For most people, Halloween is a day for costumes, candy, and a good scare. For me, Halloween is the last day before November arrives and my last chance to prepare for the challenge that is National Novel Writing Month. (For those who don’t know, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.) Every year, I see the same posts pop up. Some people are all for picking up the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, while others scoff and sneer. Originally posted in November of 2010, the following is my argument for participating in NaNoWriMo.

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Any labor honestly rendered is sacred. — Kurt Fristrup

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and comments about NaNoWriMo and I’ve found some of them disheartening. Many people seem to think that, if they are going to spend enough time writing to generate 50,000 words, they better have something of value when they are done. If they don’t start with an outline, well-developed characters, and a scintillating plot, then they believe that their time will be wasted. They’re afraid of writing material they will have to cut later. They’d rather be writing something worthy, something solid, something that they can publish. Otherwise, they ask, why bother?

I understand their concern. But I don’t agree that NaNo’s approach to writing is a waste of time.

Insisting that every bit of writing we do must be something we can publish at a future date is unrealistic. Think of professional musicians. If they only played when it was finally time to give a performance, they would stink. They spend thousands of hours learning their instrument and practicing scales without producing music worth recording. They play the same pieces repeatedly without any audience but themselves, and make a myriad of mistakes along the way. They wouldn’t dream of exposing others to their flawed practice performances and they can’t hope to perform flawlessly without some practice first.

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As a writer, I am no different. I need a lot of practice before I will have something worthy of publishing and I can count on throwing away a lot of writing before I reach that point.

In her CD lecture “The Creative Fire”, Clarissa Pinkola Estés talks about the myth of Persephone and how the young girl symbolizes the creative spark in us all. In Estés’ interpretation, Persephone’s whole job in life is to wander, explore, and play. Sometimes she makes things, but the product is not what she is interested in. She lives for the process, the fun of discovery.

The word wander resonates for me, because I do a lot of wandering when I am writing. With nonfiction, I have to get all the ideas in my head on paper, then see how best to fit them together to suit my purpose. With fiction, I need to discover who my characters really are, rather than who I expect them to be, and find out what happens to them. In both cases, I write a lot of words that don’t make the final cut. But I could never get to my final product without having wandered down a lot of dead ends along the way.

The great thing NaNoWriMo has taught me is how to let it rip in the first draft. Not only is it fun — I get to do whatever I want, follow any idea, no matter how quirky, and see where it leads — but the results are fertile. Sure, big chunks of what I write may be discarded. But amongst the muck I will find lots of seeds, and those will sprout and grow into an amazing story if I just collect and nurture them.

NaNoWriMo is not about the product, even though we are all counting every word and racing to have 50,000 of them written by November 30th. It’s about wandering in the dark, looking under rocks and in caves, digging out the gems and bringing them back into the light to share with others. We’ll probably find some rusty cans and old tires along the way, but if we’re not willing to wander, how can we hope to bring home the truly precious things we dream of?

Are you taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge this year? If so, find me on the NaNoWriMo site. I’m dappled_pony.

I’ve taken my share of quilting and art-related workshops over the years. Most of the time, I sign up to learn a new construction method or how to work with a medium I haven’t handled before. But I don’t always go to a workshop to learn. I have two other very good reasons for attending workshops: to get in some practice and to take advantage of the opportunity.

For example, I’ve taken at least five machine-quilting classes in the two decades I’ve been quilting. The first time, I was a novice, and had a lot to learn about threads, needles, and machine settings. But by the fourth class, the teacher didn’t have much new information for me. So why keep taking the classes?

The Unknown Child by Kit Dunsmore (a sample of my machine-quilting)

The Unknown Child by Kit Dunsmore (a sample of my machine-quilting)

Because machine-quilting takes more than knowledge. It takes practice — hours of it. It’s a little bit like drawing with your sewing machine on your quilt. Hand-eye coordination is a factor, one that improves with practice. Unfortunately, when it’s time for me to sit down and sew, I don’t feel like I can afford to practice. I only have a limited time and I want to get something done, so I just work on my project and put up with the imperfect results.

When I’m feeling dissatisfied with my skills, I sign up for a machine-quilting class. They usually run for one day, so I can get 4 to 6 hours of practice in. At this point, I only learn one or two new tricks, but I’m fine with that. Instead, I focus on my technique without worrying about ruining a project. I give myself permission to just practice, and always consider it time and money well-spent.

