On The Loneliness of the Longform Writer

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

600,000 Characters in Search of an Audience

GalleyCat reports that 45,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are signed up this year as participants in National Novel Writing Month. I’ve started several times over the past two weeks to write something about NaNoWriMo, but always stopped because A) there has been so much polemical discussion of NaNoWriMo in the blogosphere this month that there seems to be little more to add to the discussion, and B) I don’t really know what I think about NaNoWriMo. I find myself vacillating wildly between positive and negative responses. At this point, I would tentatively say that I think NaNoWriMo probably does have a positive effect at the level of individual participation (that it is a “good” experience for people to have), but that as a collective force and (nascent) institution it does indeed project some problematic and troubling values concerning the nature and function of art.

But rather than rehashing what some of those questionable values are — which has been done many times elsewhere, most especially in Laura Miller’s controversial piece — I want to look briefly at the question of audience, which GalleyCat’s statistic put me in mind of. Miller asked who’s going to read all these novels, and a lot of the negative response to her has replied “Who cares?” You write your novel for yourself, the argument goes, and participation in NaNoWriMo is essentially an exercise in self-esteem building and personal achievement. This, one could argue, makes the act of writing not about “art,” per se, but about accomplishment, which is similar to how the fad of marathon-running has made those events no so much about athleticism but about ticking off personal checkboxes. And, of course, whenever someone argues that whenever the seriousness of an endeavor has been diluted by the mass participation of “tourists,” cries of elitism are sure to follow (and I use the word “tourist” quite deliberately here — the problem is not amateurs vs. professionals; it’s people who take the art/sport/hobby seriously for its own sake vs. those who only want to fulfill short-term, personal goals, or those interested in advancing the state of the field [and, as it were, being resident in that field] vs. those who just want a diversion from the mainline of their lives [who want to visit, but aren’t really interested in risking or investing anything in it]).

All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that if your answer to “Who’s going to read all this work” is “Who cares,” then that is, at heart, a denial of the communicative purpose of art (which is one of the troubling values associated with NaNoWriMo). But this, too, is not really what I want to talk about. I think it’s rather easy for many of us who think of ourselves as serious writers to slip into that “Who cares?” mindset just because getting an audience is so hard. The more you begin to feel like nobody out there wants to read your work, the more tempting it becomes to dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand the whole idea of seeking out an audience. If I can’t really see a “them” for me to write to (or for), then maybe I am better off thinking that I’m writing just for “me.” [A variant on this is the feeling that one is only writing for other writers, an attitude endemic to creative writing programs, and, indeed, to literary journals as well.]

I have a stock lament that I often wind up presenting to students in my fiction workshops (though it cannot be easily characterized as inspiring or empowering) that culminates in the complaint that the only venues for fiction (especially long-form fiction) are essentially national. Are you an amateur musician? You can play at an open mic night. You can play at large family gatherings. With even slightly above average talent, you could well play a paying gig somewhere locally. If you’re a visual artist, there are fairs and fleamarkets (if not galleries) where you can share your work with your community.

But local venues for writers are much harder to come by. Open mic nights can work for poets and perhaps writers of short shorts. You can circulate your work to your family and friends, but it is in the nature of reading that even this most intimate audience can feel awfully distant (as compared with the immediate reward of playing a few songs in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner). Really, if you want to be read, you have to be submitting to literary magazines and publishers who are mostly all drawing from a nationwide (if not global) pool of submitters and trying to reach a nationwide (if not global) pool of readers. That’s a very competitive field to wade into. Perhaps the only harder fields to break into are screen and television writing.

[An aside: there are certainly some niche genres that support primarily local or regional audiences, such as certain veins of historical fiction or mysteries (set in your hometown!), and I find writers and publishers who have tapped into that kind of audience rather fascinating.]

This seems a very dispiriting proposition. If you gave an otherwise disinterested person the choice of an art form to learn, there are so many more arts that offer the real possibility of modest but meaningful reward that it’s hard to picture that student selecting writing as the one to learn and practice. And thus my heart breaks a little bit to think of all those adolescent authors putting hours and hours into their NaNoWriMo manuscript, with no outlet for it other than a loving parent here and a generous teacher there.

