NaNo-What Now?

November is NaNoWriMo.

What the hell is that, you ask? (I did.) You can find out more about it here: http://nanowrimo.org/ but the gist is that it's a writing contest where participants strive to write as much of a novel as they can in one month's time. 

Maybe the rest of you aren't as erudite and cultured as I am (ahem), so I'll admit that I was initially skeptical (perhaps even dismissive) of the idea. NaNoWriMo embraces anyone who has a month to throw word count after word count at it, and there's a hint of favoring production over almighty art. It's purposefully democratic. And one could extend its philosophy to the rise of self-publishing and e-books.

I wasn't sure of this at first. I carried with me a very outmoded idea of what the art and craft of writing should be. 

But I was wrong. Wrong about self-publishing and wrong about NaNoWriMo.

The awesome and insanely prolific Beth Shelby introduced me to NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. Along with Stephen King's On Writing, I credit the NaNoWriMo primer  No Plot, No Problem for prompting me to actually complete my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus. This is my mea culpa.

For those of you who aren't writers and who don't care to be, you should know that we writers often have neurotic tics. (Understatement.) Most of us ritualize the act of writing. This is an understandable adaptive behavior when you consider that writers spend much of their time caught within the mystery of their own writing process - be it in their own heads or at a computer or some combination in-between. Sometimes the ideas and words flow with ease, sometimes they flow and we can't stop them, and sometimes the words never come and we beg and we plead for any scrap of an idea.

One of my favorite examples of writing neurosis in action is that of the great TV writer David Milch. In a very excellent New Yorker profile, those of you unfamilair with why writers are such freaks can marvel at Milch's tale of his time in a creative writing program when he would type and re-type the same pages, word for word, over and over again. Sadly, Milch's struggles make perfect sense to me.

One of my tics is that I will endlessly revise. Endlessly. I have revised my first novel, which is still in process, for over ten years. This isn't good. Yes, it's possible that I'm a great writer of the Donna Tartt variety who just takes forever to get a novel complete. But the much more likely scenario is that I'm stuck, and I'm too afraid to make the necessary changes or cuts or, the worst option, admit defeat and move on. 

NaNoWriMo changed me. So, OK, Ten Vanished Memories has so far taken me almost four years, and it's a short novel with a pretty clear narrative through-line, but the beauty and genius of NaNo is that it pushes you to draft without looking back. Just write and keep going. I couldn't have gotten the novel to where it is now without adopting and embracing NaNo's philosophy.

I've mentioned elsewhere that, to me, the art of writing is in the revising. Once the words are on the page, that's when work transcends to art. But getting the words onto the page, getting an entire novel down before you revise, that's a difficult but necessary challenge. I want to go back and tinker. The urge is compulsive and so seductive. And I can tell myself--lie to myself--that I'm writing when all I'm doing is snipping and pruning. Endlessly.

Full disclosure: I don't participate in the NaNoWriMo contest, nor do I limit my drafting to November. Given the constraints on my time, a little every day is the only workable model. (Although I can understand why writers hole themselves up in order to get their drafts down.) But in terms of freeing me from the prison of my own process, NaNoWriMo has been an invaluable asset.

It is for the self-described non-writers that I think NaNoWriMo is the true revelation, though. You will never be the same after you let yourself write hour upon hour, day after day, for an entire month. Give it a try.