About nine years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book. This came as no major surprise to the people who knew me. After all, I’d started drinking at a young age, and I’d demonstrated an uncanny ability to make foolish decisions. Writing a book was only the next in a list long enough to, well, fill the pages of a book. I’m pretty sure my family was just happy that my decision didn’t walk the line of anything illegal– except plagiarism.
Excited about my epic new undertaking, I sat down and wrote the title at the top of the page, demonstrating that I knew absolutely nothing about how to write a book, despite having read a substantial number of them without pictures by the age of twenty. That title stayed at the top of that page for months with no words to follow. I thought about the plot frequently, but not as frequently as I thought about other things, like eating cupcakes. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that eating cupcakes seemed both conceivable and enjoyable; writing a book appeared to have neither quality.
At that time in my life I read only BBC News because I was convinced that the British were somehow less biased and more put- together than the Americans. (I was also drinking. A lot.) This proved to be one of the worst decisions of my life not only because it surreptitiously led to the delusion that writing might be a good career move, but also because I started do things like saying “row” instead of “argument” and inserting the letter “u” in words that — let’s be honest — don’t really need them. But overall grammar aside, the real disservice done unto me by the BBC was cluing me in to what had been, for five years prior, a well-kept secret: November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.
The postmodern premise is simple: You compete with countless other writers around the world to complete a 50,000 word novel — that’s 1,667 words a day, or roughly 7 pages — in thirty days or less — the month of November. I say it’s postmodern because you don’t actually compete with anyone. There are no prizes, no rankings, and no consequences if you lose, except that people may laugh at you. Being far superior to most other people, however, I didn’t figure this risk applied to me, and I immediately clicked on the link and signed myself up for thirty masochistic days of sub-par plot lines and character development, forsaking all other people and duties in the name of I’m still not sure what. Because I was successful at hitting the word count the first time, and because so many of the other NaNoers I met liked to hang out in bars, I was compelled by such positive reinforcement to inflict this suffering on myself every November for the next five years.
If you possess even a vague shred of sanity, you’re probably asking yourself or the guy next to you furiously typing on his netbook why someone would do something like this outside of jail. Assuming that the guy next to you hasn’t reached his word count for the day, let me shed a little bit of light.
The thing that typically gives a person the green light to NaNo (yes, it’s a verb in our little world) is the fact that other people are doing it, too. And as most of us learned in college if not before, we’re much more likely to do something stupid if someone else is willing to do it with us. In this way, NaNoWriMo has a lot in common with acting in daytime soap operas and watching any movie featuring Keanu Reeves.
Once fate has been set in motion, however, there are some rewards to be reaped in the end. The first is that, whether or not you hit the 50,000 word mark, most people end up with a really solid base for a bonafide novel. This may seem a small reward, and let’s be honest: it is. But if a novelist is only putting the pen to paper for a tangible reward, then that novelist will probably only ever be successful at failure, because statistically speaking, writing books does not earn most writers a living. Only steady writing gigs, like horoscopes and obituaries, are likely to do that.
Second, undertaking NaNoWriMo, like most two-faced pleasures, gives an aspiring writer the urge to do it again. Even if you botch the whole ordeal, you can’t help but think to yourself that it was actually kind of fun in a I-hope-God-didn’t-see-that sort of way. The next eleven months of your life will pass by without much thought, but by October, everything you see, every unsuspecting person you know is fodder for a NaNo project. Will you lose friends? Definitely. Will your family ask you to change your name? Most likely. Will you need a liver transplant when November ends? It’s always a toss-up. But in the end, you will look back with nothing less than fondness, and if you want to be a novelist, you’d better get used to looking back. After all, most of the greats didn’t become successful until they were dead.
Third, NaNoWriMo is a great way to meet people whose imaginations are even more frightening than yours. No matter how many times you’ve mused about apocalyptic CIA operatives, radioactive cockroaches, or whether or not zombies can reproduce, there’s always someone else who’s taken it a step further. In the world of NaNo severed heads will rat out murderers, fairy tale princesses will have lobotomies, and nuns will explode, not because these things are central to any particular plot line, but because apart from most NaNoers being rather twisted, the NaNoWriMo organization actually promotes word count over content. (The website actually says, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.”)
And that may be the only drawback to NaNo, apart from the insanity it stimulates. With over 169,000 manuscripts scribbled down in only a month’s time, most of the content is shoddy at best. For the dedicated novelist, this doesn’t matter much because the NaNo novel is essentially just a rough draft. But for the amateurs and first-timers among them the accomplishment of a first novel gets passed around to family and friends like bed bugs, yielding roughly the same return as a church offering plate. A potty-training toddler gets more effective feedback, and probably more encouragement, too. Why? Because while most people are hesitant to constructively criticize or give an otherwise honest opinion on the musings of a loved one, there are few who will tolerate a child who never properly learns how to pee.
Fortunately, most NaNo writers are not hellbent on becoming vocational novelists, and for the ones who are, each November is, despite the obstacles, a new springboard to that dream, a fresh sheet of paper begging a would-be author to fill it with crippled dogs that can dance or children who never learn how to pee. In short, the point of NaNo is not to create good literature, but to stir the imagination, to challenge someone who is probably already an egg or two short of the dozen to sublimate that black sheep creativity by tying together randomness and weirdness into something cohesive, even if ridiculous. Most of all, the point is to have fun.
Overall, National Novel Writing Month has become an annual reminder that just as reading is essential to our culture, so also are the writings that engage us to do so. Even if sometimes suboptimal, NaNo stimulates the imagination with asinine, inappropriate, frequently unintelligible works of fiction, giving every writer a platform to be heard, a reason to create, and most importantly, something to do in jail. Because most of us will probably end up there eventually.