This year just past, I discovered–and took part of–the San Francisco based event known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which really is about what it says on the tin: to write a novel (or any work of literature, really) of at least 50,000 words in the span of the month of November, providing a website to register and update one’s word count, getting badges along the way (e.g. for when one reaches the first 1667 words, or the 15k mark, or updating the count continuously for a week) and “winning” by pasting the entire text at the end of the month and letting their server count the words and thus validate the total; no copies of the work are saved on their side and no judges of any official designation even look at the works–though there are forums for one to presumably submit updates or more frequently questions to one’s peers–and thus it becomes mostly a personal challenge, a “can I really muster the discipline to write at least 1667 words each day this month” kind of concept. I’m not sure where or from whom I heard of it, most likely Reddit or some ad on Facebook. At any rate, when I saw it on November 2nd and read more about the challenge, I got the notion that such a contest, however silly it may sound, could give me just enough external pressure and exposure to writing every day regardless of what life threw at me to really take a gander at this whole writing thing and ascertain if I really had enough will, technique and interest to embark in long form writing and “the writing life”, as it were. And it most definitely came with insights.
For one, I finished the damn thing: 52 thousand words written in emacs using org mode on my tiny 12 inch computer, during evenings and for more time on weekends, updating my word count every day, only falling behind the 1667 goal during election week because the world seemed like it was falling apart those days. It’s mentioned in every forum that touches upon the event, but it really is quite an ordeal some days to write so many words: to arrive back at one’s abode tired, drunk, hungry, angry, dejected or enthused about anything else and then have the little pang of guilt of not updating the word count that night that would be enough to make me plop down on the same couch each night and throw all the requisite words at the page. During weekends I mostly caught up with the inevitable slack I had accrued by the end of the week, writing up to 4000 words on a day. It’s a strange trance, to exceed a certain threshold of words and forget what’s outside of the screen and what it is to not be typing. To reach a certain stride in which every sentence feels true, when one’s voice is firm and no longer meandering, when some other entity that lives inside of the day-to-day self finally emerges and writes what it yearns to write–the subconscious with its completely different apprehension of reality, perhaps, or the soul, or the collective unconscious, or who-knows-what. To look at a paragraph and know pretty well how many words it must have–to know what a couple thousand words look and feel like–and the fear turned ambition of seeing how the erstwhile impossible-looking goal of writing so many words became every day more tangible. And thus I think I can attest to how this whole “gamification” buzzword works for people who need just a little extra nudge to get their crap together and work daily towards their goals: it became a matter of pride, of faith, to come back to my computer every day and prove to myself I would finish one thing at last, and that I would not falter. And I didn’t, and I felt pretty darn proud of myself.
As I said, there’s something interesting in the rush of writing so many words every day when one has a day job and terrible discipline: you can’t afford to edit as you write, to go back to sentences and words and linger too much, because every second you waste second-guessing something written is another second you won’t be sleeping that night if you want to reach your daily goal. After a few session, there’s a freedom I hadn’t found before in just writing for a while without any promise of hesitation, and that opened doors in myself that, every once in a while, would let out sentences or ideas I thought I wasn’t capable of committing to writing. It’s a kind of meditation, a kind of self discovery, that only a self-imposed duress (to exaggerate a tad) seems to bring about.
