10 Things I Learned from Doing NaNoWriMo

I first learned about “NaNoWriMo” three years ago when a lifecoach I know told me she was participating in that November’s “National Novel Writing Month.” People all over the country were committing to begin and complete a novel in one month — November. (It’s been held every November since 1999.)

It seemed like an impossible commitment and even though in my heart of hearts I consider myself a fiction writer (always struggling with the fact that I’m not writing) I just kind of sniffed at it and tried not to think about it.

Then a few Novembers went by and several things changed in my life, resulting in the fact that I’m writing more and agonizing less over not writing. But I still wasn’t writing regularly.

So on November 1 of 2014, I happened to see mention of NaNoWriMo starting. I went to the website (yes, there really is one and I signed up): it was free and that way I’d be officially committing. Then I simply started writing the novel I’d been toying with for several years. I had written scenes in longhand, discussed it with friends (which many serious writers advise against doing), begun it in different ways again and again. But this time, I told myself, even if it’s crap, you’re going to keep at it. You can always revise later.

Here’s what I learned:

Image: NaNoWriMo.org/dashboard

1. I could write every day. I just won’t have time to do anything else, especially on workdays. Forget about laundry or grocery shopping after work.

2. I could make stuff up. I’ve always been driven to write by wanting to describe a particular moment, i.e. this was what it felt like to be a teenage girl in this place at this time. But stubborn adherence to the “truth” produced dull writing. Using my imagination freed me up to make interesting things happen.

3. I could ignore the news. It was OK for me not to spend evening hours scanning my favorite websites and seeing what my regular columnists had to say. Self-induced ADHD could wait!

4. I could change it up. Some days I took a lunch hour and wrote in Starbucks, then worked late to make up the time. Other days I wrote when I got home from work, after walking my dogs and having dinner. Because I was tired then, I tried to vary it and write earlier whenever possible.

5. Comparing myself to other people would make me insane. I could think about what successful published writers you admire are creating and feel like a failure. Or even think about all the other NaNoWriMo people who are writing twice as much as I was. But that way madness lies.

6. I could write without having found the perfect job, inheriting a ton of money, or retiring. The perfect job where I only had to work half a day yet earned a full salary, the windfall from a previously unknown rich relative, the ability to not work. None of these things happened. Writing did. I found a way.

7. On the days I didn’t write a lot, I didn’t beat myself up. There were days I didn’t feel like it and didn’t have time. But I only missed writing 3 days out of 30, which is the exact inverse of my productivity pre-NaNoWriMo. On a few occasions, I wrote angrily on a spiral notebook, sitting up in bed in my pajamas, just before going to sleep, to fit it in. I didn’t produce the greatest work of my life those days, but I didn’t want to drop the thread.

8. I could do it alone. I haven’t been in a writing group or writing class for years and didn’t have writing friends (although non-writing friends cheered me on). I used the website for accountability and a sense of continuity.

9. I couldn’t do it alone. I knew I was going to log into the website and other people were out there, doing the same or similar. I wished I did have a group of other writers to commiserate with and especially, once the month was over, to share support.

10. If you want a marathon, you can have a marathon. But I’d rather have daily walks. I might’ve “used” NaNoWriMo in a way it wasn’t designed for: to spur me to produce daily, rather than to do some crazed blitz I couldn’t sustain once the month was over. My daily word counts were much lower than the program’s goal, as seen on the graph above. But sustainable? I hope and believe so.

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