In college, we playwrights would get together and have what we called bake-offs. This was an idea we’d gotten from playwright Paula Vogel. We would gather on a Friday, set some arbitrary rules (all the plays, for example, would involve a pile of five-dollar bills, a literary allusion, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol), and then go to our respective corners. We’d write all weekend, get back together on Monday, and read each other’s plays. Then we’d choose our favorites and stage them. All the plays were 10-minutes long. This was great fun. We all felt inspired and glowed with stardust. I don’t remember any of the plays that came out of this exercise.
This and similar experiences defined my writing life for years. I wrote in fits of jubilant inspiration, despaired of any given piece within a revision or two, abandoned everything, quit writing for months at a time, eventually started thinking about writing again (in wholly unrealistic terms: fame, glory, girls, etc.), got inspired again, bought a new ostentatiously understated notebook. Rinse, repeat.
I mean no disrespect to the good and generous people who do/support/orchestrate NaNoWriMo every year at this time, but it’s not something I think is especially good for writers or writing. What was missing from my writing life in those years was not inspiration, accountability, or even diligence; it was patience, and I think that NaNo teaches a version of writing that eschews patience.
A few years after college, I had an idea for a novel. So, of course, I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico (I tried to book passage on a freighter between Tampa and the Yucatán peninsula, but that proved impractical). I found a place to live with a guy called Pablo, tried to learn Spanish. I had brought four or five books in English, and I read them over and over. Between September and December, I wrote nothing. I wandered around the city, took buses, carried a notebook, looked for something unnameable. It was terribly lonesome, and the ascetic part of me loved it. In January, my girlfriend (now wife) came down for a visit. We went to Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize. When she left, I was lonelier than ever. All I wanted was to pack up and head north, but I was determined not to leave the country until I had a draft of the damned novel. It took me two months, but I wrote the whole thing. Probably 90K words, eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. Then I got on a bus and headed north. My brother picked me up at the border.
The whole long trip north, I felt like a writer. I had literary dirt under my fingernails, a draft under my belt. Whenever anybody asked, I said I was an escritor. People seemed genuinely impressed, and I felt great. Until I reread what I had written. The novel was a disaster. Still is. I’ve hardly touched it since, and I didn’t write much of anything for the next few years until I decided to put together applications for grad school.
This is why I take issue with NaNoWriMo. Not because I’m some kind of literary snob. Not because I think literature is some sacred bauble that I must hold just out of reach of the fan-fiction-loving plebeians. I take issue because I think that the lesson that most beginning writers need—the lesson that, not incidentally, I needed and still need—is a lesson in patience. They (and I) need to hear that art doesn’t happen in glittery fits of inspiration or in gut-busting fits of endurance. Inspiration feels grand, and endurance feels noble, but art happens in the long, slow grind of a lifetime. They don’t need accountability and applause, not that there’s anything wrong with those things. But what they really need is a long view of why writing is valuable (hint: it’s not because it’s fun) and how it happens (gradually). NaNo points young writers toward the cul-de-sac. Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, and many there be that go in there, but if we’re actually interested in encouraging beginning writers, in taking their writing and their aspirations seriously, we had better show them a more sustainable way, even if narrower and harder.
Sidenote: A few weeks ago, Åsa and I were discussing this, and she pointed out, rightly, that a good dose of write-till-your-metacarpals-crumple-like-beer-cans can be just the thing when writer’s block gets you. It can get you past the doldrums and into a shitty first draft, which you can revise. (You can’t, as she pointed out, revise a blank page). But I still hold that this therapeutic approach to a specific project is radically different from the impulse behind NaNo, which is explicitly geared toward beginning writers and first-time novelists, not working writers hashing through a tough spot.