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?

5 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: Waste of Time? Or Valuable Practice?”

  1. Really good post. NaNo, to me is a time for a writer to explore the craft of writing that first draft. Then sorting the good from the bad. Best of luck with both your writing and NaNo.

    1. Thanks! I know NaNoWriMo has plenty of fans, but I get cranky when people say it’s a waste of time.

  2. I’ve never had a goal to write a novel, but I agree with you. This sort of goes along with the principle of 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something (hopefully I am quoting that right).

    1. I’ve read about the 10,000 hours of practice, too. The writing version is one million words. Both make the same argument: practice is required.

      I think it applies to lots of activities, but writers in particular are notorious for expecting to write a winner right out of the gate. It comes from not seeing how a book gets written. People think all you need is an idea and then you write it down and are done. But practice is a big part of becoming a writer.

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