NaNoWriMo: Significance Beyond the Purple Bar
It’s the first of November already, and across the land thousands of NaNoWrimo participants are feverishly writing their first 1,666-word installment — the magic number to attain daily if they’re to complete a 50,000-word novel by month’s end.
The appeal of NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) is simple and potent: Participants pledge to meet a deadline; the Web site offers a community of support from fellow participants and published authors; and the ticking clock helps overcome the inhibitions of perfectionism, “writer’s block” and the other distractions our hyper-networked world offers. Not surprisingly, since its inception in 1999 NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially, from 21 participants to more than 200,000 in 2010. The organization now partners with schools through its Young Writers’ Program and has spawned a companion screenwriting event, Script Frenzy, held every April.
In our own North Bay, for 2011 there are already 1,352 NaNoWriMo participants signed up in Sonoma, Marin and Solano counties (Napa doesn’t have its own regional hub?!?!), with a handful of “write-ins” already scheduled for writers to gather and egg each other on.
All this literary gusto is remarkable. But it also calls to mind Flannery O’Connor‘s tart observation: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” Of the more than 2 billion words generated via NaNoWriMo last year, how many will see publication — and how many will stand the test of time as memorable literary works? And does it matter?
Detractors have pointed out that not only do most participants fail to cross the 50,000-word finish line, but even those who make it rarely go on to commit the time necessary, once the month is over, to perfect the manuscripts they produce. In other words, NaNoWriMo has succeeded in generating a prodigious volume of bad prose. Moreover, compared with the solitude and uncertainty of a writing career, NaNoWriMo can seem suspiciously merry — a dilettante’s lark, with group events and downloadable badge graphics to share on social networks.
In two separate posts, Eric Rosenfeld of Wet Asphalt drew a comparison to athletics: “… to the NaNoWriMo people, writing a novel is like running a marathon, something difficult and strenuous that you do only so you can say you did it before you died”; “It’s one thing to run 26 miles, which you can do any time on your own if you want to. It’s another thing to take part in some kind of massive corporate spectacle where people run around in foam Dunkin Donuts cups.”
To be fair, NaNoWriMo’s organizers make no pretense of competing with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In typically cheerful fashion, they proclaim, “… the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.” The sole goal is to urge novice participants to take that first step of getting down a big chunk of words — creating what Anne Lamott called the “shitty first draft.”
And some of NaNoWriMo’s participants do indeed persist with their manuscripts. With the project’s growth, the roster is swelling of authors whose November manuscripts went on to publication. Outlining tools and planning guides are now available to make NaNoWriMo a productive endeavor. There’s even a spinoff event, NaNoEdMo, or National Novel Editing Month, held each March with the aim of editing the 50,000-word manuscripts written the prior November during NaNoWriMo.
For myself, the one time I “won” the NaNoWriMo challenge, perhaps an eighth of the November manuscript survived subsequent drafts, and the entire novel now lives in a drawer where it belongs. More significant, however, was the official “Thank God It’s Over” party NaNoWriMo threw in a dubious neighborhood of San Francisco, in a loft strung with Christmas lights and manuscript pages. These were early days — so early that the project’s founder, Chris Baty, was among the 50 or so people in attendance. He gave a brief speech that evening that has stayed with me.
These being early days, his words were not Tweeted or recorded on a cell phone video camera for posting to YouTube, so I’m paraphrasing roughly. But he said we are often taught that art is what other people do — something to consume and admire as outsiders — while artists reside in some distant and rarefied realm we may never access. NaNoWriMo, he hoped, would give people a chance to experience the act of creation first-hand, and thereby deepen their appreciation and support of art — regardless of what happened to their own manuscripts.
His words make me think that judging NaNoWriMo based upon publication rates and prose quality overlooks its larger purpose. After all, in this era of reduced public funding for the arts, prominent politicians who deride higher learning, and book publishers struggling to survive, connecting more people to art is itself a significant act. If all NaNoWriMo participants do is become more appreciative and avid readers, the impact on the literary world is still significant.
One could go farther, of course. Encouraging students to engage in a life of the mind combats the ubiquitous narrative that their purpose is to become merely producers of income and consumers of products. NaNoWriMo participants who spend this month writing prose solely for their own edification and enjoyment are, in a way, engaging in an act of rebellion against the concept of time being money. I’m thinking now of what D.A. Powell said at July’s conference: “… to be a poet is already an absurd act, especially in this capitalist culture where we’re making nothing of ‘value.’ Being a poet is almost a subversive act … .”
Hmmm … Occupy NaNoWriMo, anyone? But that’s a topic for another post. Right now, I’d better get to work on my daily word count.
Meantime, share your thoughts: Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?
(If you do participate, look for me at “bigwinner” on the NaNoWriMo site – and good luck.)