NaNoWriMo: Let the Fun Begin

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So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.

This means a few things.

  1. You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
  2. Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
  3. You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.

If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.

Probably.

Thoughts from the Fifth Evangelist

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So, when I was in seminary, the odds were high that if there was a non-Biblical writer’s text added to a chapel service, it would be Mary Oliver, noted nature poet, and generally poetically brilliant human being. This is a piece from her recent book of essays, Upstream. What do you think?

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“Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.” –Mary Oliver

Why the Change is Going to Work

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So I woke up this morning realizing why the change to my novel is probably going to work. I had written about one hundred pages in this other point of view, and I like most of it. But then I hit several events that I just didn’t know how to tackle. This morning I realize that that was because they probably need to be written in this other (previously minor) character’s point of view.

This is something I have noticed before, that if you don’t have the right narrator, you can’t really write the scene. People always say that you just write what happens, don’t you? But this goes beyond the Rashomon effect, where how people see the same events makes them interpret (and therefore narrate) them very differently. It’s more like that thing that says the presence of experimenters watching an experiment changes the experiment. As Terry Pratchett would say, It’s quantum.

If I don’t know who is looking at a car crash, I can’t tell you how the car crash happens. It makes no sense, but it’s true. So this might be time to pat myself on the head and find a writer’s mug that says “Damn, I’m good!” or, at the very least, “I’m smarter than I look.”

It must be true. I’ve written 7800 words in three days.

Social Media as a form of Constructive Procrastination

Social media is not the villain everyone claims it to be. Sometimes social media actually helps us get stuff done. I often have a Word doc open on one side of my computer and some social media site open on the other side. When my brain wanders, it has a place to go for a few minutes to rest and recuperate and do other things that also probably start with the letter R. If I am lonely, I can feel connected briefly. If I feel like what I say doesn’t matter, I can hit the little thumbs-up hand and Like all kinds of stuff.

I mean think about it. Facebook has cat videos (and goat, otter, dog and people videos, but we all know what really matters). My Facebook feed also has groups dedicated to my favorite actors, TV shows, movie franchises, writing and social justice, mostly in that order. You would think that such things would be Inspirational, Moving Me To Write Stuff. I mean, after all, putting up motivational posters in Pinterest helps me to get my sorry little butt to the gym, right?

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Of course, the gym is easy. You show up and lift things over and over again. Then you go lift other things over and over again. You don’t need to think, “Yes, sure, but WHY does this 25 lb. weight NEED to be lifted? What is it trying to ACHIEVE? What will be the CONSEQUENCES of my lifting it?”

Is there anybody here, maybe that lady on the elliptical machine or the guy jumping up and down, thinking, “WHY must she lift that? Why can’t she just LEAVE IT ALONE?”

And the chick who takes the laundry basket filled with used towels, she is probably thinking, “I am the PROTAGONIST, dammit, not that 25 lb. weight, which isn’t CHOOSING to be lifted, the way I am CHOOSING to launder the damn towels for the tenth time since Monday!”

And the trainer who is showing some guy the Proper Way to Do Squats, she glances across the gym floor and thinks, “Yes, but HOW WILL IT ALL END?” Or possibly, she is just wishing she had had that second cup of coffee.

I mean, you don’t actually have to PLOT your gym time. The weight might or might not be expecting to get a happy ending, but it’s not telling either way, so you can pretty much tell people, when you get to the end of your workout, that you killed it.

So social media must work, because, no, I haven’t worked on my novel today, but I did just manage to bang out a blogpost.

Plan B

So, after writing about a hundred pages of a novel in the past three months, I am at a standstill. I’ve tried writing little bits, transitions, etc., but that did not get me very far, so I am instead now taking notes on the next story, which has characters and some action but no clear single plot, so it’s not exactly making me feel any better. Is it productive? Yes, potentially. Does it feel productive? Nope.

Not Talking about It Doesn’t Make It Better

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Artists are a superstitious lot. In a recent essay in the National Review, John J. Miller tells how some of the writers he interviewed refused to discuss writer’s block. One even said it was “the way some people won’t talk about cancer.” The implication is that talking about something will magnetize it to you and then you are done for.

Somehow I doubt that is how cancer works, and although I can imagine exceptions, I think that also isn’t how writer’s block works. Not talking about cancer, not getting tested doesn’t make cancer not hit you or not kill you. Generally speaking those strategies only make it worse.

One could argue, I suppose, that since writer’s block is a psychological/intellectual/emotional issue, focusing time and attention on it might foster the self-doubt that could create it, but I think if that’s true, you might already be dealing with it, as if the talk only watered the seeds that were already there. But if somebody is going strong on a piece of work, what are they so afraid of?

Also, just as talking about cancer to just anybody isn’t necessarily going to solve it—unless you are talking to a certified doctor/surgeon, the cure isn’t coming—so talking about your writer’s block to your cat/boyfriend/boss may not help either and depending on how they respond to your concerns, yes, it might well hurt. But there are people out there who can help, people who know what kinds of things can cause blocks, so you can talk about the actual problem rather than the symptom of the problem. (And no, I don’t mean some kind of Freudian b^!!$&!t, which I only mention at all because Miller points out that it was a Freudian who invented the term writer’s block.)

Just a surface level consideration brings up a number of possibilities: crippling anxiety, overwork in other arenas, tackling a problem the writer doesn’t know how to solve (and may not realize it), inadequate sleep or hydration, and of course, the one that Miller highlights, perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the most dangerous, because it may actually have been useful to the writer in the past. I see a lot of MIT students who got here by insisting on perfection, but will never graduate until they let go of it. As Miller says, “They may be letting the perfect become the enemy of the good—or even worse, as my old boss Fred Barnes once put it, they’re letting the pretty good become the enemy of the good enough.”

One of the exercises that helps is the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) strategy: give yourself a deadline and some supporters and write an insane number of words per day for a very limited time, focusing on quantity, not quality. Make friends with the good enough. It’s not a whole solution, but it’s a start.

Miller, John J. “Wordsmiths Without Words.” National Review 23 May 2016: 23-24.