Just Say No To NaNoWriMo: Part 2

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With over a quarter of a million writers participating in this November’s National Novel Writing Month, those of us who are critics of the annual ‘competition’ are certainly in the minority, and come off a bit like curmudgeonly literary Don Quixotes.

Still, someone needs to give the popular windmills what-for.

As I said in Part 1, the creative process of any artist is as individual as a fingerprint, and to a certain degree, not really open much to debate.  If it works for you, no matter how odd or unfeasible it may seem to anyone else, then it works.

However, in the case of NaNoWriMo, the creative process itself is at the very center of the annual event.

While a percentage of established and productive writers participate in the event for the challenge of writing 50,000 words in thirty days, an even larger group hop on the bandwagon hoping to jumpstart what they feel is their own stalled process and have access to a specially formed support network to help keep them on the ‘right path’.

This is the more inexperienced group that I’m concerned about.  If you find racing the clock, counting words, and patting yourself on the back for the number of words you write on a daily basis for a month (or freaking out when you fall behind) enjoyable and a good incentive or means for you to create a work, then that’s fine.

Count your words, tally them up, tweet your progress, and carry on.

But for the less experienced group may not have yet spent enough time trying to develop that creative ‘fingerprint’,  the sense of failure, feeling inadequate when comparing themselves directly to others, and added frustration of a ticking clock may have a much greater impact on their more fragile egos, doing some serious damage that can take months or years to undo, if it’s undone at all.

There’s a terrible irony that something that’s meant to inspire people to write does the exact opposite for some, and the aspiring writers most likely to throw in the towel don’t have the wisdom from experience to know that this process may not be beneficial for them.

They just see it as another failure on their part, and it’s compounded by seeing others succeed where they didn’t.

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One of NaNoWriMo’s cardinal sins, in my opinion, is that it sets up a very unrealistic attitude toward developing a regular writing regimen.

Writers, by definition, write.  It’s very difficult to quantify what the ‘proper’ amount is.  Some writers measure their efforts in terms of time spent at the keyboard, some by word count, some by pages generated.

My take on this is simple: you should write when you can and be content with what you can get accomplished when you do.

Some days I’ll spend eight or ten hours or more writing.  Others, it may be as little as one or two, snatching them from a very tight schedule.

And usually at least once a week, I have a day with an unplanned disaster or two or a non-writing-related schedule crunch where it’s pretty much impossible to get any substantial amount of creative work done.  If I can manage to check my e-mail, I call that a victory.

I don’t strain my arm patting myself on the back when I have a really good day, and I don’t beat myself up when I can’t get anything done.  Stressing out about finding time to write or being angry when I can’t isn’t condusive to productivity, and neither is self-loathing that I don’t have an easy checklist-type daily schedule that allows me to sit down at the same time, every day, and create something.

It’s called life, and it happens.

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The general advice writers get is that to be successful is they need to write every day, no excuses.

And often this advice comes from people who make their living from selling their writing and have a much earier time finding time to write.

Dedication can be just as important of a contributing factor to success, at times, as talent.  And there can be a certain charm and sense of satisfaction in taking a crowbar to your schedule and forcing open blocks of time to show your dedication.

There’s a big difference, though, between running a 100 yard dash and a 5K marathon.

And let’s be honest here: pursuing a career in the arts is a long-haul endeavor.  It’s perfectly fine to feel excited when you sit down to work that you’re going to create something very special that a large number of people are going to enjoy and make it rain enough money to let you just keep going.

The reality is that you’re going to need to reconcile your writing life with your mundane, day-to-day set of responsibilities, possibly for years, even decades.  You might get away with shutting the door and putting up a Do Not Disturb sign for most of November, but that’s not going to cut it as a permanent solution to scheduling time for creativity.

If you get too deeply into an all-or-nothing hermit approach on a consistent basis, you may find yourself with just that, when you finally open the door, manuscript in hand: nothing but that fifty thousand words, and maybe a Dear John or Dear Jane letter.

Another big issue with NaNoWriMo that I have is that it acts as an enabler for procrastination.

Procrastination is a running joke among writers — we spend more time figuring out how to put off writing than we do actually engaging in it — but the punch line isn’t all that humorous.

I did some basic research on procrastination a few months ago to better understand it, and how to avoid the temptation of it myself, and the short version of my findings are that behavioral psychologists still don’t really understand it to any great degree.

Conventional wisdom might be that chronic procrastinators are lazy and irresponsible personality types who can’t get motivated or be trusted to show the self-discipline to keep on top of a task and complete it in advance of a deadline.

The reality: studies have shown those ‘common sense observations’ are not really true.

Procrastinators often develop a psychological thrill from racing the clock and crossing the finish line at the last possible second.  It’s not really much different from the endorphin rush any addict gets when they that that ‘hit’.

