I first joined in the effort in 2010, and did succeed in writing a respectable first draft of a novel based on tarot card readings I did for a variety of people during that November. I have not looked at that draft since November 30, 2010, but I do have a copy on my hard drive and would like to go back to it some day.
My efforts in 2011 and 2012 ended in failure. This year, however, I succeeded, though I did not write a novel, as I will explain below. The thrill of the success lay in what I learned and have since put into practice about the life of a writer who also maintains a day job. I will get into these details shortly. First, however, I want to talk about the failures.
I failed in 2011 and 2012 for two reasons: I am not a fiction writer, and I do not write as a hobby. What is insightful to me was that those reasons for failure ended up being the reasons I succeeded in 2013. Knowing at the outset that I was not going to write fiction and that no matter how enjoyable writing is for me, it is first and foremost work and not play helped me marshall the energy of a supportive community of hundreds of thousands of people -- most of whom I never will meet -- in engaging in a shared experience of putting words down to page.
So the thrill of success.
After my 2012 failure, I began to ask questions: Did I fail because I could not write fiction? Did I fail because my job was overwhelming me? Did I fail because I had too many other projects on my plate? Or, perhaps, was the real reason for failure the lack of commitment to writing as an essential component of my work?
Pondering these questions made me realize that the last of these four questions cut to the heart of the matter. The question of whether one can or cannot write fiction is ridiculous. Anyone who writes can make up a story, and whether a "novel" drafted during National Novel Writing Month actually is a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction or even poetry is largely irrelevant. Nobody is looking at what the words on the page actually say, except for the writer herself. And even the writer is probably not going to look until at least a month or two later when he is ready to start editing the work. The goal is to write words. The genre is up to you.
Questions two and three -- overwhelm at the office and too many other projects on the plate -- could be legitimate reasons for the failure if the writer did not see the work of the office and the other projects as part and parcel of her writing experience. I am fortunate. I happen to have a job that requires a lot of daily writing on topics, thoughts, and projects related to matters of the heart and mind. So overwhelm can easily be managed if the job and the work of writing become intertwined. Other projects have a similar characteristic to office overwork. For many of us, projects are a way of life: We always have them. They have deadlines that need to be met. And, more often than not, they require writing. And, if you're selective about the projects you choose to take on, they, too, can become integral aspects of the writing life.
And, so, the question of commitment. On the last day of December 2012, I made a great resolution and publicly announced it on Facebook as the "grandmother" of all 2013 resolutions. The resolution was that I would be a writer: I would think like a writer, I would act like a writer, and I would behave exactly as a professional writer of my age and level of experience ought to be behaving.
So what did all mean? As I entered 2013, I felt that, for me at least, being a writer meant writing with a more sustained daily commitment than the three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness minimum that was asked of morning pages. It meant writing at least a certain number of words every day, developing a work plan for a project list and seeing it through, and most importantly it meant putting submissions into the mail. It also meant learning all that I could as part of my busy life schedule about the art and craft of writing and it meant tapping into whatever amassed collective energy I could find among other writers to harness for my own strength.
Like many New Year's resolutions, this one didn't exactly get off to a rousing start. I also entered the New Year as a freshly-minted non-drinker (which created some personal struggles) and I was involved with many projects that I came to realize over time were draining -- not replenishing -- my creative and writerly sources. Unlike most New Year's resolutions, however, this one has resulted in what I would call success. The year ends with me writing every day -- seriously, every day -- a minimum of 750 and often more like 1,000 to 1,500 words, usually on a specific project that I am developing. Each day starts with an examination of my project list and an assessment of what work s needed. And I am now submitting an average of two or three pieces a month, compared with fewer than that for a year.
How did NaNo help me change? For starters, it challenged me to increase my daily word count. Over the past year, I read interviews with or articles by many prolific writers about their personal writing practices, and took advantage of such things as readings or workshops to query many writers, as well. I learned through this investigation that most writers have a daily time set aside for writing -- usually during a realistic time of the day -- when external distractions are minimal, and that they use this time to get most of their writing done. Most have a daily word-count goal of 1,000 to 2,000 words that they strive to reach, and most know how long it will take them to write that number of words, on average. Most also only write for a maximum of three hours a day, though I did read an article where Stephen King claimed to write five or six hours a day -- whatever it took, he claimed, to reach 2,000 words. I started to use a website called 750words.com in April, and quickly discovered that I could write 750 words in an average of about 26 to 40 minutes. I also discovered that I hated getting an e-mail from the site administrator saying that I had failed in the month's challenge, which was something that had occurred when I tried using the site initially, first in September 2012 and then in November of that year. When I started in April, I resolved that every e-mail I received from "Buster," the site's administrator, would be one applauding me for my success. So far, that's been the case. I figured that if I could write 750 words in 40 minutes, I could write 2,000 words in slightly less than two hours. So I set that figure as a daily goal for the month of November. It ended up being more of an average daily than an each-day daily, with some days coming in at just the 750 minimum of 750words.com and some days netting over 4,000 words.
NaNo also helped me channel my multiple projects into a unified whole. I started the month thinking that I could write each day on my still-needing-to-be-completed book manuscript, on my hip-hop research, and on "other things". I did not write on each of these projects every day. Rather, I wrote on one for two or three days, then switched to a different project for a breather. I mainly alternated between the book manuscript and hip-hop research; however, I discovered that about every seven or eight days, my brain begged for a chance to try something entirely different. And so I gave myself permission to take days off and used those days to create stories for the multiple blogs I began maintaining over the past year and other things.
In November, I also discovered a Facebook group that posts calls for literary submissions. I began using this group as an almost daily resource to submit poems and short stories that I had developed over the past year. As my submission pace picked up, I began to realize that I could deploy the same tactic for the longer, slower academic essays that I also like to write. I have never been comfortable with submitting my work, but the supportive environment of the Facebook group participants have encouraged me considerably.
The final way that NaNo helped me was by letting me triage or refuse to commit to projects that were not supporting my writing practice, simply by showing me that if wanted to devote two or three hours a day to writing, a few hours a week to making submissions, and a few hours a week to reading in order to seek out fresh ideas and be current on both news and academic developments, I simply could not let the time and energy I put into my office work and projects expand beyond a certain number of hours in the week. I also could not allow myself to get invested in other people's "issues and anxieties" or in institutional debates that had no easy answer. So, I adopted a strategy of writing at home (with my phone plugged in upstairs, out of site and out of hearing distance) for a few hours in the early morning, devoting time in the office to the necessary work-related projects, and making sure to depart at an early enough hour to get in a workout, dinner with my husband, time with my cats, and another hour or so with my computer.
The month of November has spilled into December. Light snowflakes are flying and a pile of projects awaits. I could feel overwhelmed. Instead, I feel calm and organized. I have a plan and I have the discipline. I feel like I can call this all being a writer.