Having discovered the whole thing at the end of day two, I didn’t really have time to flesh out any ideas or to figure out how exactly people go about writing long form fiction. But since the activity is more of a self-challenge and my goal was just to do writing for thirty days and see what came from it–not to actually have a novel by the end of the month– I took a half-baked idea I had and ran with it without even so much as looking at it twice: a literary novel about people who live in Honduras and New York who end up being the “same” person because of… something to do with reincarnation or whatever. That idea only lasted for a couple of scenes before I realized it was going to be too hard to actually come up with a sort of plan (now I know I wanted an outline, a more developed concept, a theme, etc.) so without even trying to excuse the shift from the thinly veiled autobiography to full on memoir, I simply sat down to write, in no particular order, various episodes of the past six years of my life, any story really that shone any light whatsoever on my path to grow as a person and, or, my surprisingly large array of trips to different countries in various stages of despair. By the end of the first week, I knew I wanted to alternate between the second and first person writing, just for the kicks, with the former narrating scenes of my life that felt like they happened to someone else (because they don’t seem to be linked to any personal realizations, victories or defeats, perhaps?), and the latter taking a more insightful approach to anecdotes that I found crucial to whatever this whole journey has been about, so I kept that pattern for a week more and re-arranged what I had written prior to follow it, which wasn’t really hard as the pattern emerged from the previous sessions. By the end of the second week, I found that I was bored of navel gazing–though some really powerful glimpses of moments had happened in some sessions in the seven days prior, like reverberations of realizations long forgotten–so I decided to tackle the second “half” of my little rambling novella as a third person narrative of how I met the four women that most affected my life, as lovers, friends, or all of the above. I wanted to write alternating chapters that roughly followed the timeline of each of the stories (i.e. I met the first in college, the second after I finished college, but I was still friends with the first so there’s more of her after college, but at some point there I met the third, and the second was still in the picture, and eventually she phases out and at that point I have met the fourth and the first and third are still in my life), but, having learned that this whole mosaic style of writing is hard, I laid out the alternating headings and just wrote one story after the other–worrying about making sure the timelines were woven correctly later. And it was this more straightforward narrative, this more sequential account of mere facts, that brought me the more insight: what these people taught me, how I failed and how I may have influenced their own lives. It brought me to tears some times, it gave me nostalgia, it gave me closure on things I didn’t even know I needed closure, it made me feel like a bad person sometimes and made me realize how we all are these confused children trying to get by. I had found the power of simplicity, of honesty, of not being blinded by the bells and whistles of clever writing and just putting down on the page that which really needs to come out to the world. This second half wrote itself.
By the end I didn’t even finish all the stories I wanted to write on that second half, even though I had exceeded the 50k limit that had appeared so daunting and vast in the beginning, yet I also realized that my approach to long form was pretty crappy: I would get sidetracked and forget basic things like tenses, tone of narrative, even basic grammar. The lack of an outline or any structure whatsoever soon proved to me that a methodical and easily distracted person like me needs to have some sort of plan going into this: my verbosity, unchecked, would yield hefty manuscripts even I would not want to re-read to try and find a more structured story therein. The exposure to a writing community made me realize there were such things as outlines, “pantsers”, word counts, drafts and edits. I realized that just winging it is disastrous, instead of quaint and daring, when such a thing as a long form work of fiction or even the simplest component thereof, a scene, is involved: you need to drive the story forward, to write with purpose, to have some sort of inkling of what the heck you’re doing, lest you drown in your own barrage of words. I learned a lot about myself in writing my own story, I guess, but I also saw the boundaries of my ability and was humbled and challenged: this novel writing business is not just about sitting down and writing whatever the fuck comes to mind every day, it’s about the honest work of trying to catch those elusive beasts called ideas, which come to us from the very unique sky of who we are and where we are and how the former interacts with the latter, and then put them in a form that can be digested by others. It’s, in a way, a service to other people that can’t be fully polluted by the hubris of the “artiste” who maintains that he will write however the fuck he wants to write, with no form or editing, and people can take it or leave it.
So for the past couple of weeks, after a bit of a refractory period from the literary endeavor, I’ve been devouring books on outlining, on writing novels that people actually want to read, on science fiction and fantasy (genres that show great promise of presenting these tricky ideas to a lot of nice people, vs. the very small audience of literary fiction, a genre I believe I need actual experience under my belt to tackle if I want to put more than one book out there before I no longer besmirch this earth with my fragmented existence), even on marketing and self-publishing: I want to dive deep in the “writer life” now that I know it takes more than just writing thousands of words and “seeing what happens”.
But we’ll see what happens, I guess.