No Mo’ WriMo

  

As November 15 approaches, we’re nearly halfway through National Novel Writing Month.  I’d never heard of the event (NaNoWriMo to the cognoscenti) until it was mentioned by Becca, of Write on Wednesday.  Initially I paid it little mind, even when I realized several Write on Wednesday contributors were going to participate.  But NaNoWriMo began popping up everywhere on the Web, as though it suddenly had found a new and better PR firm.  Even the WordPress Forums weren’t immune.  Promoters there sounded a bit like Ron Burgundy.  NaNoWriMo, it seemed, was “sort of a big deal”.  I decided I should pay attention.

First, I read about the program.  (Its goal: for each participant to produce a 50,000 word novel within the month of November.)   I read and considered discussions about the program.  I read reflections from people who had participated in the program in the past.  And then, I decided not to participate. 

The first reason is that I’m not a fiction writer at heart, and I know that.   Becca’s original question about NaNoWriMo  – “Do you have a novel inside you waiting to get out?” – did send me off to have a look around my mental premises.  I reached back into the crannies of my mind, opened up drawers filled with preconceptions and sorted through piles of prejudices.  I pulled out my passions and interests from under the bed, rearranged the stacks of leftover sentences and paragraphs in the back closet and even checked behind my little stash of preferences and neuroses.  There’s no novel in there, anywhere.  I’m not surprised.  I read very little fiction by choice, generally being led to an author’s fiction by their essays or letters.  So, there’s no particular reason to believe the desire to write fiction would be lurking around the edges of my life.

But there’s another reason I chose not to participate, and it would keep me on the sidelines even if the challenge was non-fiction writing.  When Becca desribed the program, I thought surely she had paraphrased the point of NaNoWriMo.  She had not.  On the organization’s own page, I found these words (emphases mine):

“Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

Reading the words, I was astounded, overcome by my visceral reaction to a paragraph diametrically opposed to every conviction I hold about writing.  When I began to write, I learned first about the time required, and soon after about the effort.  The first poem I wrote, from which the title of this blog is taken, was called The Task at Hand, and its first line reads,“Even the right word takes effort…”  Faulker may have written As I Lay Dying in six weeks, but Annie Dillard sees that work for what it is: the exception.  As she says in her remarkable The Writing Life,

“..perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year.  Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth.  Some people eat cats.  There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”

Since time and effort are normative for most writing, if there is not to be pleasure, illumination, shared understanding, surprising insights at the end – what is the point?  Perhaps if I intended only to put away my pages on the closet shelf after writing the last word, I’d feel differently.  But I suspect not.  Ars longa, vita brevis indeed, and the compulsion to create can consume a life like flames licking away at piles of discarded manuscript.  If my time and energy produce a result worthy only of being hidden in the closet or destroyed by a disgruntled muse – why bother?

 

A worthy result is dependent upon commitment to quality, and an equal commitment to structures capable of supporting both the process and product of the writer’s work.  The assumption that “tweaking” and editing, tearing down and rebuilding have nothing to do with creativity is simply wrong.  Without form and structure, without a command of our language, an understanding of its possibilities and commitment to the disciplines necessary for its flowering, literary creation is impossible.

I’m willing to allow that “endless” fiddling is frustration on the hoof, ready to run roughshod over the hapless writer.  But the assumption that you can “just create”, piling inchoate sentences on top of one another like so much half-cooked pasta is simply wrong.

As the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad knew, no matter how much track you lay, it isn’t going to do much good if you’re going in the wrong direction.  Too many novels (essays, short stories, poems) have been forced to make 90 degree turns at the end, and still miss their Promontory by a mile.  It’s never a satisfying conclusion for a reader, and much of the problem is simple lack of attentiveness by the author: a failure to get out the compass or look at the sun, and be sure that the direction is true.

 My quarrel here is not with writers who have taken up the challenge.  Some are attempting to deal with writer’s block.  Others are looking for new ways to discipline their writing, or for a shared sense of creative community.  Some simply love a challenge, or want to experience the pressure of a deadline.  None of that offends me.

I am offended by those who entice writers to forego structure, effort, the vertiginous thrill of immersion in the creative process – all in the name of crap.  Whatever their true purpose – from one perspective, it looks purely commercial – they have lowered the bar so near the ground the only challenge it poses is not stubbing my toe as I step over it. 

