In 2010, as an impressionable teenager, I got it into my head to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a program and challenge that encourages everyone, regardless of ability or background, to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. It works out to just over 1,666 words a day, written at a breakneck pace that disregards proof-reading or self-censure. Every year, the challenge has over 300,000 participants and the majority of those complete their novels and ‘win’. Participants come from a variety of backgrounds, from English students to stay-at-home mums to shopworkers to engineers. For all its word counts and specific rules, NaNoWriMo has a goal even loftier than 50,000 words for everybody: to bring literary creativity to the masses.
NaNoWriMo focuses on the production of a novel, with a concrete goal, for a reason. It’s empowering, to have a novel, a complete one, as evidence of participation in the kind of creativity usually gatekept by traditional publishing. Even as traditional media seems to become more and more of an elitist game, the benefits of writing and of being creative become more easily accessible to everyone. NaNoWriMo believes that with support and a firm goal in mind, anyone can claim the title of novelist.
Does that increasing pool of claimants lessen the value of the title? Although there are some arguments for yes, I’d personally argue no, that giving the gift of creative expression to as many people as possible the world over has real benefits and only strengthens what it means to be a writer. There aren’t just abstract, wishy-washy arts student benefits either, but real, tangible changes that help individuals and communities around the world. In one of the most recent official NaNoWriMo blog posts, one of the programs regional liaisons in Hong Kong wrote from the protests, saying how writing and its celebration through NaNoWriMo had taught her to value and defend her own ideas. As the program continues to spread, the number of participants writing in non-English languages increases and the America-Europe centrism begins to fade.
In many ways, NaNoWriMo is the result of a changing approach to creative production in the last several years. No longer is writing, or other forms of creativity, an inspiration that must ‘come to you’ or a muse that must be waited around for, like a country bus that doesn’t stop on Sundays, Recently, the approach to creative production has been to view it like any other job or skill, one that can be practiced over and over or that should be done even when you’re not feeling on top of your game. Emotionally, I sometimes feel this detracts from the romance and mystery of creative writing, but a little clarity is a small sacrifice to make creative writing, as a pastime, more accessible. Not even university students have the time to wait around for the muse to visit.
Yes, the kind of forced speed-writing advocated by NaNoWriMo and those who say you should write every day, regardless of whether you have something to say, can and often does produce less than quality writing, but anyone who thinks a first draft is easy reading is labouring under a strange delusion. First drafts are clunky, uncomfortable things, but you can’t edit, you can’t fix, what doesn’t exist yet. A book needs to get written before it gets good.
As November approaches, I am reminded of what it felt like to write my own novel and to know that I had produced 50,000 words of story through my own effort. It was hard, and perhaps first articulated for me the difficulties of maintaining a consistent goal, but ultimately worth it. 50,000 words sounds like a lot, and honestly, that’s because it is and I’m proud of 17-year-old me for that novel. There’s a power in being able to value your own words, for everyone, regardless of background or ability, and that’s a power that more people should be able to enjoy the world over. NaNoWriMo is part of that mission.
[Bethany Garry – @brgbethany]