NaNoWriMo

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.

8 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo

  1. OK, I get it, but here (quickly) (we’re racing out the door to ballet) is what I think. I think NaNoWriMo and its ilk all do one crucial thing — they provide you with a deadline. It’s a false-deadline, sure, no one will care if you don’t come up with 50,000 words by the end of the month. But it’s still a deadline. The biggest difference between a writer and a wanna-be writer is that the writer actually writes. Of all the tens of thousands of people who do NaNoWriMo, I’m betting there is a very small percentage who will ever publish the book they write, or complete it for that matter. Bad writers are bad writers, there will be millions of banal words saved on thousands of hard-drives. Writing a book is actually hard. It’s not just a pile of words that happen to total a certain number. There is magic involved. So if you took Steinbeck and gave him the pressure of a deadline and a word-limit, he would still have been Steinbeck, what he would have written would still likely have been unique and pure and entirely and obviously his, with his magic. The fact of how and why he wrote it would be irrelevant. Would he have done it? Maybe. He was part of a writing group with his peers and maybe NaNoWriMo is just a huge version of that to which many more are invited. Are you like the writers you admire? Maybe. I think, looking at your list, that much of what they had in common was that they wanted to write or rather, that they couldn’t NOT write because it was in them and it had to come out. It’s all the same.

    I think the fears that you write about are probably the fears that stop a lot of people from ever writing the thing they dream about writing. If you have a list of reasons not to do something — something that matters only to you — are you really going to do it? I don’t think so. You have to just shake it off, man. Write your book. Write it for yourself. Don’t show it to anyone. Keep it close. 50,000 words, by the way, isn’t even a book. Not really. Unless you write YA and then it’s just the right length. Most novels are closer to 100,000 words, I’d guess. So it’s half a book. Write half a book. AND it’s a first draft. All first drafts are shitty. It’s the golden rule of first drafts and the first rule of writing: Allow yourself to write a shitty first draft, but FINISH it. Then you can make it better with each pass and soon the shitty first draft is gone under all the layers of better drafts you’ve added on top. But you know that already.

    Reading your post makes me want to ask you the most fundamental question about your fears about writing: Are you REALLY afraid of those things? About what people think? Because who cares what they think? When your book is published, they’re going to think, “HEY, I KNOW THAT GUY!” And they are going to be madly impressed even if they never read it. I think what it boils down to is that you’re afraid your book won’t be good enough for YOU, and you will have to abandon all your ideas of ever being a writer. Am I right? I am not a shrink, I just play one on the internet. You are free to scrunch my advice up into a crumpled ball and flush it down the toilet.

    I actually don’t know how much feedback you get from NaNoWriMo, you know. You can scramble your words before they go through the word counter, no one actually SEES the thing or reads it. Only you. It’s just a meter to measure yourself against. Sort of like Weight Watchers: someone is going to weigh you every week, so you are accountable. Except in this case, it’s like Word Watchers. You have to keep going, even when it gets hard, which it does, because SOMEONE is counting.

    I’m going to write 50,000 words this month anyway, I just wanted the mug. It says “AUTHOR” on it! It’s pretty! Validation, my friend, validation.

  2. daryl says:

    What a great comment, Karen. Thanks. The deadline and something like accountability (it’s not real accountability, of course, but it resembles accountability) are why I’m doing NaNoWriMo. I did a reading project over the summer that had accountability (something closer to the real thing, because I was writing about what I was reading, and people were expecting to read what I wrote [and they liked it!]) built in, and it turned out to be one of the richest reading experiences ever for me. I would have skipped it or played along half-heartedly if not for the deadlines and accountability. So I’m hoping that by forcing a deadline on myself, I’ll brute-force my way into a draft. So pragmatically speaking, this is a good thing for me.

    You guess correctly that I’m not so worried about what people think of whatever writing I churn out. I think I’ll know if it’s really bad, and I’ll probably still think it’s mostly bad but with some good in it if it’s any good at all. If I write a thing that I value, it’s a win. If it’s not good enough for me, then I’m a failure (or maybe I just need to keep practicing). At any rate, your suggestion of just finishing a shitty first draft is kind of a useful kick in the pants. I’m gonna do it.

