My plan was to spend November writing a novel.
For those of you familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this won’t seem like such an extreme goal. After all, hundreds and thousands of people engage in the challenge every year, many of them successfully.
In the last six years, I’ve completed NaNoWriMo four times — once independently, the rest as collaborative efforts with a long-time friend and writing partner. From historical fiction, to fantasy, sci-fi, and retold fairytales, NaNoWriMo has been an opportunity to experiment, create, and delve into the unknown.
I am by nature a slow writer. A precise writer. A perfectionist. In college, it was not unusual for me to write, delete, and rewrite an opening sentence for several hours before finally stumbling upon the right introduction — the right entry into my topic, the right angle for my ideas.
As a writing teacher, this is not how I encourage my students to write. Nothing is more deadly to creativity than fear of the blank page, the blank screen. Than the pressure to get it right. If we are to create — anything at all — we must be willing to get our hands dirty. One can’t complete a project — no matter how long or short — without beginning. Without risking those first words on the page. Without braving imperfection and failure.
The artist, while taking their subject seriously, must be free to take themselves lightly. To experiment and play with their medium — with brush and paints and words on a page.
To this end, NaNoWriMo is a powerful tool. It’s impossible to write carefully, precisely, perfectly when one is writing 1700 words a day. Impossible to allow one’s inner-editor to speak too loud. When one must progress the narrative from one day to the next (no matter how incomprehensible — how stuck or lost — that narrative may seem at any given moment), there is no time to second-guess (to write, delete, and write again) — no time for anything but the day to day discipline of showing up, of engaging with possibility.
And the miracle — like an image emerging from finger-paints, paper-scraps, and plaster — comes through the mess. In the midst of useless paragraphs, dead-end scenes, and mind-numbing prose, comes a sentence here, a character there, a moment, an exchange, that ring unquestionably true and would never have existed if the exercise had not forced you to put words to the digital page. When the month ends, there is no finished product, only an unwieldy conglomeration of words and characters and scenes (which may or may not resemble a traditionally defined “plot”1). But there is also the heady rush of creation — of something existing, taking up space in the world, that a month before did not.
Not to mention the intangible impact of the discipline itself. A practice of courage, of playfulness, of creativity, and of faith. Showing up, day after day (whether filled with hope or overwhelmed with discouragement), to enact a belief that faithfulness on this long, slow road — no matter how imperfect today’s writing might be — will lead somewhere in the end.
And maybe that destination won’t be publication or writing contracts or fame. Maybe we’ll discover — as Anne Lamott suggests — that it was an inner journey all along. A journey towards remembrance, forgiveness, wholeness, peace. A journey about slowing down, coming alive, and paying attention. A journey to set us free from fear.
Fear of the other. Fear of ourselves. Fear of the questions (the ones with answers and the ones without). Fear of the unknown. Fear of not getting it right.
“Our real illiteracy is our inability to create,” declares the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. And if there’s one thing of which I’m convinced, it’s that fear is at the heart of this illiteracy. Every child comes into the world as a creator, an artist, inherently aware that the world is to be built with, played with, explored. The loss of that confidence represents an estrangement from our birthright — our identity as beings created in the image of a creator God.
The discipline, therefore, of showing up and reclaiming our creativity in the face of our fears (of worthlessness, of inadequacy, of imperfection) is much more than a cute hobby for young writers — it’s a spiritual act. An affirmation of sacred identity. A resistance of the accuser with their certainty that — as we are now — we have nothing of value to add, nothing of worth to say.2
To write, to create, to not give up is to affirm hope. Is to say yes to life.
If you completed NaNoWriMo on Friday, congratulations! Exult in that feeling of completion. In the knowledge that you set your mind on a goal (a pretty big goal at that) and followed through. That no matter how unfinished your work still feels — how messy or imperfect — you showed up. You said no to fear and birthed something into existence. Something that didn’t exist in October and would never have existed without your fingers on that keyboard (however exhilarating, or painful, those hours turned out to be).
But if, like me, that isn’t quite how your November went, take heart. Not stumbling isn’t the point; the point is to keep going once you do.
This was originally intended to be a post about why I failed to complete NaNoWriMo this year — but that ultimately seemed less important than why I believe in NaNoWriMo in the first place.
- Some people seem capable of this particular aspect of novel writing. It is not, personally, much of a strength.
- You will be like God, the serpent tells Eve. You will know good from evil. You will be better. More. Enough.