November 1, 2010

Thoughts on NaNoWriMo …


Still no Shakespeare...

Today marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the annual literary marathon in which would-be novelists attempt to write a 50,000+ word novel during a single month. Founded in 1999 by Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo has expanded every year, growing from 21 participants and six winners (a “winner” = someone who successfully wrote 50,000 words) to 167,150 participants and 32,178 winners in 2009. Part of the mass appeal of the event is its cheerful, populist, anti-critical, can-do attitude:

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.

Four years ago, the inevitable backlash set in. Eric Rosenfield wrote an essay on Wet Asphalt titled “Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too” that concluded “As for National Novel Writing Month, they seem to care more about making you feel good than about anything having remotely to do with storytelling.” The Rake’s Progress chimed in with similar sentiments: “It seems to me to be antithetical to good writing, just as seeing how many shrimp you can eat in 10 minutes is antithetical to fine dining.” C. Max Magee at The Millions wrote “I can think of many, many better ways to spend one’s time (and there are probably many, many better ways to write a novel)…In the end, though, hating NaNoWriMo is both too easy and pretty fruitless, like hating hippie music or ‘blue collar comedy.'”

As a former participant in the event (I managed 35,000 words) I have a deep ambivalence about the project. In a general sense, I have only goodwill for the enterprise. Any project that attempts to overcome the forces of procrastination and lethargy to create art seems pretty admirable. Also, NaNoWriMo seems to offer valuable lessons about the writing process, namely (1) that discipline and daily writing are essential, and (2) that a writer must suspend (momentarily) their critical thinking in order to complete a first draft.

In an oft-quoted anecdote from David Bayles and Ted Orland‘s Art & Fear, a ceramics teacher grades half his class on “quality” and the other half on “quantity.” At the end of the semester, the “quantity” half of the class has produced more creative work since they were not shackled by their expectations. If this anecdotal equation holds true, than the just-do-it! philosophy of NaNoWriMo is not merely a feel-good gimmick, but an essential part of the artistic process.

However, reading through Chris Baty‘s yearly summaries of the event’s history you’ll be hard pressed to find any discussion of artistic process or art itself. Writing about the initial inspiration for NaNoWriMo, he writes:

[W]e wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.

So sad. But so, so true.

He then proceeds to tell the story of NaNoWriMo heroic rise, as it overcame the logistical hurdles of fund-raising and server crashes to become a remarkably successful international non-profit. There is plenty of talk of new logos, new offices, philanthropic efforts, grants, celebrity sponsorship, new projects, growing numbers. In his description of the 2009 event, Baty writes:

Other highlights:

  • A sell-out crowd (including Wrimos from as far away as Australia!) came to our second-annual Night of Writing Dangerously fundraising gala in San Francisco, where we dressed up, ate and drank ourselves into a noveling frenzy, and raised almost $20,000 for our programs,
  • I wrote a truly abysmal novel…

On the balance, it was a great year, and when the sun set on November, the staff and I gathered to look at the numbers. Every previous NaNoWriMo record had been shattered. We had 119,301 adult participants, 21,683 of whom won. That was 18.2% win rate–the highest we’d seen since NaNoWriMo was just a bunch of yahoos in the Bay Area. Cumulatively NaNoWriMo had produced 1.6 billion words, enough to wrap around the moon fourteen times.

At times like this, it’s hard not to join the haters. Money, records, win-rates, frenzy, billions of words. This isn’t about literature, this is about building a successful non-profit organization. It’s about peddling an art-feeling the way one might peddle vitamins. It seems telling that Baty’s only published book, No Plot? No Problem, is a how-to book about how to write a novel rather than a novel itself. In an interview with Baty posted on the NaNoWriMo site, when asked about the NaNoWriMo novels that have been published, he replies:

I think getting your book published is great. The most important thing, though, is giving yourself the space to make something that is meaningful or entertaining or satisfying for you, the creator.

Art, in Baty’s strange formulation, is not something that has much intrinsic value. Rather, it is merely the byproduct of an activity that makes you feel good–the activity known as art-making. But maybe one shouldn’t hold Baty’s misguided notions against him. It’s not his job to be an artist or aesthete. He should be allowed to be an organizational leader and motivational speaker all he likes, as long as he gets results–not billions of words results, but that rarer thing, good writing.

So I turn to the list of published NaNoWriMo novels. Breakup Babe. You and the Pirates. Las Vegas Chew Toy. These are the first three on the list. Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) is the big name. The majority are genres and YA titles. Many are out of print. I haven’t read these books, so I can’t speak to their quality, but at first glance it’s disheartening. Eleven years and 104,246 novels written and all NaNoWriMo has to show for itself is this?!

Despite all my disillusionment with NaNoWriMo’s mission and its results, I still want to like it. I’m even tempted, as I am every year, to participate. All that enthusiasm and hope. Who could resist it? It has the champagne promise of a New Year’s resolution.

And a final thought: what if the failure of NaNoWriMo to produce notable writing has less do to with its own internal flaws than with the impossibility of literature itself. Perhaps NaNoWriMo is merely the evidence of what has always been. Hundreds of thousands of would-be writers typing as fast and as well as they can, struggling against the pressures of time, striving to put aside their fears and ignore their flaws. Hundreds of thousands of participants thinking this might be the year. Hundreds of thousands of novels written every decade. But only very rarely that miraculous thing: a winner.