NaNoWriMo: Waste of Time? Or Valuable Practice?

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote in 2010. November is coming and this seemed like a good time to revisit the value of NaNoWriMo and practice.


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 their technique without producing something tangible in the process. 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.

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.

Evidence of my practice

In her CD lecture The Creative Fire, Clarissa Pincola Estes talks about the myth of Persephone and how the young girl symbolizes the creative spark in us all. In Estes’ 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?

Saving Dinosaurs, One Sweater At A Time

The Dinosaur Foundation wants to bring back the fascinating animals that went extinct 65 million years ago due to unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. Impossible you say? Not really. We have a simple three step plan that will have us all neck deep in dinosaurs in no time.

We know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Dinosaur Foundation, you’re nuts! Didn’t you see Jurassic Park? You DO NOT want to make dinosaurs from incomplete DNA!”

You’re right, we don’t. We want natural, organic, 100%-as-they-were-in-the-past dinosaurs, so we’re trying something a little different.

We’re knitting them sweaters.



What’s the point?

To keep them warm, of course.

Every school kid knows that dinosaurs were wiped out when an asteroid hit the earth, filled the atmosphere with dust, and lowered the temperature around the world. If the dinosaurs had only had sweaters, they would have survived and would be with us here, today.


So we’re busy knitting sweaters, while our physicist friends work on the time machine* we need to deliver them.

The Dinosaur Foundation’s Three Step Plan to Save the Dinosaurs:

1) Knit a bunch of sweaters. Really really big sweaters.
2) Invent a time machine.**
3) Take sweaters back to the dinosaurs before the asteroid hits.



The Dinosaur Foundation is looking for dedicated knitters ready to take on this challenge. The good news: we’ll be using a time machine, so there’s really no deadline. Please let us know if you would like to help.


*For those who think it’s impossible to build a time machine, scientists say it’s practically impossible, which means it’s at least a tiny little bit possible. We’re all optimists here at the Dinosaur Foundation. We believe that if we care enough, it can be done.
**For those who argue that we could just bring the dinosaurs back in a time machine without all this messing around with yarn: we don’t think so. We’ve agreed that building a time machine is practically impossible. A time machine that’s also big enough to transport dinosaurs? Not happening.

Embracing The Function of Beauty

Why is beauty never considered a function? — Ronald Rael

I came across this thought-provoking quote in the middle of a video about green technology. While the video shows the building blocks made from 3-D printers, it asks bigger questions. The most important one confronts artists and artisans alike: is it functional or is it “just” beautiful?

This particular question resonates with me because I grew up in a house full of art and craft. Dad took photos that he developed himself. Mom made pottery and took art classes. My sister drew and painted and I learned to sew and knit. Where the line between art and craft actually is has always been fuzzy in my mind and this idea of functionality versus beauty is tied to it.

Take my mom Jane Dunsmore, for example. She mostly made functional pottery to be sold at craft fairs. Treating her creative pursuit as a business meant she needed to make money. Common sense says that people are more likely to buy pottery they can use. Pottery that is “merely” pretty or decorative isn’t going to sell.

Fortunately, Mom has been able to break away from this mold. Today she makes sculpture and tiles, a far cry from the more prosaic and practical bowls, mugs, and plates she made in the past*.

“Singer of Myths” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

I asked her how she was able to escape from the functional trap and two things came up: a change in mind-set and a change in materials. She needed both to make the change.

The mindset change came from a combination of things. When she retired from teaching, she returned to her pottery studio without the pressure to make money. Also, she was bored after years of showing students how to make round things on a wheel. She gave herself permission to make the things she wanted to and she started experimenting with free-standing forms.

Initially, she was frustrated. The shapes she was interested in didn’t work well in clay — they cracked, something every functional potter considers a fatal flaw.

“Hello, World” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

Then she discovered paper clay (which is clay that contains anywhere from 5 to 25% paper pulp). Suddenly, she was able to make the shapes she’d always wanted to with little to no cracking. Paper clay opened the door to sculpture for her.

Occasionally, a piece still cracks, but now she sees it as part of the work instead of a flaw. Sometimes she fills the cracks with other materials, sometimes she leaves them alone. Letting go of perfectionism, as well as the expectation that everything she makes must sell, has freed her to make the work she wants to make. Her ceramics still have a function, but now it is usually beauty first.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserable each day
for lack
of what is found there.

— William Carlos Williams

Beauty is a function: for many people it is what makes something a work of art**. It’s also a key component of every craft there is. We knit and sew and embroider in order to make functional things in our lives beautiful as well.

“Anne’s Velvet Roses” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore. This sculpture is approximately 20 inches tall.

While I love her bowls and mugs, Mom’s heart is much more obvious in her newer work. I’m glad she’s found her way past the artificial boundaries set in her path to work that treats beauty as a function.

*She still makes bowls and mugs from time to time, but how they look is much more important to her than how they work. 
**Art historians, critics, and teachers have a much more complex definition of art but they are a pretty small part of the population. 

How Organization Improves My Studio Time – Still!

It’s been nearly seven years since I overhauled my studio space using the methods in Organizing from the Inside Out and I am still reaping the benefits.

Even I can hardly believe it. Often, my studio looks like a wreck. I have a tendency to spread out when working on something.

Construction zone! Fortunately, I don’t need a hard-hat.

When it’s time to change projects, I’ll spend an hour or so putting away everything that is sitting out. But I confess I have never done the “Equalize” step in Morgenstern’s SPACE system for the studio, which is supposed to enable you to not only stay organized but improve on your system over time. Instead, I’ve just added piles as more materials get added to my stashes and I’m coming to the point where I need to figure out how to integrate all the extra stuff — or throw something out.

