Dispatches | November 04, 2013

Photo courtesy of Boston.com

November is National Novel Writing Month or, as the kids call it, NaNoWriMo. Today is Day Four, and fingers crossed that no one has given up yet. Somewhere, I’m sure, there is a chart or graph indicating when people lose their momentum (I’m guessing it’s the second weekend of the month) but right now, all participants should be full steam ahead on their novels. According to the official National Novel Writing Month website, over two hundred sixty thousand people have signed up for the November sprint to write a novel, which is defined there as fifty thousand words.

We’ve written about National Novel Writing Month before. Davis Dunavin wrote about coffee shops and community centers advertising themselves as places for NaNoWriMo participants to write. Patrick Lane wrote about the audience for these books. I wrote about the desire for community. Rob Foreman wrote about how NaNoWriMo is just another prompt we need for creativity.

There is nothing wrong with participating in NaNoWriMo. If you want to spend thirty days cranking out an average of 1700 words, hey, mazel tov. No one here is going to begrudge anyone spending time writing. Participants are working fast and they know it: no one thinks that, come December 1st, their novel is done, finished, perfect, and that it’s time for the New York publishing houses to come knocking on the door.

Nonetheless—you know this was coming, right?—the participatory, celebratory nature of “finishing” still obscures and dismisses what it means to create art, create a narrative, and in particular to the process of writing a novel.

While moments of pure, ecstatic inspiration certainly happens, most writers find writing to be hard work. It takes revision after revision on a line, or sentence, or paragraph (let alone an entire manuscript) to get the best words rather than the words that are pretty good. Poems and short stories can be written in less time simply because of the length, but most of the time, writing anything worthwhile is a painstaking process. The world of writing programs, both students and teachers alike, know this.

But the reading public, the one that buys and reads novels, doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. They say “I don’t really read poetry.” They say “I don’t like stories. Just when you get interested in the character, the things ends!” They say “I like to write” when you tell them you’re a writer, and they mean what they did in grade school, and they mean that, c’mon now, is there really anything all that difficult about tapping keys on a laptop?

So, it must be hard, in our interconnected world, for the novelist to see publishing news from writers on social media. There are over three hundred thousand new books published every year. New poems, new stories, and new essays are published every week. Your friend has a poem accepted at Magazine X. Hey, my new story is online at Magazine Y! Check out this essay I wrote at Magazine Z! Meanwhile, the novelist has a great big folder on a computer, stuffed with chapters, notes, outlines, and other scraps of The Next Big Thing. There are numerous studies in peer-reviewed journals about the deleterious effects of social media, and for the novelist struggling to make 100K words beautiful and memorable (let alone “coherent”), how can all this noise not effect the work?

NaNoWriMo fights the novelist’s isolation at the risk of the novelist’s process. Writing a novel is a special kind of artistic loneliness. The end product—the novel—remains valued by the reading public: George Saunders (short stories) and Cheryl Strayed (memoir) did not end up on the cover of Time, but Jonathan Franzen (novel) did. The book is celebrated, but the process of writing is not valued or even really understood. Writing a novel requires time and solitude, and the public has no interest in something that can’t be digested in a soundbite or a slideshow. Oh, sure, there is plenty out there about Telling Your Story and Write What You Know and Find Your Voice. But there is little patience for how long that process will take.

What should be celebrated about writing the novel is the silence it requires. The time and commitment to write the novel is the thing that doesn’t get, and maybe never should, recognition. Good novels cannot be written quickly. Too many pages, too many themes, too many characters. And the fact that it can’t be written quickly is a good thing. How do we celebrate process, especially a long-term one, in a world that demands immediate gratification and constant acknowledgment of our achievements?

Exactly: we don’t and, most likely, we shouldn’t.

I was in a bookstore yesterday picking up the new Donna Tartt novel, and browsing through the fiction stacks, came across two titles by a novelist I admire. It’s been a while since her last book and I thought “I wonder what she’s up to?” I tapped the spine of her book. No idea. She seems to have vanished, of late, and though my initial response was impatience (“Where’s your new book?!!”), the more I thought about it, the more I admire the silence. She’s writing a new book, and I can read it when, and only when, it’s finished. Whether it takes her two more years, four more years, or more, that’s the process. That’s what I admire about writing a novel.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye