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Why NaNoWriMo is not about writing

What am I on about? National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in a month, isn't about writing? Aren't the words "novel" and "writing" kind of a giveaway?

Okay, let me explain what I've concluded, from doing NaNoWriMo twice now and especially from reading NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty's book No Plot? No Problem! Which is that NaNoWriMo isn't about writing specifically or exclusively. It's about creativity.

People do NaNoWriMo for various different reasons and get various benefits from it. Some of them are all year round writers, whether hobbyists or professionals. They might use NaNoWriMo for a rocket boost. (We hobby writers so rarely have a good sweat-inducing deadline the way pros do.) For some of those folks, it's a chance to try something new, take them out of their comfort zone, and have few worries about it failing, since, hey it's only a month!

However, at its root, I don't think NaNoWriMo is there for those people (and yes, that includes me.) We're being creative all the time, we have that aspect sorted. We can get much from NaNoWriMo, we can bring much to the NaNoWriMo community, but there are other people who gain far more, the people NaNoWriMo is really for.

Who are they? Well, they are the people who if you handed them a pen and said "write me a story," would say, "Oh I can't do that. I can't write. What do you want me to write about? I haven't written a story since school." If pressed to actually do it they will apologise profusely for how bad the result is, as if confessing to a terrible moral failing. Substitute writing there for drawing, painting, singing, playing music, dancing or sports.

People - adult people that is, kids have no such problem - fear looking foolish, losing face, and being laughed at. That's a natural fear, but we overreact to it. Rather than thinking, "to avoid being laughed at, I must try the best I can with this", they think "to avoid being laughed at I must do this perfectly, on my first attempt." To admit practice or learning is required is seen as weakness. In other words, that dread pressure of PERFECTIONISM.

Now some people should strive for perfection. Like brain surgeons. Or people running nuclear power stations. But the rest of us need to learn to relax a bit. Perfection, especially in artistic endeavours is not achievable, and the sooner we understand that, the happier we'll be. However, I don't need to harp on about that, it's well understood around NaNoWriMo circles!

What has this to do with my point? Well, many people will not have written any fiction since school. They probably got more criticism than encouragement back then, since of course what they wrote probably wasn't very good. That criticism eats into their psyche, and along with the pressure of perfectionism, it causes people to retreat, to avoid even trying new things.

So first time NaNoWriMo participants find it a huge relief to be allowed that "exuberant imperfection" Chris Baty endorses and use it to create something that is substantial, and yet may not be much good. A novel. It may have potential, but what it mostly has is existence. It's a huge slab of words that they wrote. This is why printing it out can be the best experience of the whole month. The sheer size of it is impressive!

It doesn't matter if they never touch it again. It doesn't matter if they don't write again, or they only write during NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo isn't about turning everyone who participates into regular or professional writers. Some will indeed become writers, for fun or profit. However, that's not what the challenge is intended to achieve. I believe what NaNoWriMo is trying to teach people, is that they can try creative things, and can have fun doing them and that if they are no good at them, it doesn't matter. There are no bad consequences. So you wrote 50 thousand words that are a bit crap? So what? Did the sky fall? So you paint a picture and it's not even as good as the one your kid brought home from school? Are the cops going to come get you?


Okay, so why is it NaNoWriMo, rather than PaintAPictureADayMonth or LearnToPlayAnInstrumentMonth? Those are legitimate creative pursuits. Why is it NaNoWriMo that caught on?

Because writing is easy! In the purely practical sense that is. Almost everyone knows how to do it. You don't need special equipment, at least nothing that you probably don't already own, so there's little or no financial outlay. You don't need lessons or a how to book before you can even start. You can do it almost anywhere.

Think of trying to set up and do some oil painting on the bus to work. Or practice the bassoon in the local coffee shop. Even just sketching out in public is tricky for the self-conscious. People will come up and start peeking, or outright staring at your drawing. And the cheeky ones will offer some critique. But writing doesn't attract too much attention.

As a purely physical act, writing is something most of us are comfortable with. Pick up pen. Write. We barely think about it. So there's no "I wouldn't know where to start" factor, at least in practical terms. Pick up pen. Write. Open a file. Type.

That's why I think writing is the best suited of all the creative pursuits for this challenge. Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.


Last of all, the thing that works is that deadline. Not just because of its motivating properties, but because for the newcomers to this whole malarkey, it puts a limit on what they are expected to put into this. It's not a "write a novel in however long it takes" challenge. It's a month. One month out of your life. You can do anything for a month. Whether you win or lose there's no obligation to go on after 30th November. Therefore, there's no guilt factor. You know that guilt factor. The one that makes you wince when you look at the easel or calligraphy set in the attic. Or the exercise bike you hang your clothes on. Yes, the guilt you get about the other hobbies or challenges that you decided to drop.

This is different. You didn't give up. NaNoWriMo ended.

And that makes it easier to deal with the draft you wrote being not very good. After all it was only a month out of your life. Four lousy weeks that would have otherwise passed in a blink. What else were you going to do that month? Watch TV and sleep on the sofa? If you got nothing else from it, you probably learnt some useful lessons about scheduling, organising and prioritising. And that can help you in every aspect of your life.

Therefore, to me, NaNoWriMo is not about writing, it's certainly not about publishing. It's about being creative and changing one's whole attitude to creativity.

If you are a first timer, or someone who is only able to write during NaNoWriMo, then above all, it's about you!



E Charles 2008