If the goal of NaNoWriMo is merely to produce 50,000 words, the focus on quantity alone makes sense. But if the goal is to write,  why offer nothing more than the chance to produce “crap”?  Why not encourage effort and discipline, an opportunity to understand structure and clarify vision?   In a society so marked by mediocrity and laziness, hunger for quick fixes and demands for immediate gratification, why encourage the fantasy that 50,000 robotically counted words alone a novelist make? 

Of course, the NaNoWriMo folks are utterly justified in turning to me and asking, “And you.  What gives you the right to criticize?  You have no novel.  You have few publishing credits.  You have neither reputation nor name.”

And that is true.  But I have readers, who make their presence known.  I have visions, that I seek to clothe in words.  I have the night, and the silence, and the murmuring voices that fill it.  In the end, I have been satisfied more than I have been disappointed with my writing, and I never, ever have produced crap.

Those who are continuing on with their NaNoWriMo projects have my support, and I’ll be keeping an encouraging eye on the Write on Wednesday group especially.  They made their choice, and I made mine, and the very process of making those choices will help determine our paths into the future. 

But I must say – I find it intriguing that the NaNoWriMo folks chose the metaphor of Kamikazi for writers who participate in their program.   The Kamakazi, after all, were the ones who chose to go down in flames.

 

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

13 thoughts on “No Mo’ WriMo

  1. I decided to participate for the first time, just for the new challenge. Like a marathon for this writer chick chubbette. You can’t have written even one line previously (whose done notes or research but not one line?) so I had to choose the idea at the very bottom of the pile, one I was definitely planning to get to just not right now. And I have to say it’s been a really interesting process and has surprised me. It definitely has me in places I wouldn’t have been in otherwise. I think it’s probably like any experience where you make of it what you will, if you have that “novel inside” and the talent to conjure it then you may end up with something great that needs a lot more work in dec, jan, feb, march and so on. I will not be finished on nov 30 but I have a start on something new and 12,000 wds (50,000 by then, fingers crossed)that I didn’t have before. Some people probably figure out that writing isn’t for them and some people will self-publish crap and torture their loved one with their new lit-star status. No doubt there’s as many stories as “novels” written. It is fun knowing others are chugging along too. Can you tell I’m avoiding? Great post! Best of luck with your word-smithing!

    Hi, alphabetfiend,

    I have to say – love that handle! It’s terrific. And good for you for getting in there and writing.

    I especially like your statement that NaNoWriMo “has me in places I wouldn’t have been in otherwise”.
    At one time or another (and with luck, over and over again) all of us experience that with our writing, and it’s one of the best experiences in the world.

    Now that I’ve had my say, I will back up enough to add that fiction may be more amenable to this approach than non-fiction. But I’ll always hold out for the necessity of writers to guard the integrity of language, and strive for excellence. I just happen to believe we need to do that from the moment we put pen to paper (or, start clicking the keys).

    Good luck – I’ll be anxious to hear how you do.

    Linda

  2. Oh I agree with that. I’d never set out to write crap. That would rob writing of its fun! I’ll be posting it as I go at — alphabetfiend@wordpress — if you wanna peek in on the progress. Though I realize you’re not one for ficton. The book is called Pure Sweet Chocolate Sense and is about a family with a heightened sense of smell, a perfume empire, a cop with “blue sense” (psychic clues are among his crime fighting tools) and the body of a young girl in a kentucky coal mine. Literary fiction/magical realism. fun fun! Better get to it.

    alphabetfiend,

    I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you using the word “fun”. In the end, that’s what it’s about. Otherwise, I suspect few of us would be sitting at these keyboards or toting our journals around. No matter which form we favor or how much time we devote to writing, in the end it’s the pleasure of words, the joy of accomplishment, and the sheer fun of creating that keeps us going. I’ve peeked at your site already (interesting!) and will look in from time to time.

    Linda

  3. I agree. There’s something to be said for just moving your pen across the page and just writing. Peter Elbow’s freewriting, Natalie Goldberg has a similiar approach to get it out and often that first powerful burst of writing is the most authentic to return to.

    I’m just in it for the experience of writing 50,000 words in a month. So far I have 15.000.
    Don’t tell anyone, but it’s pretty close to autobiography. I love to break a rule or two.
    I think you present your position powerfully as well.

    Bonnie

    Hi, Bonnie,

    Your comment reminds me how far “outside” the writing world I am. You mention Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg – I’ve never heard of them. When Becca references this person or that in the Write on Wednesday prompts, I have no idea who they are. I’ve read Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor’s letters and the wonderful books of William Zinsser, but that’s the extent of my “reading about writing”.
    I’ve never been to a writers’ workshop, I’ve never taken a writing class and I’ve never thought of doing writing exercises. What I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from writing, and the convictions I’ve formed come from that experience, combined with life experience in other arenas.

