Yes, that’s right, it’s November! And with it comes National Novel Writing Month, a fantastic event founded about fifteen years ago to promote literacy and creativity. The idea is that participants try to write a novel in a month, churning out an average of 1,500 words a day, every day, for 30 days – and tracking and sharing their word counts online. That demand for a constant torrent of words, supporters say, helps participants write without restraint, to let their thoughts fly without a filter. It’s a great concept, and for people trying to develop their creativity, I'm sure it’s an amazing experience — whether they hit their goals or not.
But I have to say that, as someone who’s been a professional writer of one sort of another for my entire (increasingly substantial) adult life, NaNoWriMo sets me on edge a bit.
I've actually participated once or twice, but never stuck with it more than a week or two. Usually I get bogged down in the progressively more convoluted plot of whatever intentionally absurd or silly book I've launched into with the intention of dashing it off. What starts out as fun yarn-spinning ends up more like a tangled mess, and I just throw up my hands.
I’m not alone – less than a fourth of participants finish NaNoWriMo successfully each year. But my NaNoWriMo experiences are miniature versions of my so-far frustrated efforts to write a “real” novel. I've got three partial ‘serious’ novels in my drawers – one quickly aborted from my teenage years, one that I made it about 100 pages into about four years ago, and one that I'm quote-unquote working on currently. If by "working on" you mean ‘have touched about three times in the last six months.’
I’ve written two nonfiction books that I like pretty well. But I’ve dreamed since I was fifteen that I would someday write a great novel, and every time I fail to complete one, I get a little more anxious. Watching tens of thousands of people dive into NaNoWriMo, I feel something dangerously close to cynicism.
Yeah, my darker side wants to whisper, have fun with that.
But (replies my more generous side), even those who don't finish NaNoWriMo are going to learn an awful lot. I may feel some frustration about my aborted novels, but those failures (mirrored by my NaNoWriMo attempts) have made me a better writer, specifically by showing me that I need to plan my plots more carefully. So, I'm sure my fellow would-be novelists are at this very moment learning plenty about themselves and the technical side of the writing process.
There’s something much deeper that those who fail at NaNoWriMo will learn, too – something not technical, but personal. My failed novels have been more than disappointments — they’ve increasingly made me question my talent, commitment, focus, and even sanity. But confronting that storm of uncertainty is at least as important to a writers’ skillset as wrestling with plot structure.
A blank page, to say nothing of hundreds of them, can feel an awful lot like a chasm. It’s only with some practice that you get used to throwing yourself over the edge. And it’s only by taking that leap, day after day, week after week, that you might, just maybe, learn how to land on your feet.
Aw nuts, I think I just convinced myself to try to write another novel.