This one may ruffle a few feathers, but here goes.
It’s November, and thousands of writers — actually, the official count for 2013 is over 262,000 — are participating in National Novel Writing Month.
Myself? Not a fan of NaNoWriMo.
On the surface, the creative writing ‘challenge’, originally established in 1999, seems like it might be a good way to motivate writers who may be struggling with establishing consistently productive work habits. The participants’ goal is to either complete the rough draft of a 50,000 word manuscript, or write the first 50K words of a longer work between November 1st and 30th.
In the decade-plus since NaNoWriMo was founded, dozens of trade published novels have came from participants in the annual event, including award-winning New York Times Bestsellers The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (which I heartily recommend if you’ve never read it) and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
The creative process is as individual to a writer as his or her fingerprints: no two are exactly the same, and as long as you’re getting results, there is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. If someone sees value in a month-long literary boot camp, more power to them.
But based on my experience as a writer, what I question is the impact participation in NaNoWriMo has on newcomers to the craft who see it as an easy way to overcome the barriers they believe might be standing in the way of completing a work, without realizing that those ‘barriers’ may be a little more complex than they thought.
To put it bluntly, I think NaNoWriMo — and I’m sorry, I can’t help but think of Mork & Mindy‘s catchphrase every time I hear that abbreviation — reinforces some questionable habits and strategies that are detrimental to a writer’s long-term development, and judging from some of the angst-ridden blog posts I saw from ‘NaNoWrios’ last November, it has the potential of making some writers frustrated enough throw in the towel for good.
It seems to me like having the goal of losing weight, but instead of using sound decisions such as good eating habits and increasing exercise, it’s joining an online support group for a fad crash diet that has you gulping down nothing but bacon-fried okra for thirty days.
You may lose a few pounds and fit back into those jeans or that dress and feel better about yourself for a few weeks, until you tire of three servings of greasy greens a day and give in to the temptation of Big Macs and Supersize fries.
There are a lot of aspiring writers who don’t write as much or as often as they should. Sometimes the reasons behind this are simple: lack of self-discipline, or poor time management skills. They have the desire but haven’t quite reached the level of dedication they need to clear the roadblocks.
For others, it’s a more serious and difficult problem to overcome: an innate lack of confidence in themselves. They may be trying to establish a productive writing schedule, start a project with a lot of enthusiasm, but before long they start to stumble and hit a wall of self-doubt.
There’s a natural euphoria that comes along with playing in a new sandbox, creating new characters, and giving birth to a new world that will keep a writer focused and dedicated during the early days of a new project.
Eventually, though, that high wears off and you slide off the peak and into the valley.
From that low ground, when you’re pouring over the pages you have, and start to see every little crack and blemish, it starts to make you question whether you even want to continue it, and it makes you find every excuse you can to procrastinate and stall.
Maybe you pick up another author’s work and start reading that, hoping that exposing yourself to a story you feel is ‘good’ will spark inspiration that will carry over to your own work. What often happens, though, is that you subconsciously start comparing your unfinished rough draft to that polished, finished work.
You find your stuff coming up far short, and it just makes amplifies the doubt and the feelings of being inadequate.
It happens: it’s a natural part of the process. Writing isn’t all the romantic notion of working late into the night with your muse whispering in your ear while to scribble or type away like a madman or madwoman.
Some nights are indeed late, but it’s from not being able to sleep because you just can’t get that #$%&ing scene to work and your muse is nowhere to be found.
The only real fix to this problem is to sit down and do some serious soul-searching.
Sometimes the lack of confidence may stem from other aspects of your life — this was my case, and it took me years to overcome that paralysis, even though I had been published several times, the work I did had gotten good reviews, and at least some small audience did really like my work, so there wasn’t much of a question that I could do it, because I had done it in the past.
And that was an advantage, because some writers don’t have that validation that they had climbed the hill and planted the flag at least once.
During this period, I tried every possible method to get myself to sit down and work steadily, on a regular basis, including self-imposed deadlines and daily page / word count-based quotas.
It just added to the frustration, because I hadn’t really gotten to that point where I was ready to seriously clear my mind and do the work I knew I was capable of — and the solution really had little to do with writing or creativity.
This is why I feel NaNoWriMo is too often viewed as the equivalent of the miracle pill solution to a much deeper, complex issue that a writer may be struggling with, and once they hit that pressure cooker environment where they need to output nearly 2000 words a day for thirty days, they’re going to find out that just forcing themselves to sit down and write isn’t really going to solve that inner turmoil.
It may just make it worse.
I’m not saying that every participant in the challenge is a struggling writer who feels they need to give themselves a kick in the ass to overcome their procrastination.
But beginners do tend to gravitate toward methods that have very clearly defined expectations and are more like a classroom assignment. Instead of taking into consideration that the creative method is very individual, and developed in a trial-and-error manner, they look for a one-size-fits-all approach, and find one that has a built-in support network particularly appealing.
And then when the frustration sets in, they blame themselves and their lack of skill / talent / dedication instead of the foolishly difficult path they’ve chosen to try to walk.
There’s a few things about NaNoWriMo that just don’t add up for me, and in fact, seem to work against the idea of promoting creative writing, and I’ll get to those in Part 2.
In the meantime, if you’re a frustrated ‘NaNoWrio’, don’t let the fact that you can’t keep up with the Joneses get you down. Writing isn’t meant to be a competition, or a forced march.
Drop out, and continue to write your novel, at your own pace. Do it right, not rushed, and enjoy it.
For a little more on this topic, check out nanowrimonomo.com , whom I borrowed the opening image from.
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!
Shazbot! In the immortal words of an alien visitor just slightly more strange than the strange land he finds himself in: I want to be a hickey on the neck of life.