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NaNoWriMo 2020 Update #1

Novel word count at time of publication: 8,588.

As you are probably aware, it’s November. That means, among other things, that it’s time for NaNoWriMo. It’s a familiar rhythm at this point, and I love it. And it’s the rhythm of NaNoWriMo I want to talk about today.

Official National Novel Writing Month 2020 writer badge, a pencil on a red background with vining roses and the text NaNoWriMo 2020 Writer
Here we go again. And it feels so good.

Honestly, it’s the only thing that feels right to me this year. Once, a therapist asked me “If school and work went away, what would you still have?” I remember looking up at him, as it was the end of the session and we were getting ready to go and it had taken me a while to find an answer, and saying “My writing. No one can take that away from me.”

In some ways, I do feel like grad school—largely the reason I was in therapy in the first place, if I’m honest—did take my writing away from me. I often feel like I’m actually a worse writer for having gone to grad school, when honestly I had gone to become a better writer, to unlock the mysteries of the literary canon and the English language that my undergraduate degree had left still unanswered. This may be, in fact, because graduate school doesn’t really give the writing and reading processes time to breathe and harmonize with each other.

But every November, I get a welcome reminder of who I truly am, who I have been since I first turned my pencil away from my own flesh and put it to paper and started writing novels. The words flow out of me like healing water. I need them.

Since 2005, I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every November. I’ve done a few off-season challenges too. It’s completely shaped the way I write and the way I think about writing, and it’s made me a better writer in so many ways. It’s given me friends, put me in leadership positions, and a thousand other things. I’m not saying it’s perfect, or without problems that definitely need addressing, but I’m saying that this annual rhythm of prioritizing drafting is very important to me.

Today I want to talk about a particular realization that I’ve had this week as I get back into the rhythm of word wars and write-ins and word counts. It’s about the cyclical nature of writing.

In my composition classes, my curriculum constantly says that writing is a recursive, iterative process, that it goes through cycles as you move between the stages of the writing process, that it’s never linear.

text reading National Novel Writing Month Writer 2019 in white and yellow over a blue steampunk background
Last year’s NaNoWriMo participant art. Part of the ritual.

And that’s true at a macro level, but even at a micro level there’s importance to rhythm.

Writing is an inhalation/exhalation kind of thing. We spew out words, but to have words to spew out, we need rest. NaNoWriMo has made it very clear to me, through the structured times of word wars (honestly these days I do almost no writing without a timer), just how important these write/rest cycles are.

To write the requisite 1667 words in a day technically only takes me about 30 minutes of actual writing time. However, that usually takes me an hour. That’s not because I get distracted (ok, I do, a little) but because in between these bouts of 500 words, I have to stop and reflect on what I’ve done and where I’m going. Sure, a lot of wild magic happens during the output portion of the cycle, but it has to be reined in and tamed in between wars. So, instead of a solid 30 minutes of typing, I get a cycle of 10 minutes on, ten minutes off, over an hour. But it works.

At a larger level, writers need a cycle of reading and writing. For me, it often comes in blocks, a month or two of “input” mode and a month or two of “output” mode. For some writers, the cycle is daily, reading in the evening and writing in the morning. But the cycle is present, no matter what its frequency may be.

Rhythm matters in writing life. And the rhythms function as so many levels. At the very microscopic level, I revel in the rhythms my hands type out; some words are simply pleasurable to type, as my hand makes a neat little dances in a circle around the keyboard. Even in handwriting, certain letters feel good to write, and that rhythm of words across the page matters as part of the visceral, tactile experience of writing.

At a slightly higher level, there’s the visual rhythm of the words on the page, the way the punctuation and the paragraph breaks play. And higher than that is the rhythm of rest and writing that plays out in the individual writing session. In the span of a half hour, I might write a thousand words, but ten minutes of that time is reflection, rest, and distraction. It’s like letting bread dough rise, only to punch it down. Making bread takes hours, but the actual “labor” time is much shorter. Still, that rest is as important as the kneading, punching, and pulling. It’s a rhythm of furious action and calm rest.

So, as you write this month, pay attention to your own writing rhythms. What are your cycles of input and output over time? What are your cycles of rest and writing within a single writing session? What rhythms do you love in your writing life?

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