’ve decided to write 50,000 words in two months, January and February! So yes, I’ll be joining you!

  4. lafriday
    November 30, 2015

    I am snapping virtual pictures of you at the finish line with “VICTORIOUS” over your head! So happy for you and every single word–even the 20,000 that will eventually be cut.

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      Oh, thank you for cheering along. I love that image of the virtual finish line. Wishing you a writing-filled new year as well.

  5. Anna Spanos
    December 1, 2015

    Congratulations! And you do know that now that you’ve used this as a learning experience for your children, you are bound by the code of parental ethics to finish, right? (Not to mention the fact that you are also bound to all of us who are living vicariously through you…)

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      That is exactly the pressure I need! Seriously. Sometimes remembering that when I take care of me (and my personal dreams, large and small) I’m taking care of my kids, too, teaching them that they are each worthy of a dream. (Which could be my not-so-subtle way of reminding pregnant you to take care of yourself, and occasionally to put you -gasp- first. Sending good pregnancy vibes your way.)

  6. Jesska
    December 1, 2015

    Well done!!! 🙂 That’s awesome – I am always amazed at how people make time for writing. I know I can’t, or at least haven’t been able to in the last 8 or so Novembers. Which makes other people making it possible for thenselves and achieving 50,000 words, as well as looking after houses and kids and families, all that much more amazing and astonishing and astounding and and and (all the other words)….

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      Ha! I love this comment. Someone asked me today if I’ve done any art lately, and the answer was a resounding NO WAY! I can only do so much. The trick is to pick something meaningful to you, big or small. And at least give yourself a chance at that one thing. Because we each deserve a minute of us, even if that means we fall (way) behind on dishes or laundry or those messy closets. At least that’s the story I’m sticking to.

      • Jesska
        January 9, 2016

        🙂 it’s a story I’ll go with 🙂

  7. Christy Elliott
    December 1, 2015

    please tell your mom I said hi! I would love to talk with her soon! and another epic piece of literary prose from you! you are amazing…

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      I told her and we had a lovely conversation of sweet you and all the ways your family lovingly supported ours over the years. So thank you, my dear. You are amazing, too.

  8. pujagokarn161289
    December 2, 2015

    Reading you after so long…Loved it! It’s such an important lesson for kids and grown ups imparted in such a simple and digestible way. I love reading you for the writer you are, but the parent you are inspires me and I hope I can be like that some day.
    Do keep writing posting more often. It’s five minutes of reading some perfectly enjoyable and good value writing. It’s a sort of nourishing respite.. 🙂

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      That my writing could ever be a nourishing respite for anyone, now that is a dream worth aspiring to. Thank you for those kind words.
      You keep writing, too. It’s a tiny piece of immortality we can toss out to the world.

  9. pujagokarn161289
    December 2, 2015

    And congrats on completing Nanorwrimo! I know how hard something like that can be. It’s difficult even trying to keep up with consistently putting up one blog post every day. Thank you for making it more achievable.

  10. Sarvana
    December 2, 2015

    You are a great writer, no doubt you will publish your work, every work! By the way, I like the photograph of a bird in hand.. 🙂

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      Thanks so much. Those lovely birds are irresistible. (As is Anne Lamott, and her gorgeous writing.)

  11. maryannparker99
    December 2, 2015

    Congratulations! This is such an amazing accomplishment, and whatever happens with the novel, you should be so very proud. (Although I hope you do publish it, or at least let me read it.) I want my son to read this post. It is such a powerful reflection on the nature of work, accomplishment, and success.

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      My dear, busy Mama, superhero friend, what a sweet comment. That you would want to sit and dig your way through 80,000+ words of mine (that’s 80 posts long!) is a high compliment. And that you’d want to share it with B is priceless. xo

  12. Stacy di Anna
    December 3, 2015

    Big congratulations to you! Wonderful post — touching, inspiring, motivating — as always.

  13. sylviahalim
    December 13, 2015

    Congratulations!! You such a hard worker. Keep it up!! 😀

  14. jgroeber
    January 2, 2016

    Thank you for those words of support.

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