Last week I said I’d write about NaNoWriMo, that whirlwind of writing activity centered around churning out a novel in 30 days. A year ago I actually pulled it off without registering, as I wanted to see if such a thing could be done, if I could do such a thing. At the end of a month I’d produced a novel that had swept me up and carried me off in directions I never dreamed of going, along paths I never intended to navigate. That was a good thing–it forced my brain and creativity to synchronize, when all too often they’re at odds. My first novel had taken me over ten years to write; granted, while doing other things like raising my beautiful daughter and spending a lot of time being hysterical about money, but it really had taken that much time for the work to evolve and improve, mutating as I learned more about craft and life, myself and the world I wrote about. These two extremes: the ten years as opposed to the month, raised the question, who am I as a writer? Am I more effective as a sprinter or a marathon runner? And does it really matter?
We all know that a quality finished product seldom emerges from hurrying. That’s not to say it can’t; plenty of journalists writing to strict deadlines produce some of their best work under pressure. But the stuff of good writing demands immersion on the one hand and stepping back on the other; a fine dance between distance and close, almost claustrophobic contact with our stories. The work has to breathe and reveal its secrets, like a wild creature caught and held captive; we have to learn to trust and believe in it, and in a strange way, it has to do the same with us. That relationship demands time.
The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that first draft down, and therein lies its strength. There’s no time to mull over writer’s block or anguish over whether an idea has legs. NaNoWriMo is the force that kills our inner critic. Not for long, mind you, there’s plenty of time in December to gasp in delight and cringe in shame, but for that crucial time when a novel is born, the ego driven lack of faith in ourselves as writers is silenced.
And all the adrenalin can produce something fresh, surprising and unforeseen. At some point, a degree of free writing must take over, where the writer gets out of the way and pure consciousness kicks in–the author’s and the story’s. And as writers, that’s what we’re after, that sacred space where art, work and being synchronize.
Writing, like a good story, is conflict ridden. An approach that reveres tropes and genres tends to give fiction a veneer of cloning, because rigid adherence to formulas and templates precludes a more organic unfolding. We often underestimate the secret power of the accident, which can be anything from a sudden change of course to the unpredictable behavior of a protagonist. Maybe a minor character vies for the spotlight and clamors to be heard.
While accidents can be disastrous, they can also be cathartic and revelatory. Writing at this pace allows for lots of accidents, and you can be pretty sure that some of them will be miraculous. It also allows for our characters to drive part of the narrative as they assert their right to do what they want to do, not what the writer insists on.
Part of the process of making impactful art involves the struggle between creator and the piece itself, between the artist’s vision and the direction a story may want to take. We want our characters to be authentic. We want them to assert themselves, because that means our stories live. It can be delicious to have your own story surprise you, and the tug of war for control between characters and writer can be invigorating. It really becomes a process of relinquishing that control and taking it back. Give and take, push and pull. This much writing in such concentrated bursts also taps into intuition, that mystical wellspring of secret knowledge, and nestled in their somewhere, sometimes asleep and sometimes roaring, is that part of us that is purely driven by the imperative to create.
Caryn spoke about the sedentary and lonely life of the writer, and alleviating that is another of NaNoWriMo’s strengths. Sometimes that sense of solitude can feel disempowering, no matter how much we’re able to travel in our heads. But in November, over 200 000 writers get to support, encourage, compete and now and again socialize, creating a frenzied carnival of writing excess. Tapping into the energy generated not only encourages writers to dive into their ideas and go with the current, it lends discipline, drive and a loose sense of community to those who participate.
Whether you want to participate in all the activities and networking of NaNoWriMo or just quietly push those deadlines, I think there’s fun to be had, and a huge sense of accomplishment that kicks in when it’s over. Definitely something to try at least once…you decide once a year or once a lifetime.
Next up from Jenn: Exploring the unconscious in writing.