As a creative person who is still recovering from the self hating philosophy that I have to suffer in order to create, I have a love/hate relationship with NaNoWriMo. All year I have been unsure of where I stand with the event. I am participating this year because I finally have my own self-created guidelines for what I consider as a win. The community of writers is what makes the event attractive to me as a whole. For anyone who finds joy in creating something without being compelled to do so the journey can be lonely and isolating. The first two weeks of NaNoWriMo have been interesting.
Before I delve into everything I want to address the bottom line about NaNoWriMo from my perspective. The challenge of writing 50,000 words can be an excellent way to leave everything but your imagination and passion at the door. It can also perpetuate some really toxic creative habits. Over the last decade of my participation I have had a variety of experiences and I’m writing about the ways in which the challenge has fed into toxic creative beliefs of mine or supported healthy writing habits. Nothing in life is one size fits all. As NaNoWriMo has grown they have brought in a variety of supportive voices who demonstrate this principle. However, as the challenge has grown to include a lot of rewards for “winners” it has produced a level of outside pressure that I think perpetuates this idea that we have to suffer for our art. I don’t like it and I don’t believe that the image of the dysfunctional creative is necessarily the whole and accurate picture. Some of Stephen King’s most memorable works were written while he was in a place of dysfunction and substance abuse, however, the life he built and sustained was due to his willingness to address those dysfunctions. When we’re younger we haven’t had the chance to really see the effects of our dysfunction but this is also when we’re most willing to take risks and creativity is fueled by the willingness to be brave in our explorations of our inner selves and the world around us through our art. Although there’s an overlap between dysfunction and art there does not necessarily have to be this overlap.
The constant emails and marketing that have evolved around the challenge sometimes trigger my dysfunctional creative habits that are dormant when I prioritize creative self care.
The word count goal is correlated to the length of a novel. It embodies the philosophical notion that in 30 days you can write the amount of words necessary for a publisher’s rough guideline for what a novel should be. But, when this becomes a fact in the mind of a writer who is struggling to justify their self proclamation of wanting to be a writer it can translate to some pretty dysfunctional and self-harming ideas. The 50k goal isn’t accurate depending on genre and it is unlikely that a first rough draft will be publishable in a professional setting. The spirit of the challenge is to break down the 50k goal into 1667 words daily and then allow you to cut them into smaller sections based on how many hours you can put into the effort. But, let’s face it, as NaNoWriMo has grown larger and upgraded their website, we want to collect all the badges. There can be real benefits to gamifying content. It can make it more fun to develop a habit. And, building the habits are the point of setting the 50k goal and breaking it into manageable chunks over the course of one month.
That said. NaNoWriMo is more of a business than a small community challenge. There are jobs involved and the goal is to increase engagement and purchases. This is why so many of the sponsors are offering software or communities that you get discounts on. They are, to an extent, a useful resource. When I won NaNoWriMo and got a discounted version of Scrivener it became an invaluable resource that I am still learning how to utilize for greater productivity and organization. The constant emails and marketing that have evolved around the challenge sometimes trigger my dysfunctional creative habits that are dormant when I prioritize creative self care. Having run a website in the past I appreciate the need to make money to keep the site afloat but some of the methodologies are red flags for me.
My officially declared goal for NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words because I decided to go with the default. I talked with someone in the community and they said it isn’t possible to pick a custom goal for the actual challenge month although it is for other goals you can set on the site. My actual goal is a humble 20,000. If I hit 20K I will consider it a win for myself and the rewrite goal I have in mind for the month.
I’m already over halfway to my personal goal for the month and as a result I feel more able to just work on writing instead of engaging in self-flagellation.
I used to write through the pain which would lead to long stretches of being unable to write and believing that it meant that I had failed and would never write again. This is one of the dysfunctions of creativity, the belief that if you stop you will never succeed and therefore that you have to keep pounding away at the goal. I’m currently reading Brian Herbert’s biography of his father Frank Herbert and I appreciate how fair Brian’s account of Frank is. He talks of his father’s genius but he isn’t at all shy about conveying the costs that Frank’s brilliance inflicted in his life and his family’s lives. Persistence is the way to accomplish your goal but you need to understand what that goal really is. There’s a reason why some authors wrote a couple really great books and nothing else. Sometimes we have other priorities but we are still writers.
For myself I know that if I don’t prioritize my health by taking time away from art and writing to make nutritious meals, exercise, read, get enough sleep, go on walks, socialize and relax then I end up getting sick and not being able to write. Building those healthful activities with the understanding that my body and mind are a unit that works together has helped me to appreciate that I can write when I am healthy. And healthy means the whole of me. I can push past my limits on some days but I cannot push past my limit every day and expect to still function.
And this is the issue I want to underscore about NaNoWriMo and writing 50,000 words in a month. It is something tangible but really, November is about training yourself to know that you can write 50,000 words. At its best it can motivate you to modify your life in ways that support writing and to modify your writing in ways that support your creativity. The only way to win the real goal you’re after–which is your finished novel–is to listen to yourself. Discover what makes you want to write and figure out how to deal with the things that prevent you from it. For the first week I exceeded my goal in order to be able to have my two days off of writing to spend time with my family, run errands, deal with a variety of issues and rest from writing. Going into the second week I had not fallen behind because I had already figured out a pace that didn’t make me waste mental energy on stressing out. I’m already over halfway to my personal goal for the month and as a result I feel more able to just work on writing instead of engaging in self-flagellation.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? How are you doing? Are you finding your own routine? Can I get you a cookie?