    That’s a long way of saying I agree with you when you say, “There’s something to be said for just moving your pen across the page and just writing.” Whether the product turns out to be a 50 word poem, a 500 word essay or a 50,000 word novel, it’s the writing that’s important. And I’ll never be swayed from my basic conviction that writing is a different critter than simply piling up words. Even in the earliest, roughest stages of a draft, decisions are made on a minute by minute basis – which word? which phrase? this first, or that? – and those decisions are what begin to determine the quality of the work.

    In any event – good for you, with the 15,000, and thanks so much for taking time out from the process to stop by! I really appreciate it, and I really am interested in the experience all of you are sharing.

    Linda

  4. Thanks for your comment and the invitation to look at your “I am not a novelist” paragraph. You were right: I loved it! But the rest of your essay spoke deeply to me as well, especially when you write about the tepid allure of writing crap. That’s definitely not a motivator for me.

    But then I write mostly short stuff. If it takes more than 1500 words, I’m not likely to write it.

    That means there is one context where I might get Nano, and that’s when you’re trying to write your very first novel. Unlike other forms, such as essays, poems, or short stories, a novel — seems to me, anyway — has a structure that is by nature more complex, more unwieldy, and harder to navigate for the writer. Perhaps writing something complete, even if it is completely crap, could be a way of understanding what it takes to get through that structure, of metaphorically getting that first [scrambled] omelette out of the pan, so that you can quickly move on to the much more appealing and vastly improved second iteration. Not that I’d do it, but I can at least see the possibilities.

    Mostly, like you, I’d hesitate long and hard before signing up for any event that included kamikaze in its description of participants.

    Good afternoon, anno,

    The more I think about this, the more I realize the 50,000 words aren’t the issue for me, nor is the time limit. What bothers me is that ways could have been found to invite people to participate in such an event without implying that “time and effort” won’t be an issue in NaNoWriMo as well, or that the production of “crap” is a worthy goal.

    Obviously, if a robotic word counter is going to be the final arbiter of what makes it and what doesn’t, you’re going to have to shape everything about the event around that. But, still….

    Luckily, many participants are smart and creative enough to use the structure as it is to produce something worthwhile, to learn more about themselves and about writing. But my post isn’t really about individual writers and how they use the program – it’s about the program itself, and the way it presents itself to the participants. Every time I read NaNoWriMo’s “about” page, I have an urge to say, “Now, come on, folks. You know you’re better than that.”

    Many thanks for your comments!

    Linda

  5. Linda, for some strange reasons your post makes me think of an unrelated passage, and it goes like this:
    “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born (giving birth to a novel), and a time to die (by it)…”

    I believe too that there’s a time for quality, and a time for quantity.

    I have also opted to stay clear of this exercise because 50,000 words is just too formidable for me. But, I can appreciate the purpose behind the act, that free writing, writing without restraints, can loosen up our senses and break down writer’s block. I can imagine it could be one exhilarating experience.

    There’s a time for quality (almost always), and I think too, there’s a time for quantity… the latter could be a detour to the former. Once you’ve managed to spit out 50,000 words, I’m sure you can glean some and re-format others to polish and prune, rebuild and remake. Writing is a long process, and I don’t think the 50,000 word piece is the final product, but just the start.

    And I believe too, as the good Bard says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Good morning, Arti,

    I keep circling this quantity/quality issue, trying to find a new way to give voice to my uneasiness over the NaNoWriMo approach – or, at the very least, their description of their approach. I keep asking myself what unspoken assumptions have shaped my response to the exercise.

    One is an assumption that, in the end, you use as many words as it takes to say what needs to be said. As I mentioned somewhere else in the comments, a jewel of a poem may take only 100 words. An essay may take 1,000. A memoir might be 10,000, while the rise and fall of an imaginary empire might end up at 100,000 (divided into a couple of books, we hope!)

    And, it seems to me that the words we choose also depend on what we need to say. But the vision has to come first. It may be a dim vision, just a hint of something moving in the dark, but that’s where we begin. As we pile up the words, trying to describe what we see, it’s critical to keep the vision in mind. It’s the only way to select the right words, arrange them properly, and keep them from hiding what we want to reveal.

