The Glorious Obsession of NaNoWriMo

(Kate Flora, here. As I perch on the cusp of another NaNoWriMo, I’m tweaking a post I wrote before. Can’t say enough positives about this project!)

OBSESSION: Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. (American Heritage Dictionary)

One of the lovely dark sides of the writing life is obsession. This November, many writers will nurture (or yield to) this obsession. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, ( a period during which writers all over the world sign up and commit to trying to write a 50,000 word novel during the month. Some get together in weekly support groups, or go to weekly “write-ins.” Some are supported throughout the month by a series of rallying e-mails from their local organizers. Some toil quietly in the stillness of their homes or the commotion of their local coffee shops.The project began in 2000 with 140 participants, 26 of whom met the goal. Last year, 200,500 writers signed up to participate and 37,500 finished the 50,000 words.

The thing has gotten big enough that it prompted a column last October by Salon’s Laura Miller titled: Better yet, DON’T write that novel, in which she opined that the world doesn’t really need more writers, especially writers who are writing so intensely they’re “writing a lot of crap” and ignoring the need for revision. Instead it should celebrate readers. That, in turn, prompted Carolyn Kellogg, at the LA Times, to counter with: 12 Reasons to ignore the naysayers: Do NaNoWriMo.

Happily obsessive or in need of a tin foil hat?

Maybe others will think I should be wearing a tin foil hat, but I’m with Carolyn Kellogg. However a writer chooses to approach NaNoWriMo, there’s an incredible energy in the air that can be captured and channeled. It’s exciting to be part of a “movement” where more than 200,000 people are setting aside the complex demands of their lives and giving themselves over to a long held-dream, or a voice that won’t take “no” for answer. And the result, for some of us, is obsession, in the best possible sense of the word. Yes, a compulsive preoccupation. Yes, quite possibly accompanied by feelings of anxiety–though often those are the result of trying to figure out how to put the rest of life on hold or how not to burn the chicken when you haven’t met your daily word goal. And yes, perhaps almost impossible to do–but ultimately, the task is about jump starting, it’s about taking a turn down the to road of creativity. It’s about getting so deeply into story that those editing voices in our heads, the result of a lifetime of correction and discipline, are stilled, and the words just flow. For once, it’s possible to believe that it can all be edited and revised later, because there’s no time to stop. Fingers are flying, words are flying, there’s only time to get it down on the page.

I did NaNoWriMo three years ago and it was amazing. True confessions: First, I only got to about 42,000 words; Second, I broke the rules and used the time to try and finish a book I’d started and then hit the pause button on nearly a decade earlier. But since this is only about a writer’s personal relationship with the page, that’s okay. I’m the writer. You’re the writer. We’re using this as a device. This is NOT our homework, it is our life’s work, our dream work, our step-out-on-the-tightrope-and-see-what-happens work. Our writing, and the decisions about how to approach it, always, first and foremost, belongs to us.

So what did I learn from my NaNoWriMo adventure? First, that it should probably take place in February. November is an impossible month. I’m helping to run a huge weekend-long mystery writing conference, The New England Crime Bake. I’m teaching other mystery writers. I have a book to finish before I can start NaNoWriMo. But I’m not going to let any of that stand in my way.

And when you’re writing obsessively, you are there when lightning strikes!

Why? Because what I rediscovered three years ago, something I knew from a long-ago stint to see how fast I could write a book (485 pages in 3 months), is that the upside of obsession is something akin to ecstasy. There’s something almost breathtaking about getting so deeply immersed in story and character that they begin to write themselves. There is a kind of magic in being in what some writers call “flow,” where the story just comes pouring out. Where characters are so freed to be themselves that they just start talking and we writers almost break our fingers as we sit there and write it down. Being that deeply in story is a high like no other that I’ve ever experienced (and since I may still run for political office, I’ll leave it right there). And quite honestly, as I sit here at my desk and look at my to-do list and my calendar, the passionate writer in me can hardly wait to shove everything else aside and write: Chapter One.

50,000 words. 1,666 words a day. I hope you’ll be joining me.




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