The Glorious Obsession of NaNoWriMo

OBSESSION: Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Kate here, talking today about one of the lovely dark sides of the writing life–obsession, and how many writers will nurture (or yield to) obsession this month. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, ( a period during which writers all over the world sign up and commit to trying to write a 50,000 word novel during the month. Some get together in weekly support groups, or go to weekly “write-ins.” Some are supported throughout the month by a series of rallying e-mails from their local organizers. Some toil quietly in the stillness of their homes or the commontion of their local coffee shops.The project began in 2000 with 140 participants, 26 of whom met the goal. Last year, 200,500 writers signed up to participate and 37,500 finished the 50,000 words.

The thing has gotten big enough that it prompted a column last October by Salon’s Laura Miller titled: Better yet, DON’T write that novel, in which she opined that the world doesn’t really need more writers, especially writers who are writing so intensely they’re “writing a lot of crap” and ignoring the need for revision. Instead it should celebrate readers. That, in turn, prompted Carolyn Kellogg, at the LA Times, to counter with: 12 Reasons to ignore the naysayers: Do NaNoWriMo.

I’m with Carolyn Kellogg. However a writer chooses to approach NaNoWriMo, there’s an incredible energy in the air that can be captured and channeled. It’s exciting to be part of a “movement” where more than 200,000 people are setting aside the complex demands of their lives and giving themselves over to a long held-dream, or a voice that won’t take “no” for answer. And the result, for some of us, is obsession, in the best possible sense of the word. Yes, a compulsive preoccupation. Yes, quite possibly accompanied by feelings of anxiety–though often those are the result of trying to figure out how to put the rest of life on hold or how not to burn the chicken when you haven’t met your daily word goal. And yes, perhaps almost impossible to do–but ultimately, the task is about jump starting, it’s about taking a turn down the to road of creativity. It’s about getting so deeply into story that those editing voices in our heads, the result of a lifetime of correction and discipline, are stilled, and the words just flow. For once, it’s possible to believe that it can all be edited and revised later, because there’s no time to stop. Fingers are flying, words are flying, there’s only time to get it down on the page.

I did NaNoWriMo two years ago and it was amazing. True confessions: First, I only got to about 42,000 words; Second, I broke the rules and used the time to try and finish a book I’d started and then hit the pause button on nearly a decade earlier. But since this is only about a writer’s personal relationship with the page, that’s okay. I’m the writer. You’re the writer. We’re using this as a device. This is NOT our homework, it is our life’s work, our dream work, our step-out-on-the-tightrope-and-see-what-happens work. Our writing, and the decisions about how to approach it, always, first and foremost, belongs to us.

So what did I learn from my NaNoWriMo adventure? First, that it should take place in February. November is an impossible month. I’m helping to run the 10th anniversary of a huge weekend-long mystery writing conference, The New England Crime Bake. For that, I have to prepare a seminar, read five manuscript excerpts, and read the books of the panelists on my true crime panel. The weekend after that, my husband and I are giving a 50th Anniversary party for some friends. Then we’re doing the family Thanksgiving. I’m working on three book proposals. I have short stories coming out in two new anthologies. But on the second day of November, I’m still wondering if I can also find the time to write 40-50,000 new words.

Why? Because what I rediscovered two years ago, something I knew from a long-ago stint to see how fast I could write a book (485 pages in 3 months), is that the upside of obsession is something akin to ecstasy. There’s something almost breathtaking about getting so deeply immersed in story and character that they begin to write themselves. There is a kind of magic in being in what some writers call “flow,” where the story just comes pouring out. Where characters are so freed to be themselves that they just start talking and we writers almost break our fingers as we sit there and write it down. Being that deeply in story is a high like no other that I’ve ever experienced (and since I may still run for political office, I’ll leave it right there). And quite honestly, as I sit here at my desk and look at my to-do list and my calendar, the passionate writer in me desperately longs to shove everything else aside and write: Chapter One.


This entry was posted in Kate's Posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Glorious Obsession of NaNoWriMo

  1. Vicki Doudera says:

    I definitely want to try this and am thinking 2013 — the year my youngest leaves for college. RIght now I’m keeping up with my quota for Darby #4, but can’t commit the time to be obsessed. Thanks for describing it so clearly, Kate!

  2. Brenda says:

    I enjoyed (and was inspired by) this post & the LA Times article encouraging NaNoWriMo.

    Before I discovered the NaNoWriMo book and heard him talk I had already realized one page a day would be 365 in a year. But it is so inspirational to hear that and more plans than that on how to do it. So don’t wait, Vicki Doudera, set another goal for before 2013 like ONE PAGE A DAY. Even two pages a week (one Saturday, one Sunday) would be 104 in a year!

    I love November and find it the hardest time of year to write but I plan to have 50,000 more words by the end of this month too.

  3. Interesting, Kate – I’m going to try this next year. You’re right, February would be MUCH better. Or March. I’m too deep into my work in progress to risk it this year. It’s so NOT the way I write (which is circle the drain once, twice, three times, move forward…. repeat) I’d like to do a ‘from scratch’ project.

Leave a Reply