Despite this, the underlying organization still works. My recent foray into stitch meditations has proven that I can easily lay my hands on an item in my studio when I think of it, even if it’s something I haven’t seen in ages. In fact, I’m finding stitch meditation really fun because I can use whatever pops into my head. If I decided I needed a metal key but then spent an hour looking for it, it wouldn’t be very enjoyable. In fact, I’d probably give up on doing the meditations at all.

I’ve especially appreciated the organization during my recent beading frenzy. When I organized in 2009, I took the time to sort my bead collection. Things are labeled and grouped in ways that make sense to me, so when I want to put fringe on a book, I know exactly where to look for the sort of bead I need.

All my beads, right where I can find them.
Making this fringe was fun because I could quickly find the beads I needed.

I am not a neat person. I like abundance and stink at keeping things tidy, which is why I am astonished that my studio is still organized after all these years. It reminds me that Morgenstern’s system really works, and that I should apply it to some other rooms in our house.

Does organization help or hinder your creativity?

Intuitive Beading: Bead Stitch Sampler Finished

My recent class with Lisa Yoder inspired me to finally finish the bead stitch sampler book I started in 2014. I had stopped because I’d reached a fussy stage where I need to fuse fabrics together to make the cover and I couldn’t be bothered. Now that the itch to bead was back, it was easy to get the cover ready and finish the project.

In the instructions in First-Time Beading on Fabric: Learning to Bead in Nine Easy Lessons, Liz Kettle suggests “intuitive beading” on the cover: doing one thing at a time without planning ahead. I dove in and made up my designs as I went. It was incredibly satisfying and even the things I wasn’t sure about worked out fine in the end.

The front cover of my beading sampler book (3.25 x 4.5 inches)
The back cover of my beading sampler book (3.25 x 4.5 inches)

As I worked, I looked in my sampler to get ideas for things to put on the cover. The fringe on the spine, while a bit of a challenge to add since it gets sewn on after the book is assembled, gave me an opportunity to break out lots of novelty beads I’d been waiting to use.


Overall, the whole project was great fun, a wonderful excuse to use a variety of stitches and beads just because I wanted to. Now that it’s finished, I’ve realized the other benefit to making this sampler beyond the obvious one of learning and practice: it was something I could bead to death. I’d like to do some more beading soon, but I will have to come up with a project. While I don’t want to make another sampler, this was a great way to learn while having an excuse to bead like a fiend.

3 Reasons to Take Classes on Techniques You Already Know

When I saw that my quilt guild had a beading class with Lisa Yoder coming up, I debated with myself about taking it. I’ve been beading on fabric for years and have even done demos at the guild on basic beading techniques. What more was there to learn?

Fortunately, I talked myself into taking the class. After all, a class gives me a chance to practice a skill I won’t practice at home. I’ve taken multiple machine quilting classes over the years, even after I started getting compliments on my quilting, and never regretted it. Classes remind me of things I’ve forgotten, and I always learn something new, though it may be something small.

Here’s what I got from taking Lisa’s class:

1) Inspiration: Lisa’s quilts are hand-sewn gems, tiny bead-encrusted worlds that are delicate, whimsical, and breath-taking. I loved her work.

Hand-sewn and beaded quilt by Lisa Yoder.
My studio the day after Lisa’s class: Beading frenzy!

2) Fun: I thoroughly enjoyed making my little beaded quilt during class (and yes, I got all but a dozen of those beads on during the 3-hour class). I remembered how much I love to bead things.

The beading I did in class (fabric is 3.5 by 5.5 inches).

3) Learning: Even though I’ve beaded for years, Lisa had things to teach me. She did some things differently than I do. I gave them a try because I was in her class and discovered some tips to make beading go more smoothly.

As a rule, I love to learn. But it’s easy to forget that just because I know how to do something doesn’t mean there isn’t more to know. I’m really grateful I took Lisa’s class. Not only can old dogs learn new tricks, but there are so many new tricks out there waiting to be learned.

3 Tips for Working with Beads

I’ve been beading on fabric for years, but thanks to Lisa Yoder’s To Bead or Not To Bead class, I’ve just learned some new things that make my beading go more smoothly.

1) Use a beading pad. Lisa provided supplies for her class, and one of the items was a beading pad. It’s a rather fat and squishy fabric that is fuzzy on both sides. It keeps your beads from rolling around, making it much easier to pick them up with the needle. It’s ideal when you are adding one bead at a time.

My beading pad. It also doubles as a needle holder. I keep my pad in a recycled food tray for added safety.

An unexpected bonus: it makes it really easy to return your beads to their storage container as well. You just pick up the cloth and pour them in. It’s like using a paper funnel, only the beads roll more slowly so you have more control.

Bead pads also make it easier to pour beads into their container.

2) Use a single strand when beading. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I have had the habit of doubling up my thread and knotting it that way for years. My thought was that it was easy insurance — twice the thread per stitch — and it would keep my beads from falling off the quilt. What I didn’t realize is how hard it was making things for me. Using a single strand means keeping track of the loose end (which can be particularly tricky when there are lots of beads on your thread) but it also means it’s a snap to un-thread and fix any problems that come up. It reminds me of what I learned when I went to a standing desk: reduce the effort involved in doing something, and you increase the likelihood that you’ll do the right thing.

3) Use a bowl or jar of beads to string lots of beads at a time. This is something I remembered after class, when I was home and beading madly (inspired by Lisa’s class). You just stab the needle into the mass of beads and pick them up at random until you have as many as you need. It’s faster than picking them up one at a time.

Dip your needle repeatedly into the mass of beads to pick up a bunch at once.