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To-do lists and the meme-filled mela of NaNoWriMo

While some writers dislike National Novel Writing Month for its focus on numbers, I love the permission to take this chasing-a-word-count business seriously

NaNoWriMo feels like using study holidays to write love poems.
NaNoWriMo feels like using study holidays to write love poems. (iStockphoto)

I write for a living and I rarely dislike any of the work involved or have difficulty finishing it. This November, though, many things inside and outside the realm of work were looking difficult, so instead of sorting them out I took an impulsive decision—to start a completely unrelated writing project.

This is an old impulse of mine. In school and college, during the oxymoronic “study holidays”, I would inevitably write lots of stories and poems. I felt compulsive about writing during those weeks and let’s face it, whatever I was supposed to be memorising was in no way as attractive a prospect. This year, faced with some potentially life-changing decisions, I decided to sign up for the very popular #NaNoWriMo challenge—the international online challenge where you commit to write 50,000 words in November.

In case you have missed this phenomenon so far, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, had its first edition in 1999, with 21 participants in San Francisco, US. In 2018, it had more than 280,000 participants internationally. Some people write about their daily or weekly progress on social media, some people don’t. A surprising number of people do write 50,000 words or more of a brand new novel by the end of November. Others use the general “you go girl” atmosphere to edit or rewrite or add to existing writing projects. Every year, writer Erin Morgenstern surfaces to announce that it is indeed true that she started writing the much admired novel, The Night Circus, at NaNoWriMo in 2011. One of my favourite Young Adult novels, Fangirl, also began as a NaNoWriMo project. Rainbow Rowell had already written two critically acclaimed books when she decided to give NaNoWriMo a go. Rowell’s reason was a desire “to fast-forward through that desperate, blank-page phase and get to the good stuff. I told myself that it didn’t matter if my first draft was bad.” This approach appeals to me a great deal—the idea of not letting perfection get in the way of getting started. Rowell obviously finished the book later (at 107,994 words, Fangirl is more than double the length of the NaNoWriMo target) but says she was shocked that during her revisions of the book she “kept almost every word I wrote during NaNoWriMo”.

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This is not the first time I have tried the NaNoWriMo but my previous attempts were so half-hearted that I can’t even remember what I tried to write. This year I decided to tweet about it, hoping to access the public accountability feature of #NaNoWriMo. I felt like a bit of an ass when I first tweeted about it but I have continued to update online. And I have continued to write. The standard format is 1,667 words per day but this year I discovered the Reverse NaNoWriMo format, where you begin with heavy daily word counts and taper down as your enthusiasm inevitably fades so that on day 30, you hilariously write just one word.

This week NaNoWriMo has felt like a small consolation for no longer being in the writing groups I used to be part of, full of people with ambition, talent and a commitment to the idea of a writing life. One of my favourite groups (though short-lived) was one in which we didn’t read each other’s work and we didn’t talk about our work. We met, wrote for an hour or two, ate biscuits, drank coffee, talked about other things and disbanded. NaNoWriMo does have a version of that activity in what they call Word Sprints, though I have not tried it yet. Folks agree to meet online and write as much as they can for a short duration, like half an hour. A handful of sprints can get you out of a slump or help you drag yourself to the finish line. All of which is great to someone like me, a big sucker for a certain kind of productivity literature. If you write anything about Getting Things Done (GTD to fellow devotees), I am very likely to read it. I have read the annoying novel I Don’t Know How She Does It and the non-fiction riposte, I Know How She Does It.

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But in the last few years I have begun to hear both the anxious voice which wants things done and the equally anxious voice which asks, “Are you Getting Things Done or are Things Doing You?” Meaning, here we are, marching towards our inevitable fate to become dust, so does your to-do list matter? On the other hand, if you forget to book a gas cylinder, you won’t have anything to eat. But I am coming to the slow realisation that there is a big difference between getting things done and the paralysing worry about getting things done. So in that sense, doing NaNoWriMo in the middle of everything is currently feeling like the opposite of getting things done.

Obviously, some writers dislike NaNoWriMo for its focus on numbers, for the heavy moaning on social media, all the recitation of writing rituals and what worked that day and what didn’t. I love the meme-filled mela, though. I love the permission to take this chasing-a-word-count business seriously. Because it is just an excuse to dedicate whole weeks alongside hundreds of thousands of others around the world, all playing writer-writer while their to-do lists lie neglected. It feels like using study holidays to write love poems.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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