At the start of last November, I had a two-month-old baby and a six-month-old baby. Years before I’d published a novel, and for the years since, I had been revising and revising my second novel, Strip. Sure, I had written some short stories, published some articles, made a couple of films, even. I’d gotten and given up a tenure-track teaching job, and taught elsewhere and privately, too. I’d moved across the country a couple of times since my first novel was published. In other words, I kept busy, which is sometimes the same thing as productive and sometimes not.
But I was not really a writer. “A real writer is someone who really writes,” Marge Piercy says in her rather profound poem “For the Young Who Want To.”
This is not to say that someone else had penned my novels–the published one or the endlessly revised one–or articles or any of that. It was just that, despite knowing better, I had a sort of passionate, on-again, off-again relationship with the kind of Writing that hangs out in clubs with people who call themselves “Inspiration” and “Great Idea” and “Excitement.” They have little gang rumbles with people who call themselves “Doubt” and “Brilliant Editor” and “You Could Do Better.”
Having babies got me really focused. I couldn’t hang out with that kind of writing anymore, had no time for skirmishes or romances or other capital-D Distractions. But did I have time to write?
That’s when NaNoWriMo came along. It sounds goofy, amaturish, like a crutch or a scam or some kind of edifice with nothing behind it, perhaps. But what, you may be asking, is NaNoWriMo? NaNoWriMo, Friends, is National Novel Writing Month. A web site; a sort of a program; a contest in which the number of winners is unlimited. Check it out at http://www.nanowrimo.com . . .
So there I was with the two babies, and after they would fall asleep, around 7 or 8 p.m., I would sit down, half-asleep myself, and type out about 2,000 words. (Officially, you must write 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and midnight on Nov. 30 to “win.” This works out to 1667 words/ day, but I started a day or two late, so I aimed for 2000 words. Also, I knew that I would be cutting so much of what I wrote, that I felt I had to get over 80,000 before I stopped.)
I crossed the 50,000 word line at the end of November, and then I kept on going, at a slightly less hectic pace, but more or less the same, until about Xmas, when I got to about 85,000 words and the end of a draft.
Those are the logistics. Also included are writing buddies, all sort of cafe events and marathons across the country (none of which I participated in because of the aforementioned babies), pep talks sent out by NaNoWriMo from various authors, and forums where you can get advice, solicit plot suggestions, commiserate, or just waste time.
Oh, and there are a number of people who’ve published their NaNoWriMo books (after, one assumes, significant revision), including Curve editor Diane Anderson-Minshall and her partner Jacob Anderson-Minshall, as well as Sara Gruen, whose Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo book, as was a previous book of hers. (There’s a list at the web site of other published authors; these were the ones I’d heard of . . .)
But more importantly than all of that, for me, is the personal experience I had of sitting down, night after night, exhausted and uninspired much of the time, leaking breast milk, to pound away at the keyboard. Sometimes I was nearly asleep, leaning close to the screen of my trusty laptop, letting my unconscious take over. My unconscious did all right.
Sure, the book is full of extra information, a lot of “ideas” and digressions, and even an excess of description. But I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to writing fiction. This comes from a certain fear, I think, something M.F.A.-driven that has to do with “purple prose” and a tendency toward embellishment and nostalgia. In other words, I have been developing a style that is in many ways opposite to my own “natural” style–a reaction to the “faults” that others have pointed out to me.
Fitzgerald said something about keeping all the quirks that the critics hated because that was his original style. I can’t find the quote right now, even at Google, but my larger point is that writing a first draft full of my inherent stylistic choices taught me a lot about myself as a writer.
Honestly, while I was doing this–churning out 2000 words every night–I felt confident that I would continue doing this every day for the rest of my life. I felt a kinship to Joyce Carol Oates that I’d never felt before. Because if only half of what I wrote was worthwhile, I could still write several decent novels a year at this rate, and raise up a passel of babies, too.
I forgot that babies stop sleeping so much and start running around and talking, at which point they need to be chased and answered, and it’s just harder to mull over the coming night’s writing while chasing and talking than it is while humming, rocking and nursing. I also forgot that good habits are hard-earned. Which is to say that I have not continued to write 2000 words every day, or even 1000 (though since I began blogging, I’ve written some number every other day or so).
However: November approaches.
Here’s what happens when I put my seat in the seat and type. Characters do things I hadn’t imagined; scenes develop; histories unfold; the people talk to each other and I listen, carefully, sleepily, and take notes. I know more and have more to say in front of a keyboard than I ever do anywhere else. Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My partner, Angie, talks about writing in that way–to find out what happens. When you write everyday, no matter what, you get as close as possible to being a reader of your own work, with the attendant pleasures, surprises and identifications readers get to experience.
I heard an interview with Joyce Carol Oates once on the radio (with either Terri Gross or Michael Krazny, can’t remember), in which she talked about how she goes jogging every day, and while she jogs, she tells herself stories, so that when she goes to the keyboard, all she has to do is write from recall. Let us not forget that she lives in New Jersey, a place of winter, of snow. So this takes some dedication to the running, not to mention the writing.
In any case, for that month, I was more of a writer than I’d ever been, despite the above mentioned published novel, the unpublished novel, the M.F.A., and the teaching. Which is to say: I was writing. And when you are writing you don’t much care if you are a writer, just as when you are making love, you don’t much care if you are a lover. You’re just doing it, and it’s great.
So I invite you to join me over at the NaNoWriMo site. Become my “buddy,” so we can encourage each other along. I know you are busy and perhaps frightened and maybe you have a dissertation due or a job that drains you or babies to tend, but really, is that any excuse not to write a novel in November?
[Note: Fifteen percent of the 100,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo last year completed their 50k words. Check out the course I am offering to see you through before, during and after: http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses. Thanks.]