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And like any other form of addiction, the addicts train themselves to consider this pattern to be normal, even enjoyable.  Procrastinator-creators fool themselves into believing they do their ‘best work’ when they have a huge weight hanging over their heads, suspended from a rapidly fraying cord.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t address the issue of addiction to procrastination, it merely encourages an addict to lock themselves in a room for a month and quit cold turkey.

Which is fine as a temporary fix … until they have to leave the room, rejoin society and face the temptation to put off writing, and they can’t just run back into the safe room, take the phone off the hook, and slam the door.

Go watch Trainspotting, and use your imagination to substitute procrastination for heroin.

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Same end result, really.  NaNoWriMo will be playing the role of a welfare system that makes it okay for procrastinators to only make half-assed attempts to beat their addiction, but not make too serious of an attempt to get off the ‘dole’.

After all, if they blow it, there’s always next November.  That check will be in the mailbox in eleven more months.

If NaNoWriMo is intended as a way for a struggling writer to start down a path of professionalism, condoning procrastination is not the way to do it.  That psychological cancer needs excised from their minds RIGHT NOW, with extreme prejudice.

Ask any editor if they want to wait until the contractual deadline to get a finished work so that the writer can engage in his or her psychological masturbation, and the odds of them hiring the procrastinator again.

The thing I find odd is that many writers who participate in NaNoWriMo do so because they seem to feel frustrated that they can’t seem to get a regular writing schedule worked out, then they try to jump into a crazy forced output that will likely crush them.

It’s a system that almost seems for some to reward self-perpetuating failure and feeling bad about yourself.  Not every addiction can be cured with a one-size-fits-most twelve step program.

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Sometimes you just have to dig into the radioactive mess of your psyche without the benefit of the safety of a hazmat suit, or an officially organized online support network, and figure out where the contamination is really originating.

For some, procrastination stems from a near-crippling sense of anxiety and fear of failure.  Forcing yourself to write under a deadline is not going to improve your confidence, especially if you’re now looking at pages of rushed work with one eye and watching the ticking clock with the other.

Writing isn’t a mindless physical activity where sticking in your earbuds and doing sets of reps will build muscle tone and strength.  Simply putting your blinders up and throwing down fifty thousand words and shouting “DONE!” is NOT going to dispel the demons of doubt dancing all around you.

It’s like having a pants-wetting fear of reptiles, and feeling an adequate solution to overcoming that is putting on a blindfold and running full-bore through the Reptile House at the zoo.

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When you come out the other side, you haven’t really cured or even dealt with your fear.

You just closed your eyes and ran as fast as you could until you were no longer in danger … but the world is full of reptiles and you may not always be able to put your head down, close your eyes and just run.

I still have a few passes to make at NaNoWriMo’s word-mills, so if you’ll play Sancho to my Quixote, we’ll wrap it all in Part 3.

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!

Like a wise man once wrote: Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.

It’s like Cervantes *knows* me.

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5 Comments

  1. Again, well-considered and well-written. I am on the fence, but leaning away from Nano. I can see some benefits to it, but mostly they seem psychological.
    Would we tell a painter, “Do 5000 strokes a day and fill that canvas up in 30 days!”?

    • Thanks! The painting analogy is almost word-for-word part of my ‘closing argument’ from Part 3.

      I think it probably had good intentions early on, but it’s been co-opted and tainted as it has grown and has just become its own thing. The fact that not more finished works can trace their origins to it is probably the best indication — there’s hundreds of thousands of participants every year over a decade plus and only a few dozen actual examples of a book seeing the light of day. Even given the lousy odds of getting published period, no matter how you write the manuscript …

      From what I’ve been seeing, there’s not nearly the amount of actual discussion about the art and craft of writing that there should be among the participants, but there is a huge amount of narcissistic back patting.

      I honestly can’t tell if they’re more proud of their work or their word count, because they seem far more excited and enthusiastic about the digits.

  2. Great insight on this. NaNoWriMo has been such a wonderful experience for me, but I’ve been cruising posts with this tag and I know that tons of people are just using the support network to make themselves feel even more inadequate. “I know some people have written 75k words already! And I’m adjusting my goal down to 12k!”

    I’ve been an expert pre-writer, who wants to have all of the boards in place before I bring out the hammer and nails. This month has taught me that the unplanned parts of the creative process are the most revealing and rewarding. I’ve learned more about my characters by writing a novel than I ever could have through pre-writing.

    That being said, I’m going for the standard 50k words and I’m well on track to meet that goal. My novel won’t be anywhere near complete at that point. I’m terrified and elated by the prospect of December 1st. Will I continue writing at this pace? Or hibernate until next November? I’m hoping for the former!

  3. Frankly I’ve been getting notes from Nano all month long and have seen it simply as a distraction from the many professional jobs I already have to do–bearing in mind that professionally I’m not even a writer much of the time! So I can see the wisdom in what you say. Now I have to consider if I too am a deadline junkie. 😉

  4. […] Just Say No To NaNoWriMo: Part 2 (michaelallanleonard.wordpress.com) […]


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