7 Lessons on Creativity I Learned from Writing a Novel in a Month
As many writerly types know, November is National Novel Writing Month when almost half a million people around the globe attempt to write a 50,000 (or more) word novel in 30 days. This past year, I decided to join the ranks for the first time and became one of the “Wrimos” to complete the challenge. It was a transformational experience. Here is what I learned.
- Finishing a project, no matter how rough, feels incredible. I first tried to write a novel when I was twelve. Titled “A Hole in the Attic,” I found it scrawled in a spiral-bound Mead notebook on a recent trip to my childhood home. The loopy cursive and simplistic plot line ended after about twenty sheets of lined paper. I have begun — and abandoned — many writing projects since then, each one a bit better than “A Hole in the Attic,” yet all sharing one key feature: unfinished. The actual completion of a project, therefore, is unlike any other high and worth the daily dedication.
- Practicing creativity makes you more human, more alive, more content. We have become very accustomed to quick fixes — sugary treats, red notifications, binge-worthy Netflix shows — and often conflate them with genuine fulfillment. It is a much more sturdy and solid pleasure to create something from scratch. As Kurt Vonnegut notes, “to practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” I used to fret about whether my writing was good enough or not to consider myself “a writer,” but, in the end, who cares? You are writing (or creating) because it is who you are. I no longer see it as an indulgent hobby but as an essential part of my existence. Being creative is our birthright.
- You must make your practice a daily one. It is imperative to write every single day. Every. Single. Day. NaNoWriMo impels you to do so, as it becomes very difficult to keep up your word count unless you are constantly chipping away at that 50,000. Many writers have noted the importance of a daily writing practice, but it takes experiencing it to understand why. Dedicating time to your writing practice every day makes it a given. Do it for long enough, and it becomes like eating your breakfast. It is something you must do every day because 1. It is just what you do and 2. It nourishes and sustains you. So pick a time and do it without question, because you don’t learn how to write by studying it, teaching it, discussing it, or reading about it. You learn to write by writing.
- You can create under any circumstances. I used to think that the magic of writing could only happen when the house was quiet, the dishes were finished, the laundry was folded, and I had a two-hour stretch of uninterrupted time at a stately desk cleaned of clutter. This meant that writing would happen exactly zero percent of the time, which does not align so well with that whole “make writing a daily practice” idea above. NaNoWriMo helped me to write in desperation, trying as hard as I could to make that daily word count. So I wrote outdoors with the wind whipping my hair, I wrote on a commuter rail from Boston to Worcester, I wrote in tiny ten-minute increments, I wrote with a five-month-old infant snoozing on my chest, I wrote with a two-year-old shoving an “ice cream cone” of Magnatiles in my face, I wrote with Duplo minefields covering the living room floor, I wrote with no desk and a house full of mess and a massive to-do list. And you know what? It worked just fine. It turns out you don’t need those ideal conditions for writing; those ideal conditions are just an excuse to put off writing. And when your writing is constant, when it finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of your day, it becomes the glue that holds you together.
- You always have something to say, so keep pushing through the sticky parts. Sometimes I felt like the folks at NaNoWriMo must be living in my brain. They would send along an author pep talk or an encouraging email at just the moment I was flailing. One in particular rescued me when I was ready to quit. I was in what people like to call the “mucky middle,” when you’re not really sure where your story is going, or if you’ll ever make it to the end. The negative internal voices began chattering: you have two (actually, four) mouths to feed, bills to pay, a house to clean, and here you are trying to decide whether this pretend gun in this pretend story was a Mauser or a Colt? … This is all drivel and you are wasting your time. I thought of Anne Lamott’s cast of inner critic characters: the “vinegar-lipped Reading Lady”; the “emaciated German male” who notes your thought crimes; and William Burroughs, who shoots up because your story is so boring. Yet if you keep writing through the chorus of naysayers, no matter how slow or terrible it might feel, something amazing happens — you get to the other side. You realize you have a secret obsession with Siamese twins or you remember that time Sammy ate an entire stick of butter in homeroom or you see a sea of stars. Writing is an exhilarating act of self-discovery, even (or especially?) when it is fictional. So just keep going.
- Speed matters. If you ever find yourself inside the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, you’ll see Soviet-style propaganda screaming from concrete walls as if you are in an Orwellian reeducation camp. One of the slogans annoyed me more than the others: “done is better than perfect.” This seemed to me a flimsy excuse for slipshod work and questionable ethics. Yet after completing NaNoWriMo, I now see the merit of this idea. As a writer or artist, it can be easy to become preoccupied with creating a pièce de résistance and lose your motivation and pace along the way. Yet writing with urgency allows you to keep your head in the game and remain familiar with your characters and plot line. You can agonize over every sentence à la Susan Sontag when you’re editing, but first just get it all out on the page. Stephen King completes most of his first drafts — many of which are 500+ pages — in a mere three months.
- It is sheer magic to create something out of nothing. One of my toddling daughter’s favorite books is called Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. In it, Joseph wears his overcoat out until it becomes a jacket, a vest, a necktie … you get the picture. Pretty soon he has just enough fabric to cover a button, and then he loses the button. So he writes a story about his overcoat, which shows you can always make something out of nothing. I adore this story because it captures the alchemy of writing. It really is magical, when you think about it. There are basically no materials, just a screen or a page to warehouse your words, and yet you can summon an entire make believe world and share it with a stranger across the globe. You make something out of nothing.
While I’ve been writing about writing (duh), I think that many of these lessons apply to all of the creative arts. I hope you have found some of it useful, or better yet, inspirational. It’s a New Year. Go out and chase that creative dream.