The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Eyes sore. Fingers calloused. Back in spasms. Occupational hazards of the aspiring writer as he pecks away at his trusty old laptop. I have never spent quite so much time sitting at my computer. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have wasted hours – nay, days! – watching stupid videos and checking in on Facebook. But this is different. I’m actually accomplishing something. Who knew that the contraption we use to watch videos of snoring hamsters and epic skateboarding fails could actually be used to do something?!

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on November 25, 2013, and I’m seated on a folding chair in the basement of a church. I’m surrounded by folding chairs, each one supporting a scruffy and disheveled looking individual. And pale. We’re all pretty pale.

“My name is Bryan, and I am a NaNoWriMo participant. It’s been 90 minutes since my last writing session.”

Everyone in the circle nods knowingly. They get it. Some of them are probably 30 minutes or less since their last fix. I can smell the printer ink on them. I can see the screen radiation burn on their faces. It’s like a tan, only sickly white. One guy across from me is still typing away absentmindedly on a phantom keyboard. These are my people. We are the same.

41,592. That’s how many words I’ve written since giving over to the beast, since surrendering myself completely to my obsession. There are days when the words flow like magic, and I live within that mythical and much sought after place called “the zone”. Other times, she mocks me. Laughing at my shortcomings like a bad prom date. Words get stuck in my fingertips and I choke on them. I cough. I splutter. It’s a bottleneck that no amount of determination can force open. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Every day is different.

“Tell us how it’s affected the people you love,” someone says.

I consider the question. My son thought is was cool at first. Something that the average dad wasn’t doing. But that soon changed as he saw the dark side of it. The hours spent quietly staring off into space, mentally plotting or listing other ways to say “night”. My parents tried to steer me away from the danger…it’s not how I was raised. I come from a good family. They have been supportive as I deal with it, but I know they’re asking themselves where they went wrong. How could this happen?

The voices in my head get louder and louder until I silence them with black characters on a white screen. I string them together, and they fall and tumble over each other in a beautiful cascade…an S&M ballet between my word counter and my coffee addled brain. The more I use, the more manageable the voices become, and I function for another hour. Another day. I can even blend in with polite society at times.

I remember my first time. Someone introduced NaNoWriMo to me at a party. Gave me a little taste. I justified and rationalized my decision to try it, saying it would be a one-time thing. I wouldn’t be like all the rest. I would maintain control. I would be in charge. It wrapped me in a warm, velvety blanket…and I was hooked. It has dominated my life ever since.

8408. That’s how much longer I’m willing to do this to myself. My cutoff. I will return to the land of the living. I will chose life…away from a screen. Like so many other junkies I promise myself that ‘I can quit whenever I want to’. The man beside me says he’s got 12,000 left in him. The woman diagonally across has 3265 – only 3265 – and then she is done forever. Or until next November, as the itch will undoubtedly return for all of us. Our addiction must be scratched .


Bryan Johnston

Former high school English lit & drama teacher. Current writer, stand-up comedian, & improv performer. A big switch? You betcha.

International expat for 12+ years with stops in Beijing, Dubai, Shanghai, & Guangzhou. Dad to a university sophomore, an eleven-month old charmer, & the two best doggos. Lover of funny things & people. Oh, and craft beer.

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