An important Public Service Announcement for your Wednesday.
On Friday, I will be starting my 8th NaNoWriMo * novel. On Twitter, I’m seeing lots of people debating — Should I? Shouldn’t I? — and I decided I should examine my own reasons for taking the challenge yet again. You could argue that I already have seven novel drafts to play with and don’t need any fresh material (although only four of them are worth editing), but I have seven good reasons for diving in, one for each of my previous NaNoWriMo novels.
1) A word count goal plus a crazy deadline means you value quantity over quality, something many writers blast NaNoWriMo for. However, it has been shown that focusing on quantity can lead to higher quality with time. A great story in Art & Fear** illustrates this point perfectly. At their first class, a ceramics teacher told his students that half of the group would be graded strictly on the mass of their output (50 lbs or more earned an A) while the other half would be graded solely on the quality of the work they produced. In the end, the best quality work was produced by those being graded for quantity. In their anxious push to do enough, they made lots of pots and learned from their mistakes. Those who knew they would be graded on quality were paralyzed by perfectionism. They spent more time thinking than throwing. Result: their work was far from great, and there wasn’t much of it, either. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in quantity that has improved my writing quality as well.
2) I need a change of pace. I spend most of my writing time working on a single project, and since it’s a novel that requires a lot of research, it’s taking me a long time to complete. I deserve a break but I hate to abandon writing for any length of time. So I let myself switch to writing a jet-propelled three-ring-circus draft and by the end of the month, I’m ready to go back to plodding along with my “serious” project, rejuvenated by my busman’s holiday.
3) It’s hard. I like to get to the end of the month and say, “Hey! I did it!” about this crazy goal. As I’ve noted, I’m intrigued by the audacious nature of the challenge and have to really push myself because I am not normally a write-every-day sort of person. I have to be disciplined enough to keep writing nearly daily even while living away from home and spending the holidays with family.
4) It’s an educational crucible. Concentrated writing at top speed condenses my creative process, making it much easier for me to recognize my own patterns. I know now that my process is cyclical and includes lots of standing on the edge of the cliff and wondering what’s next. Fortunately, I’ve also learned that as soon as I show up and write, no matter how lost I think I am, I will find my story again.
5) It’s a muse magnet. Even when I had lost all faith in myself as a writer, all I had to do was cut myself some slack and sign on for NaNoWriMo. My muse came running, her arms full of wonderful gifts.
6) You may not buy the idea it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. You may scoff at the writer rule of thumb that you have to write 1,000,000 words to find your voice or become a great writer. But skills improve with practice, and this is a great chance to hone your fast writing skills as well as your ability to think creatively on your feet.
7) Last and by far the most important reason: it’s fun. Letting myself write a silly story as fast as I can with my only goal to be at 50,000 words by November 30th has given me all sorts of pleasure. And if we aren’t enjoying ourselves at least some of the time, then what in the heck are we here for?
How about you? Will you be tackling NaNoWriMo this year? If so, be my writing buddy! I’m dappled_pony on the NaNoWriMo site.
*National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I’ve “won” seven times so far.
** by David Bayles and Ted Orland, p. 29.
I am attracted to extreme challenges and impossible goals. I admire the people who take them on, their audacity, their courage, that they embrace what others consider crazy and go on to succeed. I wonder what tackling their challenge has taught them about themselves, about their strengths and weaknesses, and about what’s important in life. I want to be one of them. But it’s taken me a while to find the right kind of challenge to attempt.
When I was a kid, my family used to hike sections of the Appalachian Trail. I was astonished to learn that the trail ran all the way from Maine to Georgia, over 2,000 miles, and that people hiked it straight through. I imagined hiking day in and day out for five months or longer and tried to imagine what you would see, feel, and learn living in the forest and camping for so long. As an adult, I have a better idea now of how much preparation and physical stamina are required for such a feat. While I’m still drawn to the idea, I’m not so sure this sort of hike is for me.
Likewise, I admire marathoners of all kinds. I ran when I was in my 20s, but over the last decade, my bad health has made regular exercise an impossibility. Whether my health was good or bad, I always wondered: what would it be like to run 26 miles all in one go? Could I do it? I have never been a fast runner, but to make it to the end would be a triumph no matter how long it took. Still, the physical demands and preparation required meant this particular challenge wasn’t for me.
