Sunday, October 27, 2013

NaNoWriMo: My Annual Battle with Ambivalence

Here comes November, National Novel Writing Month.  Once again, there is a flurry of texts and Facebook posts and emails as the big kick-off approaches, and once again I find myself faced with that question - "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" And, once again, I amsteeped in an ambivalence that the overly introspective part of me feels compelled to examine. Is it laziness? Fear? Skepticism? Healthy cynicism? Is it the anti-joiner in me, the side of me that will refuse to do something simply to declare my independence from the crowd? ("We're all individuals." "I'm not!")

Something about the concept of National Novel Writing Month feels wrong to me. It seems to support the notion that anyone, everyone, indeed the entire country, can and should be writing a novel. Do I really believe that? I certainly believe everyone has a story to tell, and that the process of telling our stories is fundamental to who we are, and who we can become, as human beings. But I don't believe that everyone's story should become a novel. I don't believe everyone should declare themselves a writer. I do believe there already exists a glut of people who call themselves writers, myself among them.

I know diluting the name of "writer" or trivializing the process of writing a novel is not the intention of NaNoWriMo. I believe the intention is to inspire writers to push through the blocks and the tough spots, to challenge those who claim the name of writer to live up to that name by finishing a novel-length work, and to create a community of support that will allow you to reach your writing goals. These are all worthy purposes.

Still, something about the phrase "National Novel Writing Month" sticks in my craw. Maybe it's the bandwagon nature of it or the cram-for-exam component, the idea that those 50,000 words churned out in a month will actually constitute a novel. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say "National First Draft Writing Month?"

On the other hand, maybe this is envy and sour grapes speaking. I know quite a few writers who approach this month with seriousness and planning. They do their advance work. They have an outline, character sketches, everything you need to justifiably commit to a month-long intensive push that will, in fact, result in what could legitimately be called a novel. I salute them. They represent the best of what NaNoWriMo can be. Until I have approached it as they have, I have no right to criticize the concept.

My ambivalence may, in the end, come down to the age-old debate between "the plotters" and "the pantsers," between those who believe in the divine inspiration of the muse driving them forward, and those who believe you must outline and plan first in order to create something meaningful from that drive. For myself, as so often seems to happen in my life, I find I am a mixture of these two styles, an uneasy detente between the abstract-random thinker and the linear-analytical thinker. The plotter and the pantser coexist within me, attempting to sit down together over coffee or lunch and work out a compromise. And every year around this time they stare at each other across the table of my mind and ask, "Now what?"

Do I join the crowd? Do my own thing? Ignore the whole hullabaloo and fuss? Or throw in on it just once to see what happens and make me better informed?

I suppose I should end by throwing that question at you - "Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?" Why or why not?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

My Hard Drive Having Died, I Can Now See the Moon

I once gave my father a card with this quote on it:
My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.
I've been thinking a lot about that quote this week.  You see, my computer hard drive died on me.  I had backed up my work a few days earlier, so I didn't think I'd lost too much, but there were no guarantees.  What could have felt like a disaster left me oddly dispassionate and philosophical.

Not having a computer for a week gave me a chance to come at my writing life from a different angle.  I had fallen into the routine of sitting down in front of the computer, opening my existing work, rereading and then revising.  Nothing wrong with that, mind you, and having a writing routine or habit can be good for you, but sometimes a routine can become a rut, and lately I've been feeling like my writing has been a bit lackluster.  Maybe it's all the focus I've been putting on submitting and querying and trying to get published.  Maybe it's the pieces I've been working on.  Maybe it's the nature of revision over drafting.  Maybe it's the intrusion of the rest of my life.

With my computer gone, I took a few steps back.  I revisited some things in my iPad.  I skimmed over old notebooks.  I did a little mental writing, marinating of ideas, and reading.  I felt relaxed, open minded, curious to play with projects.  I've been afraid to follow that impulse, or even acknowledge that impulse, because I've been so anxious to finish existing projects and submit them.  I've been afraid that if I take a break from the hard work of revising, or pushing through the muddled middle, on existing projects, I would be copping out.  I've been viewing the "play" of writing as a distraction that would keep me from my professionally-oriented goals.

By the end of the week, the hard drive had been replaced and through the magic of Time Machine most of my work had been restored.  So I fell back into that routine again.  Open the laptop, open the document, begin re-reading.  However, the universe wasn't done with me.

I realized I had, in fact, lost more revisions than I thought.  I was seized with frustration.  "I really liked those changes, and they were subtle stuff and I can't remember how I did it and I don't want to sit there massaging my way through it all over again!"  So I went looking for my thumb drive, the repository of my back-up to the back-up, in hopes that it had the more recent draft.  Lo and behold the thumb drive was MIA.  (Still is, as of this writing.)

The Zen attitude that had prevailed in my psyche when everything might have been lost now gave way to a frenzied panic at the thought that some minute massaging of text was irretrievable gone.  I ransacked of every nook and cranny, as if by finding the missing thumb drive I would find my missing writer's mojo.  No thumb drive materialized.

At last, I stopped ransacking.  A voice inside me kept saying "Step back.  Step back.  Step back."  My rut has gotten me so locked to technology that I no longer seem to trust my own creative brain.  I have begun to value the individual words, and the time spent massaging them, over the hard muscle work of creation, the daredevil plunge of discovery, the greater arc of story and character. Is this just the nature of the revision phase or is it a symptom of some larger paradigm shift I need to make?

My husband told me the story of a writer pre-computer-era whose housekeeper mistakenly used his manuscript to stoke the fire.  Engulfed by flames at a time when there were no back-ups - a far more violent, visceral, and permanent fate.  What did that writer do?  Wrote it better.

Has my computer caused me to develop a disconnected relationship with my own stories and ideas, one in which they exist in some ephemeral and insubstantial ether instead of residing in the marrow of my own bones? Maybe it's time to step out of the digital world, print some hard copies, grab some pens and notebooks, and immerse myself in the old-fashioned, hand-cramp-inducing, physically present act of writing, brain directly wired to the instruments with the only glowing illumination being that emanating from within myself.

Popular Posts