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The NaNoWriMo Dilemma
Whether you're doing NaNoWriMo or not this year, it's a good idea to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you need to thrive as a writer.
Here we are, mid-November, and if you are a writer (or writer-adjacent), you may be in the throes (or know someone in the throes) of NaNoWriMo.
I don’t say “throes” lightly. NaNoWriMo — short for “National Novel Writing Month” — is an annual month-long writing marathon where participants attempt to write an entire 50,000-word novel during the 30 days of November.
I used to love it.
Back when I was working in marketing at the bank, putting in my time each day until I could go home and work on my novel-in-progress, the arrival of November was a magical time for me. It was, I felt, a time when I could truly be myself.
By that, I mean that working at a bank was… not an ideal environment for me. Formal suits and pantyhose were mandatory, quirkiness was frowned upon, and I had a coworker who routinely informed me that I was going to roast for eternity in hell. However, having graduated during the recession, jobs were scarce, so I stuck with it.
NaNoWriMo gave me an excuse to not only talk openly about my one true passion — writing — but it gave me the opportunity to try and rope my coworkers into discovering the magic of creative writing with me. To find someone who was, to some degree, like me.
So each year in the last week of October, I would send an email out to a select list of my coworkers — people whom I had seen reading over their lunch break, or who had shown a spark of humor or wit in conversations — and invite them to join me in that year’s NaNoWriMo event.
I thought I was pretty good at selling it — I was in marketing, and besides, who wouldn’t want to write a novel?! — but no one ever took me up on it. Still, I tried each year. I had to.
The funny thing was, I never “won” NaNoWriMo myself1. I was never able to write the full 50,000 words during the 30 days of November (which averages about 1,670 words a day), no matter how hard I tried. Partly because I’m a tragically slow writer, and partly because… simply put, it wasn’t good for me.
I didn’t even consider that possibility at first, and I thought my husband and creative partner Tim was being a little harsh when he pointed out that all NaNoWriMo did was heighten my stress levels and keep me fixated on wordcount — that is, quantity, not quality.
Which — I thought — was the point. “Everyone suffers together,” I tried to explain. “And what you write is supposed to be terrible. It’s about simply getting the words out — you can edit them later. And you can rest in December.”
But I couldn’t do it. I never wanted to admit it, but it was not sustainable for me. No matter how much I wanted it, after the first three or four (or even seven!) days of writing 1,670-ish words a day, I petered out. My words began to stumble, and my brain felt bruised, as though it had fallen down a tall flight of concrete steps.
Yet I tried to press on. And when I couldn’t, I began to wonder — why couldn’t I do this thing that everyone else seemingly could? Why couldn’t I keep up with the other writers — writers who routinely wrote multiple thousands of words per day even outside of NaNoWriMo? What was wrong with me?
I tried compromising, toning it down, telling people I was still “doing NaNoWriMo”, but that I was aiming for 1,000 words a day — and later, 500. “It’s more sustainable for the way I work,” I explained, secretly hating myself for it.
And I still couldn’t do it, each day falling more and more impossibly behind.
“This is just encouraging you to compare yourself to others!” Tim would point out, exasperated, but I was so in love with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo that I continued to defend it.
But he was right.
The second half of November inevitably passed in a whirlwind of self-loathing, angst, and guilt. I remember sneaking away from the dining room table one Thanksgiving at my Aunt Diane’s house in D.C. to open up my laptop and stare at the screen, ragged and despairing, as dishes clinked and conversation rumbled in the background.
I couldn’t seem to keep up.
Like many folks in the U.S. of A., I possess a worldview that, with enough elbow grease and bootstraps-pulling, nothing is impossible. Especially if others have forged the path ahead of you. But each year, in that last week of November, I watched in hollow dismay as my friends’ profiles gained the “WINNER” badge, my own progress trailing feebly behind.
Why couldn’t I do it?! I wrestled with the concept of my own limitations, and whether to accept them or attempt to push past them. Would I be a weaker or lesser person in accepting that I had limits — that I couldn’t do what so many others were capable of doing? Wasn’t the whole point of this exercise to prove to yourself that you could do something amazing?!
I have since realized that I was asking the wrong questions.
Instead of, Why can’t I do this thing that everyone else seems to be able to do? and What’s wrong with me?!, I should have been asking, What do I need in order to have a fulfilling and sustainable writing practice? and How can I set healthy expectations that challenge me to grow as a writer, and not spiral into despair and self-hatred?
NaNoWriMo isn’t a bad thing. It got me excited to write, helped to affirm my identity, and gave me a sense of community with other creative writers. In fact, I still love the idea of NaNoWriMo, its frenzied pitch and aesthetic. I still have a NaNoWriMo poster on my office wall that I don’t plan on taking down. I still root for and encourage my friends who continue to participate in NaNoWriMo.
But it’s not something that is healthy or sustainable for me to do, at least not in this phase of my life. Accepting that is hard, but… when is acceptance not?
Words & warmth,
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Except for 2022, when I was writing full-time and full-speed toward a deadline. And even then… it wasn’t what I could call a good or healthy experience.