Machine-quilting sample from my last class

Machine-quilting sample from my last class

The other workshop that I’ve taken repeatedly is a fabric dyeing class taught by Ann Johnston. The first time, I really wanted to learn how it was done. I bought her book and took notes in class. Her low-volume immersion dyeing technique was perfect for me. It generates luscious hand-dyed fabrics with subtle and not-so-subtle variations in color. It felt magical, just like dyeing Easter eggs.

Examples of handdyed fabrics from Ann Johnston's class

Examples of handdyed fabrics from Ann Johnston’s class

Much as I loved the results, I realized I wasn’t all that interested in dyeing fabric at home. Preparing to dye includes handling a variety of chemicals, including careful measuring of powders while wearing a face mask. It’s fussy and messy and I’d rather not, thank you. The best part of dyeing was turning the white cloth into a rainbow of colors. So I took the class again just so I could dye more fabric. I was willing to pay to have someone else do the work so I could revel in the fun.

It’s easy to get hung-up on my expectations for a workshop and to be disappointed if I don’t come away having mastered some new skill. But I remind myself that I can take a workshop for whatever reasons I like, and sometimes I like them best when I’m not there to learn anything at all.

Do you ever take a workshop with no intention of learning anything? When and why?

My Napramach bag is nearly finished. When I say this, I mean: the knitting is done. I still need to block the pieces (wet and stretch them to the right size and shape) and stitch the bag together. I should make a lining for it, too, to keep the yarn loops on the back of the pieces from catching on whatever I put in the bag, but I’m not sure I’ll get around to that.

The two pieces of the bag; the one on the right has already been blocked (I thought I was done knitting. Doh!)

The two pieces of the bag; the one on the left has already been blocked (I thought I was done knitting. Doh!)

I finished knitting over a month ago. So why isn’t the bag done? Because the part I love about knitting projects is the knitting. The finishing steps seem like too much work to me. I have the same problem when I make quilts. I love the design work and the piecing, but when it’s time to pin the layers together, I often set the quilt aside. Basting is a chore. I’d rather be playing with my sewing machine.

I am into the process (the knitting or the sewing) but not the product (the bag or quilt). Sometimes a manic desire to see the finished product will drive me through the less pleasant stages of assembly in a timely manner. But not always. I currently have at least eight quilt tops ready to be quilted, but they languish, waiting for me to baste them first.

Napramach Bag in Folk Bags

Napramach Bag in Folk Bags

Fortunately, there are loads of studies that explain why I love to knit (and sew). The answer is not as flip as it sounds. It makes me feel better. According to scientists, my feeling better is because of definite measurable health benefits. Repetitive activities like knitting are calming, decrease anxiety and depression, and improve brain health. In fact, knitting can provide substantial healing even for those suffering severely, like PTSD patients. And there can be additional benefits if you get together with friends to do your knitting, sewing, or other “crafting” projects, like scrapbooking.

Knitting is where the meditative action is. While I understand intellectually that meditation is great for us, I’m not so good at sitting still. But give me needles and yarn and I will sit and knit for hours. This can lead to marathon TV-watching — just one more episode, so I can knit a little more! — but at least I have something concrete to show for all that time on my tush.

My goal for my unfinished projects vacillates between two extremes. I either vow to finish everything, to do away with my stacks of unfinished projects, or I vow to feel no guilt and launch into as many new projects as I like. When I’m sane, I think there might be a path somewhere in the middle that will allow me to do some of both, but to be sane, I need to knit another pair of socks first.

How about you? Are you a process or product person? Do you have loads of unfinished projects lying around, or do you stick to one thing until it’s done? Do you find knitting and crocheting make you feel better?

Here’s a soft sculpture I’ve made that is a great example of how over-the-top I am when it comes to beading. I designed and developed the pattern for Angel of Sorrow myself. It took several prototypes to get to a horse shape that I really liked, but it was worth the effort.

Angel of Sorrow by Kit Dunsmore

Angel of Sorrow by Kit Dunsmore

I originally planned for this piece to stand on its own, so I included an armature (wire in the legs). Unfortunately, the wire I chose was much too weak to support the weight of the finished product. I didn’t realize how many beads I was going to be putting on this or how heavy they would be.