But maybe I’m wrong. Outside of perhaps a handful of metropolitan environments, I do seriously doubt that local venues for nurturing local would-be novelists will ever be very significant (other than as quid pro quo workshops and writers’ groups — I’ll read your book if you read mine). However, the internet has given us a new version of the “local” scale. You may not be able to sell your novel out of the back of your car at a real world fleamarket (although some people do, or so I’ve heard), but you can post it for free or cheaply to any number of online publishing markets now. I know that fan fiction communities have been vibrant and supportive (and populated with ordinary readers, not just writers willing to read each other) for a couple of decades now. Perhaps other, less genre-bound online writing communities are just as engaged (though I haven’t encountered many).

So I turn the question(s) over to you: Who is your writing for? What venues do you have for your work besides the traditional, national markets? Is there a future in “local” writing, and what does “local” even mean in a digital world?

Better Yet, Visit The Writer-in-Residence!

This week, I wrote a quick post on National Novel Writing Month, and took a “Well, g’ahead, and good luck!” stance to it.  Laura Miller of Salon.com went in a more combative direction, and the comments got a wee bit nasty.   And, so, when you get comments that are a wee bit nasty, a little levity is required.  Tip o’ the cap to Erik Smetana for first bringing this to my attention:

The attacks on Laura Miller are pretty good examples from Logic and Rhetoric 101 about how NOT to make an argument. Miller’s essay comes down to this:

Cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

If you believe she’s right, well, the comments she has been receiving only help to support her claim. Please read her entire column and all the comments here.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

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.

A Kind of Writing Prompt

I want to refer to Brevity one more time, or anyway Brevity’s blog, where on Halloween Dinty Moore posted a short animated film made via the web site Xtranormal, titled “What Is Creative about Creative Nonfiction?”  The film depicts, in one fraught conversation, one of the ongoing discussions in the genre, which concerns the question of whether or not a creative nonfiction writer is at liberty to “make things up” in his or her work.  Conversations on this subject are, in reality, rarely so blatant or so polarized as is Moore’s Xtranormal dramatization of it – but then, sometimes they are.

At the moment, I’m interested in the question raised in the dialogue film less than I am in Xtranormal itself.  Web sites like Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr interest me for all kinds of reasons, as they do many others, but one is that in different ways they facilitate the creativity of their users.  They function essentially as very-short-form writing prompts – Twitter especially.  Some of us respond to these prompts more memorably than others do, and of course they produce more social interaction than they do masterpieces of limited size, but the basic premise is, in the case of Twitter and of Facebook’s status updates, that you have this little space to take up with some words, and you’re invited to do what you can with it.  It’s like what a blank sheet of paper does, only much smaller, electronic, and with a potentially more immediate, built-in audience, plus advertising.

Xtranormal is significantly different, in that you’re encouraged to write at greater length than, say, Twitter, but moreso because whatever you come up with is translated into a short animated film, in which one or two people speak the words you’ve written in a bizarre monotone that sounds like a mash-up of the voices of Hal-9000, Data, and the NPR announcer who comes on at the end of every show and lists the program’s underwriters.  I have, as it happens, been amused to tears by a computerized person’s intonation of the sentence, “What kind of sandwich would that make it?”

An Xtranormal video is about as similar to a polished short story as a diary entry is to a polished essay, but I have not attempted to write more than 5,000 words of fiction in my life, and after watching the short film at Brevity I made four of my own Xtranormal films yesterday, and the only thing preventing me from making more of them today is that I have a job and I must do the things I have to do in order to keep it.  I mention this not to celebrate a personal creative triumph – an activity that doesn’t suit me any more than it does the fact that I threw away so much of yesterday on this very unproductive thing – but for what it’s worth I’ve taken to this strange writing format as I never would have expected myself to do, and this is the kind of thing, I suspect, that can lead some people to more substantial creative production, even if it has led me merely to throw away another Sunday typing things into a web site.

To make all this relevant to something else, today is the first day of NaNoWriMo.  That combination of letters, as you probably know, represents the practice of writing an entire novel in one month, which apparently a lot of people are trying to do this November.  It’s another prompt to creativity, one that is much more demanding than any I have considered participating in.  My hat goes off to everyone who is willing to be a part of this practice, and I wish them all luck.  But it’s worth recognizing that there are other ways to strike those fleeting creative sparks than to set massive goals for oneself, to be accomplished in a very limited span of time, and one of them is to make animated people say strange things on the Internet.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.