    And I’m sure how I write influences my view of things. I’ve read so much about the importance of commiting an entire work to paper, and then going back to begin the editing process.
    That isn’t the way I do it – and thank goodness I found my way described in Dillard’s “The Writing Life”, or I might have felt forever I was “wrong”. It’s just different.

    She speaks of perfecting a piece of prose as it progresses – securing each sentence before building on it. And, as she says, “original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces.”

    It’s like the old experiment kids do (did?) in science class – dropping the final ingredient into the jar to watch the crystals grow. To my mind, that’s what happens when quantity and quality are held in perfect tension – the writing begins to take on the force and nature of a living thing, and grows on its own.

    I wonder what Jane Austen would think of all this? She’d probably be in the back room, writing.

    Many thanks for the stimulating comment – as you can see, I like to think about these things.

    Linda

  6. This is an interesting post that makes a lot of sense to me. I had similar feelings about that. While I admire the NaMo writers and just the effort of doing it — AND while I appreciate the idea of getting down bulk and going back to edit later (sometimes you have to start with SOMETHING), the idea of writing crap intentionally is sort of like nails on chalkboard to me. Very interesting — much to mull here.

  7. Hi Linda,

    In a way, I can partially understand some reasoning behind this. When I taught 5th grade a couple of years ago, getting students to write (unless it was innately in them) was very difficult to do. So, sometimes I would tell them to just write – whatever came to them, where ever it took them, from one subject to the next. They often found their purpose in writing after doing an exercise like this. THEN, and only then, were they able to narrow their writing selection, broaden their writing field and then worry about sentences, grammar, spelling, etc.

    I guess you could refer to it as a rough draft – but we don’t always give them that option of being so free. Students writing usually serves a purpose – trying to write to a prompt – answer a question, fulfill a particular style of writing (narrative vs. non-fiction, etc.)

    I would venture to guess that most of the people who participate in this adventure, aren’t looking for publication with what they accomplish – it’s just getting some words, and a lot of them – on paper.

    Hi, Karen,

    It occurs to me that NaNoWriMo may provide for many people what your classroom provides for your kids – an external structure to support an internal activity. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and it may be that some of the chatter of the blogs (“I’ve written 17,000 words”, “I finally got started again”, “I can’t figure out what to do next”) is simple mutual encouragement of the “We’re all in this together and we can keep going” variety. I don’t mind the isolation of writing, or the lack of feedback in the process. But some people do.

    As for telling your kids to just start writing, and see what happens? That approach works for things other than writing, too. I still remember my 4th grade art class, when the teacher handed each of us the biggest size bar of Ivory Soap and said, “Just do whatever you want with it.” There must have been some limits, but I do remember one boy taking his bar outside and drawing on the sidewalk with it.
    I carved a squirrel out of mine, with its tail curled up over its back – and it was one fine squirrel.

    I hope when this year’s NaNoWriMo is over, there are lots and lots of people looking at their manuscripts and saying, “That’s one fine story!”

    Keep up the good work with the kids and that new media center.

    Linda

  8. Whew … so many different ideas and reactions to nanowrimo.
    As for me, I’ve had a story idea for years. I am tired of lugging it around with me. I am working it out and onto the paper just as one sweats to get toxins out of the system.

    I have no idea what I’ll do with it when I get to 50,000. I suspect it won’t even be finished.

    In truth, I know it for what it is even as I work slowly through it. The viewpoint is more a camera following some lives along as they crisscoss than it is story. Yet I perservere. I have no idea if there is anything between the beginning which is well underway and the end of the story, which I have known all along, from the beginning, in fact.

    I am in competition with myself. Write crap? Eschew quality? Pooh. I don’t ascribe to their suggestions or rules, only the race.

    Evening, oh,

    Your very last words are a perfect example of what I said to anno:

    “Luckily, many participants are smart and creative enough to use the structure as it is to produce something worthwhile, to learn more about themselves and about writing.” That’s exactly what you’re up to, and it’s a perfect use of the NaNo opportunity.

    But there are people engaged in the process who haven’t written much, if at all. They aren’t immersed in writing, either professionally or personally, and don’t have the confidence to set aside the rules and chart their own course. As one fellow said to me, “I really need these folks to guide me along so I can learn how to really write.” I just wish the rules had been set forth in a way that provided more satisfactory guidance for folks like that.

    Quite apart from my fussiness, I loved what you said about the middle being the mystery in your story/snapshot. I’ve been turning over the decline of American story-telling in my mind for months. One of my theories is that we don’t have the patience to watch the middle unfold – we want stories that boil down to “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after”!

