The NaNo Experience (or Being A Writer)

Time for some confessions.

I’m one of the lucky ones. All my life I’ve Been A Writer. By that I mean that stories have lodged themselves in my head for as long as I can remember. Ever since I learned to write (don’t remember when that was) I’ve been putting them down on whatever paper I could find — in the beginning, it was scrap paper, and later I became a wonderful consumer of notebooks. Shopping for school was heaven. Forget the satchels; leave me alone with the pens and pencils and sharpeners and notebooks. In the beginning, I illustrated my own books. As I got older, my stories grew up with me, until I went away to school after my O-levels, when I was sixteen. There I was introduced to the mind-blowing images and language of Eliot, and the obsession with death and beaty of Keats, the madness and despair of the Absurdist dramatists, Woolfe’s stream-of-consciousness, and Joyce’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the English novel, and, rather like the people who become blocked by their exposure to different poetics at PFFA and elsewhere, I stopped writing stories altogether for a year. But I didn’t stop writing; I switched to poems. Pretty horrid poetry, to tell the truth, but poems nevertheless.

During my university career, I took creative writing classes, which made me write fiction again along with the poems. They also exposed me more to meter and to formal poetry — the writing of it — and to the use of grammar in poetry. They were damn good creative writing classes. We submitted writing to get in (not everybody made it), and we wrote every week and critiqued every week, and “I like it” was banned from the very first day. My poetry improved, and my fiction took shape once more. And I got published.

But I hit another block when my father died, which was when I stopped writing poetry. I started to write plays then. I’d been struggling with two of them before he died, but couldn’t make the switch from prose. After he died, I wrote the play I needed to write, and in the process forgot how to write fiction; all the internal stuff, all the descriptive stuff, all the flowers — these were irrelevant, especially as I worked with a director whose first act was to block out all stage directions. So I got rid of all of mine. I wrote plays for several years, despite my attending the fiction section of another writing workshop. I used that section to finish my current play.

And then I started doctoral studies and forgot how to create fiction altogether. The exception was theatre; I was still writing plays at that time, but as the process of academic writing is slow and dense, my output slowed down.

After I got the doctorate, I decided to try and figure out how to return to fiction, especially prose fiction. But poetry hit me first. I discovered the internet and internet poetry fora, and, like many people, joined the first one that looked vaguely substantive. It was a crock. There were lots of people writing what they called “poems”, and there was a great community, but there was no craft, and no appreciation for craft, to speak of. Poems were treated as appendages of the people who wrote them, and critique took the form of stroking, or of hair-brushing. Nonsense was celebrated readily.

And then I came across a poem that had substance, and the poet like my critique, and told me I might want to try out the Poetry Free-for-All — warning me, however, that this place was tough and that many people didn’t last there. It sounded like my kind of place. From there I found the Gazebo and Eratosphere, all places that helped me work at the craft.

All this time, and I’m thinking of myself as a “writer”. But I’m working for a living in the related but draining field of education. Teaching is a noble but jealous profession, and writing is just jealous; the two have trouble living in the same house. And I’m about to turn forty.

So it’s sobering when I contemplate the end of the year that celebrates having lived thirty-nine years (which is really my fortieth year of life anyway) and realize that writer is just a label, not a reality. So I decide that when I’m forty I’m going to finish a novel. Not the Big Novel, but one that might actually make me some money (hah!) and allow me to cut back on other jealous professions. I love to read mysteries, and am a fan of anything involving detectives and murder (don’t ask why). So I think, why not try and write one?

So I read a bunch of how-to books. I’m particularly struck by one that gives a template for writing a novel on weekends. Writing a mystery novel, yet. And I start. And I scour the internet for resources. I find and join fiction communities that remind me of PFFA, which has been so helpful. I even join Boot Camp, which teaches me how to write short stories (which I don’t really want to write; I don’t really see the point, honestly, other than to hook people with my writing to make them want to read my novels, but that’s another story). The best thing it does, though, is start a challenge where all members write daily and post their wordcount. This starts me counting the words I write every year for a while. And it sets me up for NaNoveling.

I find NaNoWriMo halfway through November 2003, and have two problems: it’s halfway through November, and I can’t work on something that already exists. So I hang around the forums and think about whether I’ll do it again in 2004. I even join NaNoWriYe, thinking I’ll get myself in shape. But I’ve started a new job and it’s even more jealous than the last one, so that thought goes down the tubes.

By November 2004, I’ve finished the novel and am in rewrites. I start a new novel in the series for NaNo. I crack 50,000.

By November 2005, I’m shopping the novel and I start a second novel in the series for NaNo.

Readers of this blog know what happens in November 2006.

So what’s the point? The point about writing is exactly that — writing. When blocks come, they have to be written through. NaNoWriMo and Boot Camp gave me the discipline and the impetus to write whatever, even crap. Now, three years into the game, what comes out when I sit down to produce 1667 words a day is actually sometimes pretty decent prose. It may not fit the novel, it may be filler or fluff (like the last day’s description and history — infodumping whose sole purpose was to stretch the words, to hit the 50,000 — members can still see it on The Untitled Forum, though I’ll take it down by the end of this month), but it’s not complete crap and can serve as something worthwhile. I don’t agree with Chris Baty (founder of NaNo) that working on something that already exists will hamper one’s ability to crack 50,000, but I do agree it may be harder. It doesn’t have to be, though; one only has to have the determination to hit the number and find out what inspires that. For me this year it’s being able to post what I’ve written in a forum where people can read it if they want to.

But the real advantage is getting the words to flow.

The NaNo experience for the writing of the novel has been what college and workshops and the internet were for the writing of poetry and short fiction.

Thank you, NaNo.

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