NaNoWriMo: A Self-Guided Artmonk Retreat

Posted by on Nov 3, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments

I’m 5,000 words into writing 50,000 words of novel for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month.

What appealed to me about NaNoWriMo (enough to clear out my schedule a bit and make the commitment), and what I believe appeals to many of the 172, 000 participants who will make some kind of attempt to complete a 50,000-word novel this month, is not what we’ll produce. I have no fantasy that on the other end of November I’ll hold in my swollen fingers a complete, sellable novel, ready for the first publisher I submit to.

Few of NaNoWriMo’s creators, devotees and supporters (with writers Sue Grafton, Neil Gaiman, Meg Cabot, Piers Anthony and Brian Jacques among them) would say that this is the point.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down. (Link)

I first heard about the competition from Betsy McCall, co-founder of the Art Monastery Project. She told me about her sometimes frustrating, ultimately transformative experience writing a novel in a month (mostly while riding the BART in the East Bay) a few years ago.

The prospect sat unregarded in my mind (on a shelf next to stories I’d written and discarded, novels I’d begun and abandoned) until a few months ago. As Betsy and I were planning a number of artmonk retreats, it struck me that NaNoWriMo is essentially a monthlong self-guided artmonk retreat. Put this way, it was something I couldn’t pass up.

In its own, messy way, it has all the elements of a contemplative/creative retreat:

  1. hours of daily creative practice
  2. daily ritual
  3. a community of avowed participants
  4. a goal that is only slightly arbitrary in quantity, yet fully intentional in quality
  5. introspection and self-confrontation

By committing to the competition, and thus to the daily practice, participants must be willing to confront a few things about themselves with utter honesty.

What if I’m more into the idea of being a writer than I am in the actual practice of it? What if I don’t like writing at all? What if I’m no good? What if I go nuts trying to bring my internal world out? And what if, finally released to the open air, it scares me? Or worse, what if it just bores me?

Chances are, most of the “completed” NaNoWriMo novels won’t be worthy of being published, just as the first drafts of first novels written by most now-published novelists were not the masterpieces they might have become.

Chances are, the process will smear that nasty line between insight and its deprecated form, navel-gazing, for just about everyone.

Chances are, a good number of the first-time novelists will discover the distance between the idea and the practical reality of being a writer. Disabused of their romantic images of being a writer, some will move on to other pursuits, while others will persist in the craft. Insofar as it is just another craft, a practice, writing benefits from showing up persistently as much as it does from sheer talent.

In exchange for taking the risk, in making light & playful what may have been a lifelong burden under Literature’s gravity, NaNoWriMo participants report feeling an increased sense of community, an unexpected level of fulfillment and a renewal of purpose—a veritable conversatio morum. Many take the practice they’ve developed in one month of bootcamp and continue it for months or years afterward, with a new group of friends to celebrate their progress with.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children. (Link)

With the publishing industry in transformation, is there a danger that NaNoWriMo will flood the world with bad novels? That literature will be killed by its enthusiasts? That people will stop reading novels altogether and just write terrible novel after terrible novel, and that we’ll suffocate under the heft of our own literary circle-jerk rituals?

Is anyone seriously worried about this (other than Salon.com co-founder Laura Miller)?

More creativity, more community, more self-knowledge, more artists, more monks, more artmonks… Be afraid.I’m 5,000 words into writing 50,000 words of novel for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month.

What appealed to me about NaNoWriMo (enough to clear out my schedule a bit and make the commitment), and what I believe appeals to many of the 172, 000 participants who will make some kind of attempt to complete a 50,000-word novel this month, is not what we’ll produce. I have no fantasy that on the other end of November I’ll hold in my swollen fingers a complete, sellable novel, ready for the first publisher I submit to.

Few of NaNoWriMo’s creators, devotees and supporters (with writers Sue Grafton, Neil Gaiman, Meg Cabot, Piers Anthony and Brian Jacques among them) would say that this is the point.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down. (Link)

I first heard about the competition from Betsy McCall, co-founder of the Art Monastery Project. She told me about her sometimes frustrating, ultimately transformative experience writing a novel in a month (mostly while riding the BART in the East Bay) a few years ago.

The prospect sat unregarded in my mind (on a shelf next to stories I’d written and discarded, novels I’d begun and abandoned) until a few months ago. As Betsy and I were planning a number of artmonk retreats, it struck me that NaNoWriMo is essentially a monthlong self-guided artmonk retreat. Put this way, it was something I couldn’t pass up.

In its own, messy way, it has all the elements of a contemplative/creative retreat:

  1. hours of daily creative practice
  2. daily ritual
  3. a community of avowed participants
  4. a goal that is only slightly arbitrary in quantity, yet fully intentional in quality
  5. introspection and self-confrontation

By committing to the competition, and thus to the daily practice, participants must be willing to confront a few things about themselves with utter honesty.

What if I’m more into the idea of being a writer than I am in the actual practice of it? What if I don’t like writing at all? What if I’m no good? What if I go nuts trying to bring my internal world out? And what if, finally released to the open air, it scares me? Or worse, what if it just bores me?

Chances are, most of the “completed” NaNoWriMo novels won’t be worthy of being published, just as the first drafts of first novels written by most now-published novelists were not the masterpieces they might have become.

Chances are, the process will smear that nasty line between insight and its deprecated form, navel-gazing, for just about everyone.

Chances are, a good number of the first-time novelists will discover the distance between the idea and the practical reality of being a writer. Disabused of their romantic images of being a writer, some will move on to other pursuits, while others will persist in the craft. Insofar as it is just another craft, a practice, writing benefits from showing up persistently as much as it does from sheer talent.

In exchange for taking the risk, in making light & playful what may have been a lifelong burden under Literature’s gravity, NaNoWriMo participants report feeling an increased sense of community, an unexpected level of fulfillment and a renewal of purpose—a veritable conversatio morum. Many take the practice they’ve developed in one month of bootcamp and continue it for months or years afterward, with a new group of friends to celebrate their progress with.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children. (Link)

With the publishing industry in transformation, is there a danger that NaNoWriMo will flood the world with bad novels? That literature will be killed by its enthusiasts? That people will stop reading novels altogether and just write terrible novel after terrible novel, and that we’ll suffocate under the heft of our own literary circle-jerk rituals?

Is anyone seriously worried about this (other than Salon.com co-founder Laura Miller)?

More creativity, more community, more self-knowledge, more artists, more monks, more artmonks… Be afraid.

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