Every November a fervor sweeps writerdom, an evangelical commitment to write fast and write more. This effort is called NanoWrimo or “National Novel Writing Month.”
The objective is to write a novel in a month, or at least the rough draft of one. For many it is a way to end procrastination, cut through resistance, and overcome stymieing perfectionism – to just get the words down.
The idea is radical, especially for writers who tend to fuss over every sentence as they are writing it. When I was writing for the web-based freelancing service Elance, I would see many jobs posted by writers who were 50 pages into a novel and wanted a professional to revise it before they moved on.
This is silly. Until you have your whole first draft written, you cannot know what the novel is going to need. The first 50 pages might need to be cut, depending on whatever surprising turns the novel takes during the course of writing it. Writers who are fussy about their first drafts tend to be under-confident and are eager for their words to flatter them even in the earliest stages of creation.
I used to be like that. As a result, I rarely finished stories. I was too caught up in the belief that writing should come out perfect on the first try, or I was not doing it properly. I felt dependent on a fleeting creative mood to fuel my effort, and If the initial mood of inspiration left me, I folded.
I know better now, so what is my problem with NanoWriMo? Doesn’t it discourage depending on inspiration? Or resorting to irrational perfectionism? Someone who is forcing herself to write quickly will be unable to fuss much over her original sentences, and being part of a group effort is motivating for some people.
So why not for me? I do have a novel-in-progress that I have neglected, not because I was blocked but because other activities commanded my attention. Recently I have begun writing on it again, but it is a challenge to bring my original vision back to life. NanoWriMo seems to offer a quick fix. Why not go for it? Because NanoWriMo seems like a diet to me.
I dislike the idea of NanoWriMo because I love writing. The finished product is important to me, but the process is what I treasure and enjoy most.
NanoWriMo only honors one stage of the process: the rough draft. I enjoy the rough draft stage, but I love the others, too. For me, revising is usually the point where time seems suspended and I cease to be aware of my surroundings because I am so absorbed by what I am doing.
Rough drafts are just raw material. Revision is when I get to shape them into something that resembles my ultimate vision. That is often where the real creativity occurs.
So many writing problems come from seeing writing as a linear one-step process. If a movie portrays a writer writing, he is always sitting at her keyboard pattering away, presumably generating new content.
Real writing is so much more than that. It is planning, revising, rewriting, editing, and polishing. Novels are designs. The best ones are too complex to emerge from an assembly line obsession with quantity.
When I accepted that writing had multiple stages, the quality of my writing improved dramatically. In fact, I believe that whenever, during reading, I become awed by something a writer has done, it is probably due to a hidden process that is layered beneath the visible text.
Rarely does magic “just happen.”
But NanoWriMo emphasizes word count to the point where some writers feel guilty if they go back and rewrite rather than adding to the overall volume of text. Which is another thing I dislike about NanoWriMo.
The emphasis on quantity takes away the fun. In my twenties, whenever I would sit down to write, I would be flooded with anxiety and self-doubt. I did not enjoy it.
Even when I told myself, “Write however you want,” I would find myself squirming in my chair, thinking about doing other things, and glancing at the clock. To discipline myself I would set hourly goals and limit my breaks severely. If I took too long, I would accuse myself of “cheating.”
I was forcing myself to write. I pretended that a teacher was standing over me, ready to give me a bad grade if I quit or reward me for continuing. The model of someone controlling me was one that I was used to, and it had usually worked, driving me to exercise or make good grades. But when it came to writing for myself, force seemed to oppose, rather than further, my creative efforts.
For me, forcing creates massive internal resistance. Anyone who has read my book “A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom” knows that I suffered from severe depression lasting several years and that with it, I was creatively blocked. I would only write in my journal, and even that was hard.
The turning point was when I relearned how to want to write, rather than imagining myself as being obedient to an authority. The shift occurred with a kind of rebellion. I thought, “No more rules, no more pleasing imaginary critics. I am going to go back to how I wrote when I was a kid, before anyone started telling me I should do it.”
To banish the idea that I “should” write, I used a strategy that is opposite of NanoWriMo. I limited how long or how much I wrote. Sometimes I limited it to 15 minutes. Or sometimes I even set a one sentence goal, so that afterward I was left wanting to write more. If I wanted to change my limit later, I could. These changes made the difference between writing because I “should” write and writing because I loved it.
But why does it matter why I write, as long as I write? Because writing because I wanted to meant no more fighting myself. It meant no longer needing motivational speeches to drive myself to the computer. It meant no more staring at the clock, since I was fully engaged with what I was doing. It meant that my imagination no longer ran away and hid as soon as I sat down to write, but instead peeked behind the sofa and made creative suggestions.
I dislike the idea of NanoWriMo because it would turn something I love doing back into a drudgery. The concentrated activity of writing is what I enjoy and why I keep returning to it again and again, even on weekends and during holidays.
NanoWriMo is all about word count. Group pressure takes the place of a boss or teacher. But letting others determine how I write would be a big step backward for me. I am able to write for long periods because I want to write. I love the process even more than exhilaration of delivering a finished product.
Not everyone agrees. I saw where someone on Reddit said that he considered NanoWriMo good for him because it turned him into a “serious” writer. I am so glad I never let anyone turn me into a “serious” writer. I would rather be a playful one who enjoys what she is doing.
If I enjoy what I do, I am far more likely to do it well. That does not mean writing is never hard. Sometimes writing is exceedingly painstakings, especially right before I share it with others. But I will go to any length to get it right, because my vision, desire, and process are my own.