Nanny-whaty? NanyReeMe? That November thing? Yeah, I know it’s a mouth-full. I’ve participated for four years now and some of my closest friends and family still need me to repeat it. Most of the participants even shorten it to NaNo in conversation. But WHAT IS IT??
When November rolls around, I have a lot to be excited about. The Texas humidity has started to retreat, and while not quite cold, there’s a certain bite to the air that wasn’t there a moment ago. The leaves are starting to think about commencing their colorful farewell, pumpkins are showing up in every doorway and coffee cup, Thanksgiving plans are being made, and I have hit that one-two punch on my computer that opens a portal into a brand new world: File – New.
See, November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo. Hundreds of thousands of people across the planet are almost simultaneously creating new files or deflowering a fresh piece of paper because the mad dash has begun. The goal? To write a minimum of 50,000 words of a new manuscript before 11:59 pm on November 30th.
NaNoWriMo first began in 1999 when twenty-one writers committed to the task. The next year a website was launched and almost a hundred and fifty people signed up – the next year, five-thousand. Year after year, the word continued to spread, and more and more writers dove headfirst into the challenge. There aren’t any strict rules, as the main purpose of the sprint is just to write, but the four biggest guidelines are:
- Start writing on November 1st and finish November 30th.
- To “win” you must write at least 50,000 words before the deadline.
- Planning and notes prior to the start date are allowed as long as the content of the manuscript is all original come November 1st.
- Any genre or form is permitted. “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too.”
Okay, but why? Why would anyone want to do this? Why would anyone want the pressure of trying to write that much in such a short amount of time? Well, the simple answer is that writers tend to thrive under pressure. Speaking generally, writers are quite good at finding other things to do instead of write. There are several fabulous inner monologues featured in the film Adaptation that speak to this, but there’s one that had me laughing out loud with how smartly it hit the nail on the head. Charlie, a screenwriter, is sitting in front of his typewriter:
“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes… Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”
You can watch the thirty-second clip here if you want a chuckle.
As you can see, writers suffer from, not a lack of desire to write, but a talent for finding an abundance of things we can distract ourselves with. Our inner critic can’t critique something we haven’t written, you see. Though we tell ourselves in repetition that the first draft can be truly grotesque it doesn’t mean the final will be, we doubt the truth in it. We doubt the truth of our talent.
NaNoWriMo, its deadline, and most importantly its community gives us the drive and fire to get the words out of our thick heads and onto paper. Quality is not even remotely a priority. Most people do not write these novels to be published, though several have gone on to be (Water For Elephants, The Night Circus, Fan Girl), they write them to write something. Anything at all. Hopefully, something they like. Even better if it’s something they love.
My personal story with NaNo began in November of 2012. I was trudging through a time of rediscovery of self and had been met with a painful yearning to write again. I had long admired bloggers, had tried and failed to be one myself, but a couple of old friends from school and their sister had started a blog earlier in the year and I had fallen in love, anxiously awaiting each installment. One of the sisters had participated in NaNo for years, which I’d known and made note of somewhere in the back of my brain, but this year she made the brave decision to publish her novel as she was writing it. Every day she’d lightly skim for spelling and simple grammar errors, but it went live for the world to see without fail each day of November. I was floored. Not only was the story ridiculously charming and unique, but I was simply jaw-on-the-floor astounded that anyone could be so brave with their writing. I followed the story until its conclusion at the end of the month and then…I was left with a feeling of emptiness that truly surprised me. All that remained was this teeny tiny spark of…something.
The holidays rolled by and with the new year, new you sentiment I began to write! For about twenty pages. Then I stalled, yet again bested by the dastardly inner critic (I really should name her…someone help me with that). The year continued and into the next. I lived my life, got re-acquainted with myself, met my husband, fell in love, got married, had my daughter…and then somewhere around October 29th of 2014, a certain sister posted about her excitement about the nearing NaNoWriMo. With two days to spare, I threw caution to the wind and said, “Screw it! I’m going to try.”
Just about everyone thought I was crazy. My daughter was four months old, my son had just turned five, the holidays were coming, but still, I couldn’t let another excuse stop me. Not even the good ones. I had to write. I told myself that I didn’t have to hit 50k, that I likely wouldn’t, but I was going to write every single day for one month. I was going to use the website and the community as a tool to just. keep. going.
The first Sunday of the month, Hubs kicked me out of the house and told me to go write. I was breastfeeding, so I knew it couldn’t be for long, but I don’t think he has ever fully realized the gift of that day. I went to my favorite bookstore, bought a cup of coffee, and had just set up my laptop when a woman walked up to me and asked,
“Are you here for the NaNoWriMo write-in?”
I had just happened to stumble on the location for a meeting place of fellow participants to sit in a pool of pushed-together tables and coffee cups and bump up their word counts. I scooped up my stuff, joining the quiet clacking of keyboards and scribbling pencils, was offered a cookie and a warm welcome, and wrote about a thousand words in an hour. When I got home, my smile was bigger than my face. I was lighter, my Word Doc heavier, and I could have run a lap around the world, riding the emotional high of those two hours.
I didn’t write 50,000 words that November. I wrote 16,602. But every single one of them was a catalyst in my life. If I hadn’t written those 16,602 words, I wouldn’t be writing these words today. I wouldn’t have tens of thousands of words in a variety of manuscripts. I wouldn’t be earnestly working to make writing my full-time job.
National Novel Writing Month doesn’t give out prizes, there is no physical evidence of your effort unless you print it out, but the amount of hope, friendship, wisdom, and growth it provides is worth so much more to me. I know I can write 16,602 words. And 17,627. And 32,476. And, and, and.
That is my truth now. No one can take it from me. And that crazy acronym gave me the even deeper knowledge that the growth I’m capable of in thirty-day increments is only the smallest measure of what I can achieve in my life as a writer.