Another Kind of Writing Prompt

As Rob Foreman noted in his excellent post yesterday, National Novel Writing Month – often known as NaNoWriMo – has kicked off.  The goal?  Finish 50,000 words in thirty days.  November seems like a pretty brutal month to pull this off with Thanksgiving thrown in the mix, but there’s probably a road block in every month.  And, the idea behind NaNoWriMo is to stop making excuses, such as holiday road blocks involving turkey, family, and football, and just find the energy to write your novel, inspired by a large group of people doing the same thing.

Part of me has a “Who cares?” feeling here.  If someone wants to write a novel and needs a contest to get going, well, what difference does that make?  On the flip side, this seems to say something insidious about publishing and writing and, perhaps even bigger and messier, the character of the American artist/wannabe celebrity.  Many of my thoughts are exactly the same as Nathan Ihara’s, which can be found at MobyLives, the terrific blog by the good folks at Melville House Publishing.  The entire post, including the comments are worth reading, but here’s the slam dunk:

Art, in [founder Chris Baty’s] strange formulation, is not something that has much intrinsic value. Rather, it is merely the byproduct of an activity that makes you feel good–the activity known as art-making.

There are similar concerns about the well-known Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the guts of which have been detailed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington on N+1, a thoughtful examination of how the whole process works and what it all means.  I’ll give you a hint: it’s not good.

Most novelists, I would guess, will tell you that writing a novel is hard.  Most “winners” of NaNoWriMo will probably tell you the book isn’t done, that it’s just a first draft.  And getting from draft one, to two, to three, and on down the line to whatever draft completes the novel is a difficult task, let alone the next steps: finding an agent and/or a publisher, making sure your novel is published rather than merely printed, then promoting your book so that you can get what you want: readers of the hunk of writing that you believe deserves, maybe even demands, to be read in a world filled with endless noise and distraction.  Taking the long view, the task is daunting, perhaps even paralyzing to the point of leaving a would-be writer feeling blocked.

I don’t believe in writer’s block.  But that’s perhaps a post for another day.  Instead, what I take from all the discussion about novel writing month is this: a craving for community.

Writing is a lonely business.  If you’re truly devoted to it, you spend several hours every week, and ideally every day, by yourself, working through your story or essay or poem in your head, and writing and rewriting the words, trying to get them just right.  This process can be maddening.  It can also be misunderstood, mocked, and emotionally wrenching.  All that time alone is so that you can find readers, find community, for your work.  When you think about it, the whole process of writing, of creating anything in such an isolated way, is a bit strange.  Does that mean NaNoWriMo is somehow a better way to write?  I doubt it.  I think that isolation, regardless of the kind of art you are creating, is a necessary part of the process, one of silence and hard work and time (with large sprinklings of frustration and agony mixed in for flavor).  But I do understand why chasing a goal with the help of a large supportive community has such great appeal.  So to all those who are trying to write a novel this November, I wish you way more than luck.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.