Not Either/Or

Came across this little piece about NaNoWriMo over on Twitter this evening: Better yet, DON’T write that novel by Salon.com senior writer Laura Miller. The sub-title for the article is Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of energy.

Is it now?

She touches on a lot of points in her article. At first she lauds the intended goals of NaNoWriMo and its fundraising efforts. And even though she admits that the website promises participants that they will write reams and reams of crap, she goes on to say that it sounds like a horrible way to spend a month. After pointing out that editors and agents cringe at the deluge of submissions they receive from would-be writers, she then says she can sympathize and doesn’t understanding why these admitted writers of crap feel that they have to foist it on to other people. While thankful that many do not send off their unedited manuscripts, she then questions why they even bothered to write them in the first place. In the end, she bemoans the lack of readers for all these books. We have writers and books aplenty, she says, and it would be better to focus all that unbridled energy reading instead of writing.

Why must it be one or the other? Why can’t it be both? Shouldn’t it be?

(Let’s ignore the fact that many published writers, pros and semi-pros, also participate in NaNoWriMo as part of their professional work. Let us also ignore the thousands of would-be writers that are not complete newbies, who know that their November efforts are indeed those shitty first drafts that Anne Lamott swears by and who will return to them and edit and sweat and bleed over those pages before ever showing a soul. Miller’s article is not directed at them, so I won’t either. For now.)

First, why dread? Miller is no slush-pile reader from what I can tell. Beyond some peppy or testy commentary on Twitter, she will neatly avoid any of NaNoWriMo’s consequences, good or bad. Saying “Don’t bother, would-be writers! You’ll never make it anyways if you aren’t motivated enough to begin with!” strikes me as the same mentality of those who bemoan high school theatre. Of course it’s terrible and of course it’s something that is suffered through, sometimes through gritted teeth and cotton balls in the ears. But you wouldn’t dream of telling the kids to cancel the production of Our Town or Hamlet because they won’t be good enough. You don’t tell them to not even bother trying to learn how to paint with oils, it’s too hard. You wouldn’t dare take the guitar out of the kid’s hand even though he’s only going to make it sing like a drowned cat for the next few months.

Why don’t you? (Besides that it’s simply cruel, of course.)

Because this is how we learn.

We must write (or sing or dance or play an instrument) and do it poorly and do it with your heart on your sleeve the entire time. It has to be one of the bravest things ever to do, to apprentice yourself to an art, even if you eventually fail. That they are willing to do so publicly is creative courage of the highest order. It is through these horrible, embarrassing first efforts that better efforts come, that craft is learned and then applied.

Saying that real writers don’t need NaNoWriMo plays into the mystique that writers are a breed apart, blessed or doomed to write despite all possible obstacles. I’m sorry that I am not brimming with the unbridled faith of the in-born writer. I wish I had survived my youth with an unshatterable confidence in my abilities and that didn’t have to counter-act years of cultural programming that devalued the arts and told me, over and over again, to “do something dependable” instead of follow my passion.

If not for NaNoWriMo, I would not have finished my first novel. (A terrible, wretched draft that no one will ever see. I promise.) Or my second, which will be facing my editing pen this December. Or the short stories which I am now starting to send out to short fiction markets — something I thought impossible two short years ago.  I wouldn’t be in the middle of my third novel, with plans to use NaNoWriMo to push me to completion. I would not be part of the awesome local writer’s group that formed after NaNoWriMo. I beg your forgiveness in needing a little help to get where I am — which, I grant you, is still just on the other side of no where but light years away from where I started.

I also doubt that I’m the only one.

So what if editors and agents end up with a NaNo-bump of these half-formed efforts after Novemeber? How are they different from the other half-formed efforts that they already receive the rest of the year? I’m pretty sure the awful will still be awful, whether written during NaNoWriMo or not, and therefore easy to dispense with.

Miller absolutely makes some valid points about the cottage industry that’s sprung up catering to would-be writers, wannabes always looking for the secret of writing in that next book, class or workshop. And far, far too many wannabes don’t read; unimaginable, mind-boggling but sadly true. However, neither of these things have a damn to do with NaNoWriMo.

In fact, even a casual amount of trawling through the NaNoWriMo boards will find people of all ages talking about books that they loved, that they hated, and that inspired them to write. To say that we don’t celebrate readers misses the huge number of book blogs out there reviewing titles in all genres (here are just a few) or reading marathons like the 50 Book Challenge.

Ultimately, Miller and others who glare at the NaNoWriMo phenomenon with suspicion are not the final arbiter of how other people’s time gets spent. Nor will they be required to read these mostly terrible first efforts.

Here are a few true things. Many participants will abandon NaNoWriMo before finishing. Many more will complete it in the spirit of a great and frenetic celebration of something they love — words. The money raised will go towards spreading not just literacy but love for language, for story. Some will decide it’s too hard, or that they don’t have enough to say. They will quietly put away their pens having satisfied that phantom itch.  And some will write stories and novels that will be edited, that will be critiqued, that will climb to the top of the slush piles and maybe, just maybe, get published. Are the vast majority wasting their time? Maybe. And so what? If they are having fun, if they aren’t hurting anybody, what’s it to you, really? They aren’t wasting your time.

(Slush readers do have my sympathies, to a point, but it’s a hazard of the job. Enjoy the process and privately share the doozies over a bottle of gin. I know I would be.)

The same day I read Miller’s article I came across paranormal and fantasy author Carrie Vaughn’s blog post, elegantly titled Encouragement. A delightful counter-point.

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