    And who knows – maybe around February, when the weather is cold and wet and I can’t varnish, I’ll undertake my own writing month. Let’s see… I could do a novel about a grumpy old woman writer whose words take on lives of their own, roaming the neighborhood and wreaking havoc in random sentences…

    Happy writing. I’m loving the little posts you’re providing in the midst of the big project.

    Linda

  9. Linda, You’re right. Frankly so. About the middle of the story and its flop. It’s in everything, from stories to novels to movies. (I always love to throw film in there because so many people experience them, and quote them!)

    And so, this morning as I sip some coffee and prepare to iron something to wear to work (yeah, things are falling a bit behind here), I am pondering the middle. I may still be “in the middle” when I come to the end of the month, I dunno. But that’s ok.

    oh,

    Surely you remember Stealers Wheel, and their great hit, “Stuck in the Middle with You”? I’ve always liked it – it has the gift of being so appropriate in so many life circumstances.

    But I never imagined it would be the perfect anthem for someone in the middle of writing a novel/story/whatever. It is. Here are the lyrics of the first verse:

    Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
    I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
    I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
    And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
    Clowns to the left of me,
    Jokers to the right, here I am,
    Stuck in the middle with you.

    I’ve been there, in front of the keyboard, stuck “in the middle”. Maybe that’s why it makes me laugh so. Here’s a link to a concert video. It’s a cheerful little thing, and might make a perfect, and perfectly amusing, pick-me-up song for you!

    Linda

  10. Linda – Excellent! Oh, that song – I’d forgotten about it. Think I’ll make it my theme song. Geez, I’d love to stay home and write today. At least I now have a song playing in my head – you’re right – it makes me smile, especially in this application.

  11. Interesting post…and comments. For the record, I have taught writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and yes, I am published.

    First, I applaud you for taking a pass on participating because your reasoning (for yourself) seems quite sound. You know yourself well. I try to; I like to think one of my strengths is knowing my weaknesses.

    That said, all I know about this project is what I’ve just read here and I am meh about it. 50,000 words is not a novel. It’s a novella. 60,000 is considered a novel. Writing a book is hard work, but hard writing makes for easy reading. The better the writer, the easier writing seems to those who haven’t done it. Professional writers write every day, even if they don’t feel like it.

    One of the hardest things readers and writers of quality fiction are forced to accept is how much poorly-written and bad fiction is published and devoured. Many best-selling authors are great storytellers but medicore-to-bad writers. IE: John Grisham, Dan Brown, Maeve Binchy.

    And anyone who can’t take repeated and sometimes-harsh rejection is probably better off as a reader.

    Bravo to all who make it to 50K words — that, in itself, is quite an accomplishment.

    Ella,

    Many thanks for the interesting comments. Your mention of rejection and the need to live with it – and learn from it – is so important. Many people have said to me in the past six months, “Don’t you wish you had begun writing ten years ago?” I really don’t wish that. I wasn’t tough enough to take rejection, and I wouldn’t have been willing to make the sacrifices necessary to find the time and expend the effort that will be necessary to do what I want to do.

    I’m away from home tonight, and on a wireless connection in a shop that’s wanting to close, so I’ll let that it be it for the evening – but there’s lots more to think about in your remarks, and I’m so happy for them. Thanks!

    Linda

  12. Linda,

    Wonderful post again. I believe you are right about quality vs quantity and problems that can arise when only quantity is the goal. It is like a statement I recall a certain George W. used in a speech I heard of his concerning China. It was something along the line that the Chinese people need to become better consumers, as though using up lots of things quickly is the primary goal in life, and especially good for a global economy.

    Although I am a marathoner, I consider each step I take in my training for an event, and the actual goal of completing the task. If I do it incorrectly, either during the training process or during the race, I find I only hurt badly afterward. As a writer who prepares each word, sentence, and paragraph, I would expect the same hurt would result if the process was done incorrectly.

    Daniel,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. What you say about training for a marathon and its relevance to the writing process sounds reasonable to me and feels right. Even when I’m not entirely clear on what the end result is going to be, I have an idea of what I WANT it to be, and I judge words, sentences and paragraphs by that vision as I go. Sometimes I get surprised by a change in direction. Sometimes I find I’m going in the wrong direction. And sometimes I discover I’m going in two or three directions at once, and have to make a choice. But the work is like an organism, a living being, with every part related to and dependent on everything else.

    Oh, how ready I am to get Mom back home and finish out the “Ike” chapter, so I can get back into my “training routine”!

    Linda

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