When I saw the movie Julie & Julia, I was hooked by Julie Powell’s audacious goal. For those who somehow missed it, she made all 536 recipes in Julie Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just one year (365 days). It sounded completely crazy, so I wanted to do it, too! Only this challenge didn’t work for me, either. I have food allergies and if I cut out everything in that cookbook that I can’t eat, I’m not sure there would be 10 recipes left for me to make. 10 recipes in a year? Big flippin’ deal.
The list of audacious challenges that call to me is endless. I dream about sailing around the world (only I get terminally seasick), walking from Spokane, WA to New York, NY (as Helga Estby did with her daughter in 1896), or spending a calendar year trying to see as many bird species in North America as I can (known to bird-watchers as the Big Year; the current record is 745 species). I’ve even thought I should try to visit every one of the 401 National Park sites in the US. Easy enough to add a time limit to give it some edge.
Fortunately, in 2006 I found the extreme event that works for me: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Every November, people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. The first time I heard of it, I had the exact same reaction I did to hearing about the Appalachian Trail: “People do that?” But for once, even as I wondered if I could, I thought, “Yes. I’ll bet I can.” Writing is one area in my life where I am fast and agile, and though I had never written anything that long that quickly, I wanted to try.
I did try, with a half-baked story idea that came to me on October 30th. When November 1st hit, I dove in. And I did it. I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days, and I have done that every November since. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be participating in NaNoWriMo for the 8th time.
Has taking the NaNoWriMo challenge lived up to my expectations of what an audacious goal might teach me about myself? Indeed, it has. I’ve learned that I can be disciplined, that I can find time for what matters, push when I need to even if I don’t feel like, and stick with something over the course of 30 days. For someone who cringes whenever I’m told I need to do something daily, a challenge like NaNoWriMo is daunting. But I’ve done it.
And I will do it again. Like my husband’s friend who recently ran his 99th marathon, I keep going back because every time I do, the challenge teaches me something. I learn more about myself, my creative process, and how to meet the goals I set for myself despite the obstacles life tosses my way.
I’m incredibly grateful that Chris Baty had this crazy idea back in 1999 and that, like me, he couldn’t leave it alone. He threw down a gauntlet that I picked up with glee. And while I may never see hundreds of bird species in one year or hike the entire Appalachian Trail, I can at least say: I wrote a 50,000 word novel in November. I set a crazy goal and I did it.
Are you intrigued by audacious challenges? What calls to you? What have you had the courage to tackle and what did you learn?
The Advice: Write every day. Write at the same time. Have a routine. The same goes for anyone doing creative work. Treat it like work, show up at the same time, every day, and your muse will learn to meet you there in overalls, ready to whisper instructions in your ear and hand you tools when you need them.
The Result: I think I should have my whole day planned out, with every minute scheduled, looking something like this:
6:00 wake up, take care of dog, eat
7:00 – 11:00 write
11:00 walk dog, eat lunch
1:00 – 5:30 write
5:30 walk dog, eat dinner
7:00 – 10:00 write
10:00 one last dog walk, go to bed
I once read an artist’s routine that went like this, only now I can’t find the source. Some creatives are more honest than others and will mention family, errands, and friends. But whenever I am afraid that I will die before I publish a book, The Advice seems like my only hope and I go looking for answers to my struggles to develop a solid routine. And the routines I find always look like the one above.
Unfortunately, my Inner Planner totally buys this schedule. Everything happening at the same time, day in, day out, forever. Eating and sleeping are allowed, and lots of dog walking takes place, which sounds fantastic. Look at how much time I’d get to write. I’d be writing eleven or more hours a day. I could write a whole book in a week! The walks are an added bonus. Not only do you stay fit with all that walking, you have the great excuse of taking care of the dog when you are really wandering aimlessly, staring into space, thinking about the next scene you need to write. Heaven!
I’m sure you can see the problem that my Inner Planner wants to ignore: most of my life is not anywhere on that schedule. No groceries or cooking or laundry. No visits to the dentist or doctor. No phone calls, e-mails, tweets, or bills. No birthdays to remember, prescriptions to re-fill, or appointments to make. No showers. No haircuts. No flossing. Not even personal hygiene can interfere with this impossibly perfect dream schedule.
And yet, I hear the siren call of this dream. To have massive amounts of my day just to write sounds ideal. And even as I am writing a blog post about it, my husband comes in.
Kurt: Frost warning tonight. Can you pick raspberries?
Kit (giving him a totally undeserved withering stare): Maybe.
Kurt (apologetically): I have to change the oil in the compressor so I can blow out the sprinkler system before I leave for tennis.
