Back in 2002, I was teaching high school (mixed grades, mixed subjects, to kids who had been expelled from the regular school system). I had no idea what I was going to be when I grew up -- I liked teaching but I was doing it partly out of desperation because, hey, what else do you do with a Creative Writing/English degree, right?
That’s not actually logical -- there’s a lot I could have done with my degree. I just didn’t know about most of it. I was a mess in a lot of different ways. There was some personal stuff and some family stuff and it all sat on my chest in the middle of the night like it was going to squeeze the breath right out of me.
Somehow, probably on ye olde Livejournal, I found out about a neat thing called NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. And because sometimes when you are sad the thing that you need most is to just get outside of your own life for a little while, I signed up.
The goal was to write a 50,000 words in 30 days. 50k is a fairly short novel, but for someone who had focused on short stories as a creative writer in school, it seemed like a fairly massive number of words. I wanted to see if I could do it, if I could set a seemingly impossible (or at least improbable) goal and make it happen. At the time, it was in no way a metaphor for the rest of my life, for wanting to make something better for myself. But, you know, the hindsight of a Creative Writing major can’t quite resist. Everything is full of stories.
So I wrote. I wrote every day. I wrote longhand on yellow legal pads in blue ink. If I pay attention, my penmanship can be quite elegant. But when I’m scrawling things down simply because I need to get them out on the page to make room for all the words crowding behind those, well. It’s a wonder those pages were legible enough to be typed up later.
Spoiler alert: I totally “won” NaNoWriMo that year. I topped out at about 55k. Unfortunately, I think I’ve lost that manuscript file or I’d excerpt it for you here. There was a lot of cold Chinese food, eaten for breakfast. That’s not as low as I’ve ever sunk; my second NaNoWriMo novel was full of jokes about laying pipe, because the main male character was a specialty plumber.
I’ve never pretended to have a sophisticated sense of humor.
The point of writing that novel was never to sell it. The point was simply to see if I could do it, if I could tell a lengthy story and keep it coherent and interesting. Discovering that I COULD do that was honestly transformative. While I still love short fiction (and almost always have a short story that I spend time noodling away on), there’s nothing quite like opening a file that’s over 50k in word count and knowing that I DID THAT.
Over the next several years, I did NaNoWriMo a handful of other times. I’ve “won” three times, and every time left me with the same sense of wonderment that I made this THING full of words. The year that I failed (in part due to RSI), I still didn’t feel like a failure. I mean, I had 18k of SOMETHING that has been sitting on my hard drive ever since. I actually pulled it out the other day -- and started to work on it again. Because sometimes things just need to percolate a little bit.
And now it’s November once again. It’s the tenth anniversary of that first novel effort, and to celebrate, I’m throwing myself back into NaNoWriMo for another attempt.
Of course I’ve given myself permission to fail -- life is what it is and there’s no telling what November will bring. Though I’ve got a clue: deadlines at my day job and xoJane assignments and pitching other outlets, hanging out with Ed and my friends and running around Orlando, the holidays -- which will be spent with various family members in various cities. November is a busy time. But if not in November, when? The truth is that every month is busy and there will always be something that comes up and drags me away from my keyboard.
This is why it’s taken me two years to get a manuscript in shape to send to my agent. (Think some positive thoughts for me on this one, please.)
But there’s something magical about NaNoWriMo. There’s something about sitting down to write every single day -- a trick I never seem to manage for more than a month at a time, no matter how often I try it. There’s something about the cooperative yet competitive spirit that gets fostered both in the NaNoWriMo forums and the in-person write-ins. There’s something about doing something ridiculous with a bunch of other people that creates a sort of group camaraderie (dare I say: team spirit?) -- or maybe it’s the euphoric high that comes from knowing you don’t have to look foolish alone.
Writing is often such a solitary endeavor. Writing for outlets like xoJane means a lot of short turnaround on feedback, but novels take what feels like forever and might never see the light of day at the end of it all. It’s just FUN. If you like that sort of thing. Which I do.
Anne Lamott is not really my jam when it comes to fiction. But she wrote “Bird by Bird,” which is, arguably, a classic book about how to write. I was in college when I read a printed out copy of the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” for the very first time.
Shitty first drafts are part of the writing process -- every writer experiences it. The point is that you have to get the draft down on paper (metaphorically speaking) before you can go about making it better. That’s the motivating factor behind NaNoWriMo as well -- getting a draft down on paper, while ignoring the internal editor voice that tells you everything is crap. Conquering the internal editor is often the hardest part of writing.
I think we have that voice when it comes to a lot of different things, not just creative endeavors. Any time we try something new or something we’re just not very good at, we risk making ourselves look like idiots -- that’s a vulnerable position. Especially once we’re “grownups,” we’re supposed to look like we’ve got our shit together, not flail around trying to do silly things.
Screw that. If the biggest risk I take in November is looking foolish in front of all you xoJaners, well, that’s a risk I can only embrace. Hopefully, at the end of the month, I’ll have 50k or so of story (and maybe I’ll share some of it along the way if y’all are interested). But if all I have is a handful of words and egg on my face, I can live with that. There’s something valuable about failure, too.
In the meantime, I do hope y’all will wish me luck! And if you’re coming along on this particular ridiculous adventure, look me up on the NaNoWriMo forums -- I’m “marianne” over there. Yep, signed up Back In The Day and got my actual name. Ah, the dubious benefits of being an early adopter. Keep me in the loop about your progress -- I want to cheer you on.
50k in 30 days. Let’s do this.