It is, at the time of publishing this, October 31st. Not only is that Halloween (which is important for its own sake), it is also the day before National Novel Writing Month. At midnight, the writing may begin.
This is the 20th year of NaNoWriMo, which started in 1999. It’s my 14th year. And I guarantee you, it will be my 14th win. At this point, it’s going to take something pretty drastic to stop me.
Why does NaNoWriMo work so well? (for me, at least–I acknowledge there may be some problems with applying it universally) And how can you make it work for you? There are, I think, three parts to the secret of NaNoWriMo: quantification, community, and blatant mediocrity. All of these are worth celebrating and, perhaps, applying to other parts of our lives.
Quantification may be the most obvious part of the NaNoWriMo challenge: 50,000 words. 30 days. It’s that simple. It breaks down to 1,667 words a day, and since I write about 500 words in 10 minutes, it’s honestly only a 40-60 minute commitment per day for me. When you start playing with numbers like that, even big things (like writing a novel), start to look pretty manageable.
It works for other things, too. We use FitBits to count our steps and our heartbeats (well, maybe you do. I’m on the late end of the curve for most tech, sorry). We count our calories. We count our minutes at work, and put a dollar value on everything from time to entertainment.
Too often we look at creative endeavors as nebulous and uncertain, but that’s not very productive. Inktober uses quantification, too, albeit to a lesser degree, by simply requiring one drawing per day. This breaks things down into finite amounts, and makes the endeavor, while still big and awesome, doable. Most truly successful creative endeavors, at some point, get into quantification, I would expect.
One of the remarkable things about NaNoWriMo is how it organizes community. My record for November is perfect; a flawless 50k every time (and once 100k!). My record for off-season attempts, such as Camp NaNo? Not so great. I’m not sure what the magic of November is, but I strongly suspect it has to do with the community aspect of the event, the fact that I’m just one of a massive throng of novelists trying to do the same thing.
Many of my friendships have been forged or strengthened through NaNoWriMo. Attending write-ins, supporting each other in a creative endeavor… it’s a great way to meet people and make friends. And definitely my relationship with my sister has deepened with our doing NaNoWriMo every year together.
My first year of NaNoWriMo, I participated avidly in the forums on the website. I strongly urge new Wrimos to do this! These days I’m not really active in the forums (I’m just less interested in forums in general) but I know from other Wrimos that they remain excellent social support for the endeavor.
There’s just something about the social accountability of doing a thing with other people. I only really work out when I have another person I’m responsible too–a buddy to go with, in other words. Why not the same thing for writing?
When we are worried that what we do has to be perfect, we become paralyzed. We can’t move forward. In our creative writing classes, we’re generally taught to work for quality. We workshop pieces repeatedly. We read models that are the best of the best, the groundbreaking, revolutionary stuff, the things we put on a pedestal.
NaNoWriMo throws all of that out the window and says just one thing matters: that you write as many words as you can. Is it bad? Sure. But you wrote something!
NaNoWriMo teaches us to celebrate mediocrity, to acknowledge that sometimes doing something at all is more important than doing it well. It teaches us that mediocrity is ok, as long as we keep moving. One of the basic “rules” of NaNoWriMo is to not delete anything, even if you know it’s not going to stay in your novel when you revise. At one level this is simply gaming the system; words are words, and they all count for your word count. But at another level, it teaches us to live with our mediocrity and even to honor it. It teaches us to look at the parts of our work that we know are not good and to say to those parts: “I acknowledge that I had to create you in order to create what is good. I honor your existence as part of my process, and will not hide that you exist.”
This celebration of even the mediocre makes writing less mysterious and more accessible. It also makes us better able to emotionally handle the often demoralizing work of making ourselves better. Mediocrity is valuable.
So, this November, I hope you will join me and my friends writing a novel–or, if writing a novel isn’t your dream, doing something crazy. Remember that as you do the crazy things, set your goals in a way that can be quantified, supported by a strong community (large or small!), and will embrace mediocrity.