In Defense of NaNoWriMo — Writers Need Practice, Too

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.

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Kit Dunsmore

Kit Dunsmore has believed in the magic underlying the muggle world since she was a child searching for the Shetland pony pooka she was sure was hiding in her back yard. She learned early on that books were magic doors into other worlds, and that she could revisit a beloved character or place by opening the right book. As she grew, she decided she wanted to make magic with words, too. Today Kit writes about things she loves: poodles and dragons, witches and artists, quirky underdogs and loyal friends. Whether her setting is 6th-century England, the imaginary Twelve Kingdoms, or an art-obsessed version of modern America, magic always finds its way into her story. She enjoys turning fairy tales inside out and watching characters sacrifice everything to reach their goal, but she also believes in happy endings. When she isn't writing, Kit experiences magic by making things with her hands. Over the years, she's made quilts, fabric sculptures, collages, sweaters, and blank books. Her newest interest is learning how to spin her own yarn, a skill guaranteed to strengthen one of her many delusions: that she is a self-sufficient pioneer woman. She also thinks she is a hobbit, a witch, an artist, and a good cook. Living in the foothills of Colorado, Kit enjoys the giant skies and prairie landscapes which suit her need for wide open spaces. In addition to hiking through glorious scenery with her husband or imagining herself living in the Middle Ages, Kit works as a pillow for her miniature poodle and polishes the next small piece of her handmade life.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of NaNoWriMo — Writers Need Practice, Too”

  1. Wise words! It takes a lot though to get past the idea that everything we produce has to be perfect, polished and finished. I know that with my own painting. But allowing yourself time to play and experiment is so rewarding, as well as being a lot of fun. Have fun with NaNoWriMo!

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    1. Drawing and painting also take lots of practice. I’d never manage any of my art work if I wasn’t willing to make mistakes. Thanks for reminding me it applies to these things, too! As for having fun with NaNoWriMo, I *think* I finally have an idea for a story. We’ll see what my muse can cook up between now and tomorrow. Thanks for dropping by!

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    1. I’ll be sure to follow you back. And good luck to you, too. NaNoWriMo is always a rollercoaster ride, but I’m always glad when it’s over that I got on.

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