There is usually a good deal of interest in NaNoWriMo in the British press, much of it quite repetitive. The articles vary from ‘goodness me, there are some eccentric people writing a novel in a month!’ to ‘how is this even possible?’ with an occasional bout of ‘they must be mad’; but this year’s offering from the Guardian has got me particularly incensed.
I have to preface my indignation over this article by saying that, when I read a newspaper (and I don’t often, apart from Saturdays), it would be the Guardian. Usually it feels balanced, intelligent, and more sensitive than the other British newspapers. But this article was none of those things. Firstly, putting together an article about NaNoWriMo based on attending one write in and having a look at the website is hardly what you’d call well-researched. If intelligence is measured by the use of long, inaccessible words, then I suppose it’s intelligent: “My admiration for the Stakhanovite determination of these writers can’t displace an uneasy feeling that they are perhaps a symptom of an increasingly deskilled and atomised society, one in which any avenue of self-expression, however solipsistic, is grasped, or bashed out, with both hands.” But the worst of it for me is the sneering tone – as if the participants of the write in are at best eccentric, at worst somehow deluded.
The article just feels a little bit too PONCY (for want of a more literary term) for my liking. The journalist is apparently an independent publisher, which might explain his scepticism, since he has possibly been sent many a first draft by hopeful authors. But even so – why be quite so dismissive of people who are writing, not for publication, but for fun?
It made me think about NaNoWriMo afresh and why I write, how I write, and how much my life has changed over the past few years. I’ve come such a long way, I’ve learned a lot, and yet I don’t think one of those lessons has been how to make myself feel more important by stamping all over someone else’s achievements.
So here’s my take on it:
NaNoWriMo changed my life. It gave me a reason to write, and permission to do so, for one month out of the year. It told me I could write 50,000 words and call myself a novelist. It said nothing about publication, about being a New York Times bestseller, about winning awards and having book launch parties. It said other (far more useful) things, like “turn off your inner editor” and “plot happens” and “quantity over quality”. It told me to start writing, and not to stop until I’d finished. And yes, of course there were stumbling blocks along the way, like self-doubt, massive plot chasms that meant certain plot lines made no sense whatsoever, and real-life things happening that took me away from my keyboard – but I kept going. And the end result was, and is (because I still take part every year) truly magical. At the beginning of December, I have a new novel. It’s not in any way publishable. It’s not even, realistically, a first draft. But what I have is 50,000 words that I didn’t have before, and some of them are quite good. You can’t edit nothing, after all, and without the encouragement of NaNoWriMo I would still be staring miserably at a blank page.
NaNoWriMo isn’t about publishing. It’s about writing, and to be even more specific, writing for FUN. Writing because you have to know where the story is headed. Writing because you’ve woken up in the night with the realisation that your character isn’t who she thinks she is, or she’s about to make a massive mistake, or she’s in love with someone else entirely. Writing because you’ve grown to love these people you’ve created, with all their flaws and complexities; and to leave them languishing, unwritten, unheard, unexplored, would be the worst kind of cruelty. Writing because you have a story so wonderful inside you that it makes you go all fizzy when you think about it. Writing because there are days when it feels like torment, when the words won’t come, and when they do they are rubbish, because you know that to keep going anyway will get you back to the excitement again. If you don’t have awful bits, you won’t be able to recognise the genuinely thrilling bits when they turn up. Writing because at the end of the month you will get a certificate with your name on it and you can call yourself a novelist all over again. Writing because other people are doing it and you’re racing them to the finish line. Writing because people are asking you when they can read the next instalment.
Writing because it feels good, and because you CAN.
Therefore to dismiss NaNoWriMo feels to me a little bit like telling someone they shouldn’t bother to go fell-walking in the Lake District, because they’re never going to be able to climb Everest.
If it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo, I would never have written a full-length novel. What happened next is amazing and utterly wonderful, but if I hadn’t been published I would still be writing in November every year because it’s such a blast. It makes me feel alive. Every year I write as if nobody’s ever going to read it (and when I get to 1st December, believe me nobody would want to read it – my first drafts are always appalling).
Creativity is part of what makes us human. Expressing that creativity makes us better people. It should be celebrated, not condemned, sneered at or diminished. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a writer. Prove them wrong: get on and write. Write until you get to the end, and then start something else and write that all the way to the end, too. Keep writing and don’t stop. Be bold and brave in your writing. Be brilliant.
As for publishing: that’s a whole other story… now get back to writing!