Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Writer's Drive: NaNoWriMo's Mixed Bag

I once heard an old saying that anyone who worked in publishing was just a writer who was kidding themselves. Were this accurate, it'd be an awfully masochistic truth: what enterprising writer would willingly subject themselves to the business side of making literature? It's like being a vegetarian and going to work in a sausage factory. What made the adage seem even less true is that not all people who work in the book business have a great American novel up their sleeve. Sure, every now and then you get a Bill Clegg, and Toni Morrison edited for twenty years (and wrote three novels--The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon) before she finally decided to quit her day job. But the majority of editors appreciate and polish the written word, rather than creating it from scratch. My one and only attempt at serious fiction was a required contribution to a class on Narrative Theory, and even then the best I could do was a rip-off of The Sound and the Fury. Sign #495 that I'm not going to be the next Jonathan Franzen.

And no matter how many brilliant writers you may end up working with, you never stop being enthralled by their sheer creative force. I'm flooded with questions for the writers I admire: where do all those characters live inside your head? How can you create such rich interior lives for these people without going nuts? How do you get the drive, the commitment, to put it down on paper? More than anything else, I appreciate the writer for never losing faith that what they're doing is worthwhile: people can work on novels for decades, constantly refining and finessing every inch of their fictive creation. Even when they desperately want to give up, they somehow keep going back to the work. That kind of dedication, no matter what you produce, is awe-inspiring.

The discipline, the drive, the ability to churn out pages every day, astounds me, and so projects like NaNoWriMo seem especially attractive to the less-than-fully-productive writer. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, in which registered participants attempt to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel between Nov. 1st and Nov. 30th. By making the goal quantity, not quality, NaNoWriMo seems to provide a technique to solve the problem faced by most writers: how to keep yourself plowing ahead? Last year, more than 167,000 people signed up for the challenge, with roughly 32,000 people reaching the word goal by the end of the month. Sure, that's a pretty steep drop-off from start to end, but still, that's 32,000 people who've managed to churn out a novel-length work in just one month. (And one major hit--Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants--emerged from a NaNoWriMo project, so it comes with a soup├žon of critical validation.)

There's a debate brewing, however, about the usefulness of challenging so many people to put together novels. For starters, is it a good thing to flood an already crowded literary market with even more content? Would these books be published, given the chance? And even more crucially, is the work produced any good? Laura Miller in Salon has posted a controversial piece questioning the NaNoWriMo technique: when bookstores have begun to post signs saying "Write Your Novel Here," she wonders if it is "yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing." Miller questions NaNoWriMo as an exercise designed solely for the benefit of the writer, not for the reader, and wonders if the project gives writers an excuse to churn out less-than-superb work quickly so they can force it into the hands of nearby consumers. "As someone who doesn't write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share their trepidation. Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?" This is the same argument that established writers and publishers use to debate the rise of self-publishing--if a book doesn't get a critical once-over--either in the writer's later drafts, by an agent, or by a professional editor--should it make its way into the marketplace?

I see Miller's point, and I worry about a literary community in which there's so much content we can't see the diamonds through all the cut glass. But I also can't bring myself to disparage a program like NaNoWriMo that provides cheerleading for the creative process. Carolyn Kellogg has provided a counterpoint to Miller's argument in the Los Angeles Times, and she carefully dissects each problem found with NaNoWriMo, constantly asserting that "literary culture isn't a temple, it's an ecosystem." She says, "If writing is narcissistic, I for one am glad that Thomas Pynchon and Charles Dickens and Joan Didion can be called narcissists. But if writing is a commerce, tell that to Edgar Allan Poe, who died poor and sick at age 40, and the thousands of others who write without adequate compensation." Unless you're Dan Brown or James Patterson, writing has never been a cash-cow career option, and so the idea that people write in order to create temples to themselves is a pretty silly one at that. (Maybe this is true if you're in the memoir game, but I digress.) Kellogg's ultimate point is that, spending a month writing a novel, no matter its initial pre-revision quality, "is more fruitful than many things, including much of the fun, casual cultural consumption we regularly engage in. It's more fruitful than watching TV, playing video games, spending hours on Facebook or Twitter." What NaNoWriMo attempts to do is put a gaming/goal-oriented aspect into the process of writing, one that you can share with the rest of the writing world. NaNoWriMo uses the Weight Watchers-AA technique to rally a person's creative forces: join a group, log your progress, be part of a community where everyone is working toward the same goal.

Every day, more and more people choose to put down a book and pick up the remote, iPhone, and video game console. The world of books has lost too many citizens in part because we constantly put quality work on an unnecessarily high pedestal. When we treat reading a novel as more important than watching TV, we also make it seem like more work and less fun. In order to win back the hearts of writers and readers, we have to make literature more accessible. If NaNoWriMo brings the process back to the people, then everybody wins.

1 comment:

  1. I have been doing NaNoWriMo since the 8th grade, and while I have to admit that it is not for everyone, I find that it suits me very well.
    I've loved to write for as long as I can remember, and NaNo guarantees me that one month a year when I'm not the only crazy chick running around and writing a novel in her (nearly nonexistent) spare time.
    True, I haven't seriously considered publishing any of my novels yet - firstly because I am aware that they are painfully rough drafts, but also because I primarily participate in NaNo for the deadline. NaNo forces me to sit down and write - something that, first as a high school student, and now as a college student, I am often wont to avoid, using schoolwork and television shows as excuses.
    Whether or not I actually try to publish one of my novels one day, NaNo gives me that sense of accomplishment, because I took a step that many can never reach - actually finishing that first draft, and being able to say to people - friends and strangers alike - that I have written a novel.
    The mythic "Great American Novel" is not what I'm thinking about in November. Nor am I thinking about bestseller lists or lucrative royalties.
    In November, generally all I am thinking about is my wordcount, my characters, and - most importantly - what happens next?