In praise of NaNoWriMo

I participated in NaNoWriMo three times in the past, all before 2006, I think. I “won” the first and last times I entered, while the second round was a pretty unsatisfying experience.

I remember at the time Cal Newport and other nobs of the blogosphere decrying NaNoWriMo for various reasons: the world doesn’t need more bad novels, people should read more and write less, what value are you actually producing, etc. I attended a recent StoryGrid webinar where the same dismay for NaNoWriMo was trotted out to a new set of negatives: it’s a waste of your time, you won’t make actual progress, it’s too unfocused, you don’t actually learn to be a better writer, etc. And of course, StoryGrid has its own programs that they think are better to help you develop as a writer, and – I’ve not used them yet – they almost certainly are.

But the comment I always want to make to these nattering nabobs of negativism is: would you relax, please? Can’t people engage in an event like this simply for the fun of it? Is it a waste of energy to want to run like the wind when what you want to do is just run and not compete in a 400-meter sprint?

I know that some very good novels started out as NaNoWriMo competitions – I think The Night Circus is one – and I agree that nothing beautiful simply falls out after a month of drafting 50K words.

If you’re lucky, though, maybe the makings of a novel are there. The third NaNoWriMo I participated in was a somewhat picaresque story where a fellow down on his luck tries out numerous self-help and self-improvement techniques like better eating and exercise, cleansing his aura, going to a tarot reader, going to a men-only drumming circle in the woods, nutty stuff like that. I’d discovered in my previous experiences that having an open-ended somewhat plotless journey worked well for me, and I was aiming to make it humorous also, and so I simply had fun playing with the content, the techniques, seeing where the overarching story took me, etc.

The result was I had tremendous fun writing the thing and couldn’t wait to get back to it every night. I cleaned up some of those chapters for the writing group I was in at the time, and they went over pretty well. The lesson I learned from that year was to have fun with the process, just get the material out and shape it later. Follow the energy.

The dismal experience I had was because I was trying for something heavy and serious, that started out as a murder mystery but then I saw that I really didn’t like the material I was creating, and it stymied me for a bit. By the time I recovered and started writing a new story, it was too late to catch up to the 50K count.

My first NaNoWriMo experience was in the early 2000’s, and there was a great little network here in Durham, NC, that would meet at coffee shops or pubs or libraries to sit as a group and write. On the last day of November, a bunch of us congregated at what is now The Fruit but what was then a sort of jumble shop/bookstore. It was great to meet other people who were sort of giddy from the trip they’d been on.

The community aspect of NaNoWriMo is something the nay-sayers never comment on; the joy of so many people participating in a shared endeavor is surely one of the most life-giving things we can do for ourselves, almost regardless of the content of the activity itself. The art habit is hard to start, which is no doubt why there are so many timed artistic challenges all through the year.

Sure, there may be some people who participate and have an idea of what they’ll get out of NaNoWriMo and they end the month disappointed with what happened. But I consider that part of the trial and error of making art; this technique worked, this method didn’t. No failure, only feedback.

The only feedback needed during NaNoWriMo is asking “am I enjoying myself?” If yes, please keep writing.

#nanowrimo ✏️ 📝

Michael E Brown @brownstudy