You might have noticed that I haven’t updated the blog regularly in November. In addition to the usual ebbs and flows of blog posting, there is another reason I’ve been a bit absent this month. Like thousands of other writers in the U.S. and around the world, I’m taking part in “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month) which started at the beginning of November.
You might quite reasonably ask, “What? Why is a creative nonfiction writer attempting to write a novel…in a month, no less?”
In fact, NaNoWriMo represents a number of firsts for me – this is the first time I’ve ever participated in the valiant effort that tens of thousands of writers make each November to pen a 50,000 word novel in just one month. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever tried to write a novel, period. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not true. About 10 years ago, when I’d already had a career as a journalist and professional writer but knew very little about being a creative writer, I wrote about 180 pages of what I thought might become a novel. The story was based on true-life experiences from a time when I lived in Boulder, Colorado. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, the novel didn’t really go anywhere, and I abandoned the effort and completely forgot about it a few months after I’d started. When I re-discovered the file on an old computer disk about a year ago, I realized that I would have been much better off had I known at the time that there was a genre known as “creative nonfiction” that was better suited to what I wanted to do.
Ten years later, I have an MFA and have spent the last five years writing and publishing personal essays. But after I finished my book-length collection in August (which is currently in the hands of my agent, Joan Schweighardt, of GreyCore Literary Services), I found myself at a sort of crossroads as a writer. I knew that I wanted to continue to write essays and to submit them to literary journals for publication. Personal essays are where my heart lies right now, and creative nonfiction is the genre I’ve studied and practiced most recently and most intensely as a writer. But my progress in producing new work has slowed down since I finished my manuscript, and I have found myself wondering if there are other aspects of writing that might be worthwhile to explore.
The truth is I started out as a poet; poetry (admittedly bad poetry) came naturally to me as a child, and I published a couple of poems and took poetry writing courses and graduate workshops when I was in my twenties and thirties. But I haven’t written any poetry in quite a while. Fiction, meanwhile, has almost completely eluded me. I published one short story in a now-defunct online journal called Void Magazine a number of years ago, but the story was based heavily on a true incident (I later re-wrote it and incorporated it into a nonfiction piece). I also published a brief fictional piece in The Whistling Fire last year, but it was again based on a real-life experience (although it was highly, HIGHLY fictionalized).
So when I felt stalled recently and noticed that November was about to begin, I thought – why not? Let me try to write a novel in a month. I knew that the concept was basically ridiculous — most writers spend years crafting a novel, especially if the book is their first. But something appealed to me about this mad dash to get 50,000 words down in thirty days (the amount is, ironically, about the same number of words in the essay collection that took me four and a half years to complete). What I liked about the concept was that it would force me to do something that I have a lot of trouble doing in creative nonfiction: free-writing.
When you write a “NaNoWriMo” novel, the goal is not to end the month with a truly finished, polished piece of writing – it’s simply to let the words flow until you meet that 50,000 word goal. The concept pretty much forces you to write daily, or almost daily, and to allow yourself to write with abandon. In order to meet the word count you have to let go of that persnickety editor who usually sits on your shoulder and insists that you to go back over poorly chosen words or badly structured sentences or incomplete ideas while you’re trying to create a first draft of your work. Being too worried about quality in a first draft can hold you back; it can prevent you from discovering the new thoughts and ideas that show up when you just let your mind go. Getting the whole thing on paper — including awkward sentences, clichés and bad metaphors, and even bad grammar — often inspires new ideas and lands you in a place where you know what you really want to say and how to say it. Getting it right is what revision (and revision and revision) is for. It’s the rare writer who can write great work in a first draft — and the rare piece that works right from the start.
On day 10 of NaNoWriMo, 22,020 words into my “novel,” I am really enjoying this process. In fact, I am enjoying fiction. I am allowing my mind just to invent everything — when a character walks into a room I invent his or her name, age, background, outfit, motivation for being there. I’ve invented a whole town in fact, and a protagonist who still needs a lot of fleshing out but who is narrating her own story.
I started with just a basic concept for this story and nowhere near a firm plot. And I’m finding that although I am still not sure where the plot is going, the ideas are readily flowing. This feels very different from the way I write creative nonfiction; usually I start with a memory or an incident or an observation that I want to share and interpret and, sticking to the facts as I know them, I narrate the story from my own perspective. If someone walks into a room in a creative nonfiction piece, that person really walked into a room. I’m not going to make up who it was or what he or she looked like or what he or she said or when it happened (although the dialogue and other details will only be as accurate as my memory).
But most important, I’m enjoying having this deadline that gets me to sit in the chair every day and produce those oh-so-valuable daily words with that precious abandon, that allowed lack of concern about quality. I’d never dream of letting someone actually read this novel…if I decide to attempt to turn it into an actual novel, I’ll have to start it almost completely from scratch and learn more about scene and plotting and the craft of writing a novel. But simply free-writing a story feels like such an accomplishment, and I’m finding it to be a lot of fun.
Fun? Maybe that’s what drew me to NaNoWriMo. After all of the hard work of the last five years and all of the rejection and self-doubt I’ve grappled with as a writer, I needed a reminder. If you’re going to spend a significant amount of your time writing, it should be fun (at least sometimes). And if you stop caring so much about what everyone else — including that editor on your shoulder — thinks, it can be.