Just say NaNo?

November 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

Today is November 1, which marks the first day of the annual writing marathon known as NaNoWriMo. For those of us who despise cutesy acronyms, this must serve as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, standing as it does for National Novel Writing Month and not, as one might be forgiven for assuming, Nah, No Write More. The project, which is based in America and is now in its 11th year, is kind of the marathon version of Canada’s annual Labour Day weekend sprint, the 3-Day Novel Contest.

NaNoWriMo was inaugurated in 1999, when a group of 21 friends banded together during the month of July to see how many of them could write a novel over the course of 31 days. Their rationale was simple. They wanted to be novelists so that they could get laid:

[O]ur July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.

What they discovered was that turning the practice of novel writing into a kind of month-long block party made the entire process enjoyable in a way that “would have rightly horrified professional writers.” In the words of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty:

We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.

We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.

Ignore (for the moment) the way in which “noveling” has been reduced to the literary equivalent of knitting, or the unbridled ambition involved in wanting to write “passable” novels. It appears that Baty’s sense of possibility was not misplaced: in the decade following that summer’s literary block party, NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially: last year, over 119,000 people participated, according to the website for The Office of Letters and Light, the non-profit organization set up to run NaNoWriMo, among other endeavours. NaNoWriMo corporate sponsors include Amazon, Scrivener, FW Media, and literally dozens of individual sponsors who have donated sums of money anywhere from $10 to $2,500. Donations to NaNoWriMo underwrite the annual writing marathon, but more importantly, they fund the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, which is specifically targeted at classrooms, offering lesson plans and forums for teachers and opportunities for students to participate in deadline-driven events (tied to NaNoWriMo) meant to encourage the students’ enthusiasm for writing.

Which sounds like an undeniably noble endeavour, so it is perhaps churlish of me to complain that the whole premise behind the project (in both its adult and youth forms) is based on an erroneous perception of how novels are written, and why. According to the NaNoWriPo website, the goal of the project is to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and midnight on November 30, then upload this to the NaNoWriPo site for verification, at which point successful participants will be declared winners of that year’s challenge.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

All of which, again, sounds good in a kind of self-help, writer’s craft way; writers are encouraged to write without paying heed to the nasty editor in their heads, the one that tells them to refine, delete, excise, rework. The vocabulary of the NaNoWriMo site testifies to the way in which it has bought in to the tyranny of diminished expectations where writing is concerned. Instead of deliberation and focus, writers are encouraged to let loose and be free, and pay no heed to trifling matters such as talent or technique. Writers are encouraged to be great warriors who contact first thoughts and write from them. (In case you think I’m making that up, you are advised to consult a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, a heartfelt, new-agey text that could easily have served as the inspiration for NaNoWriMo.)

But this is not the way novels get written. One is reminded of Paul Sheldon, dreadfully injured in a car crash and trapped in a small cabin’s bedroom, frantically churning out the latest installment of his Misery Chastain series at the behest of his “number one fan.” But as Paul points out, novelists don’t work to artificially imposed deadlines (although their in-house editors would likely have apoplexy to hear that uttered out loud), and they don’t write to order. Novels – at least the ones that endure – take time, commitment, and patience, all things that are in short supply in today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society, and all things that are antithetical to the very idea of NaNoWriMo. On one level, the only difference between Paul Sheldon and the participants in NaNoWriMo is that the latter don’t have a crazed Annie Wilkes standing over them with an axe and a blowtorch.

Additionally, NaNoWriMo entrenches the invidious notion that writing is less a craft to be learned than a hobby to be practiced on weekends and in snatches of spare time:

In 2008, we had over 120,000 participants. More than 20,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

The NaNoWriMo website offers the promise of recognition and sense of accomplishment, but says nothing about how this devalues the work of countless underpaid, underappreciated professional writers who have spent the better part of their lives honing their craft. Instead, it buys into the cult of celebrity that is inescapable in what passes for North American culture these days.

Perhaps I’m taking all of this way too seriously. It’s clear from reading the NaNoWriMo website that the organizers have no illusions about turning out works to rival Tolstoy or Dickens. Still, in a culture that increasingly marginalizes the important work that novelists do, I can’t help but feel a certain frisson surrounding this kind of literary challenge. NaNoWriMo supporters will line up to brand me an elitist, which has become one of the most damning insults conceivable in a society based around the “democracy” of the Internet. My response would be that novel writing is an inherently elitist activity. If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.