  3. Gabriel. says:

    Hey Daryl,

    Good to see you picking up and dusting off the blog. I’ve written the same blog post myself a half dozen times–never about writing, mind you but still, the same. Having done so, I know you’re not fishing for pick-me-ups. If I had written this post, I’d say it was likely an attempt to chastise myself into doing something, or for not doing something.

    When I was in first grade I always wanted to be the kid in class that lead everyone to the lunchroom, but I was afraid I’d get lost on the way and everyone would know, so I always stood second in line. I could tell the kid in front which way to go when he forgot, and I didn’t have to worry about the pressure of being first.

    It’s a lame analogy, but I think it represents the point well enough: We hold *ourselves* back.

    Oh, and I have a Moleskine too. I use it to keep track of the cash in my wallet, writing down how much I spend where. It’s one of those Dave Ramsey things. The next time you feel self-conscious scratching poetry into yours, just imagine that you’re writing down “Target. $12.” or “Reminder: Buy milk!”

    Hard to be self-conscious doing the mundane.

  4. daryl says:

    Hey, Gabe. It’s good to hear from you. I don’t know that I was chastizing myself exactly, but I was contemplating my reasons for not doing a particular variation on a thing I’ve picked up and put down plenty of times in the past. I can totally identify with fear of being the first kid in line, by the way. I think my cookies on your blog have probably long since expired, so I’m way behind on your blog. Will have to rectify that. 🙂

  5. Hey, Gabe. It’s good to hear from you. I don’t know that I was chastizing myself exactly, but I was contemplating my reasons for not doing a particular variation on a thing I’ve picked up and put down plenty of times in the past. I can totally identify with fear of being the first kid in line, by the way. I think my cookies on your blog have probably long since expired, so I’m way behind on your blog. Will have to rectify that. 🙂

  6. Yes to every single one of the following: “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.”

    I get that NaNoWriMo is about taking a now-familiar “just do it” attitude and applying it to the secret desire of authorship so many people have. I applaud that kick in the pants. I appreciate that cultivating a community around writing the Great American Novel is an important step toward producing the Great American novel. I also understand false deadlines as impetus.

    I just don’t need any baggage added to what is inherently a personal process. I don’t want to join a book club, either. Maybe I’m simply curmudgeonly.

    I don’t like the ticking clock/bomb of a word counter hanging over my head, and I don’t care whether I’ve written 5,000 or 200,000 words. I want great characters and scenes that mean something and dialogue that makes jaw drop in an “ow” as they recognize something they’ve said or had said to them. Or always wanted said to them.

    Maybe I’m jealous because I haven’t finished my books. Plural. That I’ve been working on (and off and on and off) for years. Maybe I resent that other people have this kind of time to spend hours a day every day for 30 days.

    Maybe I’m just scared.

    Either way, I have too much to do to spend any more time thinking about it.

    How did your NaNoWriMo go all those years ago?

  7. I don’t know how many people really have hours per day and how many just spew words onto the page without reflection. On a really good day, I can lay down two or three thousand decent words in a three-hour writing session; on a more typical day, I can write a couple of hundred words before I become disgusted with myself and give up. I think that without the filter of disgust or the necessity of creating something you think might be worth salvaging, it’d be pretty easy to just spew words. I just can’t keep producing utter schlock without going back and editing or falling into despair, though. I’m often in despair.

    The book I got about 30k words into was stupid. I wrote one longish section that may have some salvageable bits, but I doubt I’ll ever salvage them. I can’t even seem to get out a decent short story, so the novel’s really beyond me.

  8. Each of the psychological hang-ups you mention — the hoarding of words, the fear of appearing effeminate, and the fear of doing something lest others misinterpret the thing you’re doing — could be represented by a fine character in your novel for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

    I think they’re all linked by a preoccupation with an imagined consensus. That something’s not worth doing if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, or that one possible judgment overrides all others.

    Plenty of people believe the authors you mention are stupid, and write stupid things, but we ignore these people. They don’t know “literature”, and so they’re not people. Real people know these authors write fine books.

    For what it’s worth, I consider words a kind of exudation, not very much different from the slime a slug leaves in its trail.

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