Why NaNoWriMo is not about writing

(Originally published elsewhere. Now revised and updated.)


NaNoWriMo is not about writing.

NaNoWriMoWhat am I on about? National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, isn’t about writing? Aren’t the words “novel” and “writing” kind of a giveaway?

Okay, let me explain what I’ve concluded, from doing NaNoWriMo seven times now and especially from reading NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem! Which is that NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing specifically or exclusively. It’s about creativity.

People do NaNoWriMo for various different reasons and get various benefits from it. Some of them are all year round writers, whether hobbyists or professionals. They might use NaNoWriMo for a rocket boost. (Hobby writers so rarely have a good sweat-inducing writing deadline.) For some of those folks, it’s a chance to try something new, take them out of their comfort zone, and have few worries about it failing, since, hey it’s only a month! For some – like me – it’s a way to refocus on writing and re-establishing good habits.

However, at its root, I don’t think NaNoWriMo is there for those people. We’re being creative all the time, we have that aspect sorted. We can get much from NaNoWriMo, we can bring much to the NaNoWriMo community, but there are other people who gain far more, the people NaNoWriMo is really for.

Who are they? Well, they are the people who if you handed them a pen and said “write me a story,” would say, “Oh I can’t do that. I can’t write. What do you want me to write about? I haven’t written a story since school.” If pressed to actually do it they will apologise profusely for how bad the result is, as if confessing to a terrible moral failing. Substitute writing there for drawing, painting, singing, playing music, dancing or sports and the pattern will be the same.

Everyone except maybe toddlers and dogs fears looking foolish, losing face, and being laughed at. That’s a natural fear, but we overreact to it. Rather than thinking, “to avoid being laughed at, I must try the best I can with this”, they think “to avoid being laughed at I must do this perfectly, on my first attempt.” In other words, that dread pressure of PERFECTIONISM. But perfection, especially in artistic endeavours is not achievable, and the sooner we understand that, the happier we’ll be.

What has this to do with my point? Well, many people will not have written any fiction since school. They probably got more criticism than encouragement back then, since what they wrote probably wasn’t very good. That criticism eats into their psyche, and along with the pressure of perfectionism, it causes them to retreat from trying writing or any new things.

So first time NaNoWriMo participants find it a huge relief to be allowed that “exuberant imperfection” and use it to create something substantial. A novel. It’s a huge slab of words. Printing it out can be one of the best experiences of the whole month, because the sheer size of it is impressive!

And it doesn’t matter if they never touch it again. It doesn’t matter if they don’t write again, or if they only write again during NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is not about turning everyone who participates into professional or even regular writers. Some might go on to become writers, for fun or profit. But I don’t think that’s what the challenge is intended to achieve. I believe what NaNoWriMo is trying to teach people, is that they can try creative things, and can have fun doing them and that if they are no good at them, it doesn’t matter. There are no bad consequences. So you wrote fifty thousand words that are a bit crap? So what? Did the sky fall? So you painted a picture that’s not even as good as the one your kid brought home from school? Are the art police going to arrest you for improper use of watercolours?

Let me say it again, however good or bad your novel there are no bad consequences to trying this challenge.

Practical

Okay, so why is it NaNoWriMo, rather than PaintAPictureADayMonth or LearnToPlayAnInstrumentMonth? Those are legitimate creative pursuits. Why is it NaNoWriMo that caught on?

Because writing is easy! In the purely practical sense that is. Almost everyone knows how to do it. You don’t need much in the way of special equipment—at least nothing that you probably don’t already own, so there’s little or no financial outlay. You don’t need lessons or a how to book before you can even start. You can do it almost anywhere. Imagine trying to set up and do some oil painting on the bus to work. Or practicing the bassoon in the local coffee shop. Even sketching out in public is tricky for the self-conscious. But writing doesn’t attract too much attention.

As a purely physical act, writing is something most of us are comfortable with. Pick up pen. Write. We barely think about it. So there’s no “I wouldn’t know where to start” factor, at least in practical terms. Pick up pen. Write. Open a file. Type. That’s why I think writing is the best suited of all the creative pursuits for this challenge. Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.

Deadline

Last of all, the thing that works is that deadline. I don’t mean because of its motivating properties, but because for the newcomers to this whole writing malarkey, it puts a limit on what they are expected to do. NaNoWriMo is not a “write a novel in however long it takes” challenge. It’s a month. One month out of your life. You can do anything for a month. Whether you win or lose there’s no obligation to go on writing after 30th November. Therefore, there’s no guilt. You know about that guilt. We all know about that guilt. It’s the guilt you feel when you see the easel or calligraphy set in the attic. Or hang your clothes on the exercise bike. Yes, it’s the guilt you feel about hobbies or challenges that you took up… and dropped. This is different. You didn’t give up. NaNoWriMo ended.

That makes it easier to deal with the draft you wrote maybe not being very good. So what if it’s not? It was only a month out of your life. Four lousy weeks that would have otherwise passed in a blink. What else were you going to do that month? Watch TV and nap? Instead you got to check off one item from those annoying bucket lists.

Write a Novel checked off list
Nobody said it had to be a good novel, or that you had to edit it, or show it to anyone, or that you couldn’t burn it while chanting cleansing incantations.

All that is why to me, NaNoWriMo is not about writing, and it’s certainly not about publishing. It’s about changing your whole attitude to creativity.

Further reading

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris BatyChris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo writes about how the challenge started, how it grew into an Internet phenomenon and how to do NaNoWriMo.

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