On Nov. 2, 2010, Salon.com Co-Founder Laura Miller wrote a scathing review of National Novel Writing Month. I came across this article, ironically, in one of the forums on the NaNoWriMo website. The Salon article touched off a firestorm of controversy, and I must say, it definitely helped me define my own thoughts on the matter.
I’ve long credited National Novel Writing Month with saving my writing career from dying a slow, painful death. I still hold to that now that I’ve won for the first time in five years of participation. Why did it take so long? I am a long-time fiction editor, and frankly, it’s damned hard to shut up my critical editor’s brain so that my shy creative side can finally whisper its ideas to me. NaNoWriMo’s insane goal of 50,000 words in one month made it impossible for me to stop and edit myself. I’m a deadline-oriented writer. And it is the same for many others. NaNoWriMo helps us to focus. That was certainly the case for me, and I applaud anyone who even attempts this colossal feat.
A published author and book critic herself, Miller inexplicably appears to attack not only NaNoWriMo, but the very art of writing itself: “Even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.”
Misplaced? Hmm . . . No more so than any individual attempting a new creative endeavor, be it painting, music, or filmmaking. And I’ve tried and loved all of those too. Yes, surely there are NaNoWriMo participants who don’t have a clue about how to write or sell a novel. Yet we all have to start somewhere. What better way than to learn the discipline of 1667 words a day within a community of other passionate, knowledgeable novelists? And how is the fast pace of NaNoWriMo any different than the driven pace of a successful and prolific published author working hard every day?
Miller also notes a list of promotional ideas for bookstores that she came across that mentioned NaNoWriMo’s “Write Your Novel Here” motto: “It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.”
Narcissistic? Having written nearly all of my life (since about age nine), I say with sincerity that I cannot fully live without writing. First and foremost, I write for myself. If that is by definition narcissistic, then so be it. I’ve known and spoken with hundreds of writers over the years. Not one of them has ever said they write for fame or money. In fact, most assume they won’t make a dime. For me personally, the act of writing helps me to make sense of my life, both of my triumphs and my failures. It helps me to work through the concepts of love and hate, of forgiveness and sacrifice. Creative expression is the only way I know how to cope in this life. My gift is not my voice. It is my voice channelled through my pen. I have to work with what I’ve been given.
Secondly, I write to be read. I don’t have a burning desire for fame or fortune. When I was nine, such an idea had not entered my mind. Back then, it was simply the only way I had to voice my longings and my fears. It still is today. I learned something about the art of novel writing and life during the course of writing my first book. And I want to share that hard-earned knowledge and experience with others.
We humans are storytellers. As writers and readers, we begin to learn other ways of working through the confusions and horrors of this life, even as we sit in the safety of our homes with an innocuous book in our hands. We learn when we read. And for some of us, we learn when we write. This is not something to be scoffed at; rather we should applaud those who try their hand at this. Each writer’s journey is different. And each writer’s reason for writing is different. We cannot be categorized into neat little stereotypes.
When I re-read my first novel, which I wrote and revised for ten years, I’m struck now about how much I re-wrote it so that it could be read. The first versions of it were just for me, so that I could learn to express myself, so that I could learn to write well. Those first chapters that I wrote in my teens would have been the equivalent of what Ms. Miller might deem a NaNoWriMo novel. It was full of purple prose, esoteric thoughts, and hackneyed phrases. It wasn’t a novel . . . yet. And it didn’t become a fully realized novel until I finally discovered NaNoWriMo, until I learned how to let go of the inner editor that had been strangling the life out of my story. I’m profoundly grateful to Chris Baty and his whole team at NaNoWriMo for allowing me to realize the one and only dream I ever had for my novel, then and now: to finish it.