Yesterday, I tweeted about NaNoWriMo to the effect that I thought I might give it a shot if I could untangle a plot by November 1, though I was a little embarrassed by the urge to do so. I’m usually pretty shy about saying anything at all about writing, but this was in reply to a twitter contact of mine who had said she was participating, and I thought I’d just hang it out there for once, partially, I suppose, for the sake of making some small kind of connection with somebody rather than just tweeting about my ham sandwich and going about my day with my fingers stuck in my ears. She later replied to encourage me and to ask why I was embarrassed, to which I replied that I wasn’t entirely sure why I was embarrassed.
I’ve thought about it a bit now, and there are a few of tiers of embarrassment.
The first is that I’m very private about any writing in which I have any real personal investment. My college degree is in English literature and poetry writing. A whole lot of people I’ve met who write poetry are proud of it, boast about it, and ask you to read their stuff and wait for you to shower them with praise because surely that metaphor they thought up all on their own about a dying leaf representing a dying relationship and which they wrote about in free verse with weird punctuation merits at least praise if not a Pulitzer. But I’ve never been that way (discounting the teenage years). At times, it’s due to a lack of confidence, I guess; it’s that I don’t want to put myself out there and face rejection. At other times, I think it’s because I’m being something of a hoarder, a jealous keeper of the words I’ve worked to smash together into something I think is good. I think that with poetry in particular, people don’t appreciate it or really even know how to appreciate it. I include myself among those who don’t really know how, by the way. For all that I used to fancy myself a writer of poetry, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought myself a good reader of it. I haven’t done much justice to the poets I’ve read. So if I’ve spent hours or days polishing a poem, I’m sometimes reluctant to make a gift of it to somebody who I think won’t appreciate it. That sounds so arrogant, but that’s not at all how I mean it. It’s more of a selfish impulse than an arrogant one. It’s not that I think it’s a thing of great value to anyone else; it’s that it’s a thing of great value to me that I’m reluctant to share because it’ll be a real let-down if the person I’m sharing it with doesn’t value it too (the more so if it’s because they didn’t really try). And but of course they won’t value it, because it’s just a trifling thing, a dozen or two lines of something possibly well-said about something quite probably inconsequential. So I don’t blame people for not valuing poems, but I’d rather keep them to myself. Which is all really kind of embarrassing to wring my hands over, so I don’t talk about it much.
Another tier of embarrassment is that I tend to suspect that people view writing — and especially writing poetry — as sort of effeminate. I don’t know why I care about that, but I do. (It also happens to just be stupid; you can name more famous male writers than female, I’ll bet.) I generally would prefer that some people not know I have this interest in writing because I fear that then they’ll think I’m like some weak, hysterical little Victorian schoolgirl who cries at the drop of a hat and writes weepy emotional poetry about stupid things. It’s a weird hangup, I know.
Yet another tier of embarrassment about being open about writing is that I don’t want to seem like that person who expects praise even though what I’m writing may be spectacularly bad or banal. Some people parade around with their moleskines (I have one, incidentally, but I kind of hide it) looking up at the trees and making a show of writing so that you’ll know they fancy themselves writers. And they irritate me. Probably most of them are just trying to write and not really trying to make a show of any sort, but I tend to interpret it as a show, and I don’t want to be the guy making a show of anything, so I keep my efforts under my hat. I’m embarrassed to be seen jotting things down on the rare occasions that I do it. Heck, I’m even embarrassed to carry around books I’m reading. Because I usually read things that are considered literary, I worry that by carrying my books around, I risk seeming as if I’m inviting compliments or conversation or even just speculation as to how smart I must be if I’m taking some big tome with me to the barber shop of all places. So I’m even a little embarrassed about my reading, and I’m usually careful to hide the cover of my book against my body when out in public so that it’s not obvious what I’m reading. In a nutshell, I don’t want to be or to seem like a poser, and this translates into a sort of embarrassment about public reading and writing endeavors.
My embarrassment about NaNoWriMo in particular sort of encompasses a lot of these other embarrassments (I’m cataloging an embarrassment of embarrassments here, it seems). It’s a public thing, for example; you’re putting yourself out there, and you’re doing it before the work is anywhere near ready for public consumption. And the whole community that has sprung up around NaNoWriMo seems to be one of encouragement and flattery and fawning and congratulations for what ultimately stands to be a very mundane achievement, for how hard is it really to pump out 50,000 words of garbage in a month? I’ve written a 1,300 words (of arguably garbage) in one quick sitting here. NaNoWriMo praises mediocrity, it seems to me, and — what’s worse — something like public, mass mediocrity. And I guess that’s part of what’s embarrassing about it to me, that I’m considering joining this community that rewards quantity over quality, that encourages just the sort of thing that I find irritating about people who blog their crummy fanfic and want you to applaud their trite doggerel. To join them is to admit that you’re one of them is to admit to a sort of failure.
It’s not quite that, of course. I’m told that lots of fanfic is actually quite good, for example, and I’m sure that lots of good writing comes out of NaNoWriMo. Still. Would Steinbeck have done NaNoWriMo? What about Gaddis? Do you suppose Pynchon has a NaNoWriMo profile (wonder what he’d use for an avatar)? Or McCarthy? To do NaNoWriMo, for me, is to admit these things I already know but am sad to articulate: That I’m not anything at all like the people whose writing I admire. That I can churn out 50,000 words in a month but they won’t be any good. That people will want to pat me on the back and send me a tote bag or a mug or a sticker for that failure. That the positive feedback will probably be addictive and ultimately fuel continued mediocrity. That I’m not as smart as I thought I was or wish I could be. That I lack talent and creativity. That I need help — that I can’t do on my own this most solitary and almost sacred of acts, the putting of pen to paper to capture what I think and know and want and hope.