The Problem with NaNoWriMo

an orange leaf reading "NaNoWriMo Nov. 1" and an orange pen lie on top of a notebook which contains a lot of cursive writing

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There is a problem with NaNoWriMo, but it isn’t what Laura Miller thinks.

I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo before. I can see it benefiting individual writers by helping them establish writing routines or ways of viewing their day with an eye to uncovering moments to write. It can be a way to get a “bad novel” out of the way. For people who might not ever write otherwise let alone publish, it can still serve as therapeutic writing or as a way to gain a new perspective on the work authors do—a bit like the way taking a ballet course for adult beginners helped me gain a new appreciation of exactly how awkward those graceful positions on stage actually feel. (No, I never did wear a tutu or pointe shoes, but I did fall over a few times)

The problem, however, is that [Inter]National Novel Writing Month has gotten big enough that there’s pressure to participate. If you’re a writer and you communicate at all online, someone will ask you about it (multiple people most likely). Among those of us who are not participating, a common response is to explain exactly how busy we are with other writing. Poets even have their own equivalent.

So much for the “creative indolence” Keats talked about.

NaNoWriMo is part of a culture that tells us to do more faster and which tells us that writing more faster is better. Of course, it isn’t just Novel Writing Month that does this: MFA programs require that a certain amount of writing be produced during a limited period, seeing friends’ (and “friends'”) new publications slide by in Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets makes those who produce less feel inadequate, and books on writing commonly advise us to write a lot quickly without listening to the inner critic and then revise from there. Then there are the deeper elements: the Protestant Work Ethic, the traces of industrial thinking which continue to have an impact through education systems built based on factory principles, and the lurking notion that all things should be measurable, that ideas only have value if they can be proven in terms that would be acceptable to science.

By itself, NaNoWriMo would be fairly harmless. After all, writing a lot quickly before revising surely works for some people. But there are all sorts of stories, apocryphal and otherwise, about now-canonical writers who agonised over words even on the first draft, adding less than a hundred per day, taking them out the next. When working on an extended project, I like to revise the writing from the previous day before adding new words.

In the culture that produced NaNoWriMo and which NaNoWriMo in turn produces, however, wordcount rules. Numbers become the primary goal. When hitting 50,000 words in a month stops being just a fun challenge or a way to jump start your writing and actually begins to seem virtuous, art becomes simply production.

As I said at the start, the project itself can be of worth to individual writers. The key is to remember that wordcount isn’t really what counts.

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5 comments for “The Problem with NaNoWriMo

  1. carrie
    October 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Good point. And it sometimes seems like a gender inadequacy, like it seems that a majority of extremely prolific writers are male, so I started to call it my estrogen pace, but maybe that is just internalized sexism and I should learn to look at it more positively.

    • ekswitaj
      October 29, 2012 at 1:21 am

      The gender dimension is interesting. I wonder if women write less or put less out there, generally speaking–but there is certainly a hint of the stereotypically masculine in the drive to do more, as being prolific seems virtuous in part because it suggests strength of will (and perhaps a more physical kind of strength–going without sleep, etc.).

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