Kit (sighing and saving her file): I’ll pick raspberries.
I only had six minutes left before I was supposed to go start cooking dinner anyway, so it wasn’t really that much of an interruption. I lost maybe 20 minutes I might have been able to spend writing, but the raspberries couldn’t wait and my blog could. But in the moment, when my Inner Perfectionist was screaming that I’ve only managed one blog post all month despite my new goal to blog regularly, I wanted to fling my laptop across the room. And there was no question of writing more later. My entire evening was booked.
The only way for me to let go of this frustration is either to find myself some house-elves and a TARDIS or to stop expecting my life to match that dream writer’s schedule. Even when I am on writing retreat by myself, I take time out to cook and wash dishes, read books, catch up on e-mail, take walks, shower, and stretch. I know from experience that I can’t work non-stop on writing projects without wearing out. I need variety in what I do in the course of a day. Much as I want to resent the chores, I like having clean sheets on the bed. Taking a break from writing to do something else is a good thing. I should stop getting so annoyed when it happens unexpectedly
I should also stop expecting myself to be someone I’m not. The advice to write at the same time every day may be fantastic advice for some, but not for me. I cannot sustain the same schedule day in, day out. My Inner Planner can’t figure out what is wrong with me, but the fact is my daily energy cycle isn’t fixed. Some days I work best in the morning, other days afternoon or even evening are my most productive times. I have to be able to adapt on the fly. The trick is being willing to.
I was relieved when I heard Natalie Goldberg say that she can’t sustain a fixed writing schedule for long. She might find a schedule that works well for a day or a few days or a week, but then it doesn’t work any more and she’ll have to try something else. The key for her isn’t when she writes, but that she writes every day she can.
And that’s where all this leads me. I can’t nail down what I’ll be doing at 9 AM for the rest of my life. But I can decide what I am going to do with the moment I am in. I will write today, whenever I can, and call it good, even if it means rescuing raspberries instead of finishing my blog post.
Do you have scheduling frustrations? Advice “everyone” follows that just won’t work for you? How do you deal with it?
(And if by chance you know a house-elf looking for a home with kind masters, please let me know. Chores may be good for me, but I wouldn’t mind letting someone else help out.)
We sold my old car last week, and it was a more emotional event than I expected. In general, I’m not that sentimental about cars. I don’t name them, like some of my friends do. I don’t care what color they are, as long as they aren’t something truly atrocious. I want reliable transport, bonus if it’s comfortable. Any extras are just that — extra — and they don’t really matter. Does it go down the road without breaking down? Will it get me and my stuff where I want to go? Does it get decent miles per gallon? These are my main concerns.
But my silver 1996 Honda Civic hatchback was a little different. It’s the first car I ever bought, and I did it all by myself. I stood my ground with the dealer when he tried to push extra warranties on me, took out a loan without any financial help, and paid it off in a timely fashion with my own hard-earned money. Until that point, all my cars had been family hand-me-downs. I might have paid some money for them, but it hardly counted as the true adult experience of buying a car. I was proud of myself for getting the job done.
My Honda was already seven years old when I bought it in 2003 and the car fit me well. A hatchback was ideal because my German Shepherd Cora could ride in the way back pretty comfortably. Even after I got married again and we had two cars, the Civic was our “dog car”, for taking Cora into the mountains to hike or to the vet for her shots.
That car has plenty of life left in it. 17 years and 108,000 miles is nothing in Honda years and Honda miles. The only problem with it was its size. My husband is nearly 6′ 4″ and he could only sit in the Honda by tilting his seat back — way back. So I’ve been expecting this day for six years. The Honda was great when it was just me and the dog, but every time I saw Kurt get in that car, I cringed.
I’m happy to say the Honda has gone on to another owner, instead of where I feared it was headed, some junk yard to be dismantled for parts, or worse, turned into scrap. The new owner believes in driving his cars into the ground, so I expect the Civic will be on the road for another 100,000 miles if not more. It takes a little of the sting out of saying good-bye to this car which I associate with a time in my life when I was making it on my own.
I realize now that my Honda was a symbol of my independence, which fed my fantasy of myself as a self-sufficient woman who requires help from no one. I realize now self-sufficiency is an illusion. I need other people to survive in this world, whether they are growing the food I eat, providing me with work and a paycheck, or giving me the medical care I need to stay well. Letting go of the Honda meant letting go — at least a little — of my ideal of self-sufficiency.