Angel of Sorrow by Kit Dunsmore

Angel of Sorrow by Kit Dunsmore

Fortunately, the wings were always part of the design, so hanging it for display made perfect sense. I still wish I’d gotten the armature right, but I love how this turned out.

Angel of Sorrow (detail) by Kit Dunsmore

Angel of Sorrow (detail) by Kit Dunsmore

Last week, I hiked up to Ruby Jewel Lake with my husband. The three-mile trail was steep and rocky, with patches of ice and snow, and the air was thin (we were over 11,000 feet). To add to the fun, we lost our way and wound up making an exhausting climb off-trail to get to the top. As I was hiking, I kept thinking two things. The first was my Difficult-Hike Mantra (which is a similar to my This-Workout-Is-Kicking-My-Ass Mantra; more on this later). The other was that all the tricks and tools I was using to get me up that mountain were the same tricks and tools that get me through daunting creative challenges, like writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days with the other NaNoWriMo* fans.

Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.

Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.

(ASIDE: For those who were wondering, yes, I’m taking on NaNoWriMo again. This will be my ninth consecutive year of participation and I hope I’ll write my best first draft ever. I just have to decide what the heck I’m going to write about. I’m not too worried just yet. I usually get a great idea sometime before November, usually on October 31st.)

Here are my hiking rules that also apply to writing a novel:

1) Wear layers, eat right, and drink your water. To perform at all, I need to take care of myself. The better care I can give myself, the better my performance can be. Eating healthy food, getting exercise and plenty of sleep, and even dressing warmly on a cold day can help me to get my novel written. (Many NaNo veterans swear by caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. As someone with food sensitivities, I stick with fresh, whole foods, but you know what you need to survive. Sometimes a tasty bribe can give you the little kick of motivation you need to get to the next ridge.)

2) Take a map, a GPS, or both. After we lost the trail under the snow and had wandered a bit, the GPS helped us find our way again. Story maps or outlines can be essential to staying on track with your novel, although sometimes it’s the detours that lead you to the true heart of your story. I work with guideposts more than outlines, but some sort of map, no matter how sketchy, can make all the difference.

3) Use all the support you can find. While hiking, trekking poles propped me up when I was exhausted and shaking, in danger of losing my balance on the rocks. My biggest NaNoWriMo prop is my supportive husband, who will cook dinner and otherwise inconvenience himself so I have time to write. Other key props are my battered copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, the NaNoWriMo forums and pep talks, and the buddies I keep in touch with while we are all struggling with our rocky novels. (In case you didn’t know, you’re allowed to get some help with achieving your goals.)

4) Focus on what you want, not what you fear. This is where my mantras come in. When the hike was the hardest, I found myself thinking “I’m not going to cry” and feeling the tears well up. Focusing on what I didn’t want was making it come true. When I switched to thinking “I can do this; I am strong,” the tears went away and I actually felt better. It was still a hard hike, but I was right. I did make it to the top, and I’m sure focusing on what I wanted — to finish the climb — made it possible. I think the same way when I need to get my word count in for the day: “I can do this.” And so can you.

The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.

The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.

5) No multi-tasking. I have to follow this rule whenever I get tired or the air is thin. I get fumble-fingered and clumsy. If I try to put my coat on while I’m walking up the trail, I’m sure to stumble, possibly even twist an ankle. Instead, I stop, put on my coat, then start walking again. Otherwise, I risk an accident to myself or my equipment. I have only so much time and energy to devote to my hike and I don’t want to do anything that could cause a delay or keep me from the top. I find the same rule helps with my NaNoWriMo writing sessions. I turn everything else off and focus on writing until I hit my goal for the day. I also focus on the one thing that needs to happen next in the story as I write. I don’t worry about poetic descriptions, clever metaphors, or award-winning symbolism. I just get down the key information for the scene and move on. I can add layers when I re-write.

6) Pace yourself and take breaks. My most important rule, whether I am climbing a mountain or writing a novel. If I go too fast, I’m sure to burn myself out and never make it to my goal at all. If I don’t take breaks and rest, I am in danger of getting overly tired and hating what I’m doing. Having to push extra hard when I’m already feeling beat-up is a sure way to turn me into a cranky kid who just wants to go home now, please, when what I really want to do is finish my hike. Or my novel.

Do you have hiking rules that apply to the creative process? Or tips for those taking on NaNoWriMo? What have I missed?

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and if you want to know more, check out their great website.

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