the strange urgency of NaNoWriMo

It’s November again. And you know what that means.

person holding white ceramci be happy painted mug
Photo by Lisa Fotios on

Before I begin, an important disclaimer: this is not a post designed to denigrate or disparage National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or NaNo) as a concept. I operate under the banner of ‘you do you’, and clearly NaNo has struck a chord with an awful lot of people; it’s teeth-clenchingly popular, and entire communities come together once a year to share the joy (and sometimes the pain). Besides which, NaNo has birthed a glut of initiatives and programmes designed to help writers from marginalised communities, economically deprived backgrounds and the like. So any criticism I may have comes from a place of ‘it’s not for me’ rather than ‘THROW IT OUT, THROW IT ALL OUT’.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” So quoth Anne Lamott, soundbite-d for a article inspiring those NaNoers flagging halfway through their project. As statements go, it’s pretty absolute. It could even be true: certainly, if Anne Lamott feels so strongly about it, then it must be true for her. And doubtless there are a great many writers for whom removing that earliest hurdle – the fear of doing it badly – is a liberating experience. The flow of words, like water from a cracked dam, must feel like a true blessing. As a writer who you might charitably describe as ‘works at a glacial pace’, the desire to just get the words out first and polish them up later is completely understandable; for a fledgling writer intimidated by the sheer scale of the experience, it’s probably sound advice. Just write…! You can edit a manuscript, but you can’t edit an empty page.

I suppose my problem with it all is the absolute-ness. NaNo builds itself around the idea that perfectionism is something to be conquered, an ill habit to crush and control. It’s reminiscent, to me, of the insistence that either ‘planning’ or ‘pantsing’ (god, I hate that word) are the superior way to write. So much of this advice is presented as though one’s natural inclinations are a barrier to success. There are whole books dedicated to teaching people how to outline, using this method or that; NaNo’s ‘just get it done!’ ethos feels like a spiritual opponent to those books; it is a method which suits ‘pantsers’ far more than ‘plotters’ – not necessarily a bad thing.

When I say ‘absolute-ness’, I mean the kind of advice which states that your perfectionism is holding you back! That you will succeed as a writer only if you remove those terrible obstacles:

Does constraint foster experimentation? Does progress, at least at the drafting stage, matter more than perfection? And can the monthlong effort to write a novel, in the virtual or actual company of other creative types, really result in an altered sense of self?

Faulkner offers an emphatic yes.

My beef, so to speak, is not with NaNo as a concept. I can’t stress that enough: it is clearly an effective method for a hell of a lot of writers. If getting words on the page without worrying whether they’re good enough is a hurdle you personally need to clear in order to do the business of writing, then more power to your pen. But I’m here in defence of the other side of things. That sometimes, for some of us, perfectionism isn’t a demon that needs to be exorcised. That slow progress and careful replanting of previously-sown seeds need not be seen as a barrier to being A Proper Writer. And while NaNo is, on the whole, probably a good exercise for newbie writers, or those struggling, I worry a little that teaching writers that getting words on the page is a universally positive approach is denying the needs of a subset of writers for whom this simply doesn’t work.

I have tried NaNo. I have tried it four times, between the ages of 20 and 30. Each time, I have ‘failed’. Not only did I ‘fail’ to write the requisite 50,000 words, I actively found it a punishing experience. Slow, methodical, careful writing is, I suspect, encoded in my DNA. Setting myself small, manageable wordcounts when a project needs to be completed is doable, but there’s no guarantee I’ll actually manage 250 or 500 words. It’s not about “waiting for the muse” or anything like that; some days I spend fiddling with previously written paragraphs, making them right before I move on. The NaNo philosophy broadly might consider that a bad thing; it’s not progress, after all. But it is progress; getting that paragraph ‘right’ is a process for me. It helps me understand what comes after. It helps me get the next 150, or 200, or 500 words out. I can’t cross a bridge if I’m not confident it’s going to hold my weight.

The NaNo method mostly made me feel like an inadequate failure. I can’t just crank out words; to force myself to do so, as I did on my four attempts, was a recipe for anxiety. At worst, it was a shortcut to a panic attack. Why can’t I just get the words out? Why can’t I just do the thing? I realise now as a more experienced writer (kind of) that it was because I was trying to break down an integral part of my personality. Pathologising something that, in actuality, is a strength for me, and turning it into something to be overcome. Yes, I am a slow writer; I’m never going to churn out books, I’m never going to be prolific. But is that a bad thing…? If it’s not causing you distress – if you’re not self-flagellating for not ‘getting it right’, or never writing anything because the fear of The Words is greater than your desire to create – then should you seek to overcome it? ‘Perfectionism’ is one word for it, and a word which carries negative connotations. But perhaps we are in danger of lumping together the kind of perfectionism which paralyses, and the kind which is just another way of getting shit done – albeit far slower.

The emphasis on speed and production is interesting to me, especially since for some (not all) NaNo enthusiasts, perfectionism is painted as a harmful product of modern society. One might argue with equal zeal that needing things done now, producing work quickly, may also be symptoms of modern society: we are, after all, immersed in a gig economy, especially as creatives; aware all the time that we are at risk of missing the boat if we don’t produce quickly enough. That if we’re not regularly putting out content we will fade away and be forgotten. Is there room for slow writers in the modern world, with its surfeit of published books and stories (and TV shows, and films) – not a bad thing, by any stretch, since we now have near-infinite choice and variety. But I think blaming the ‘modern world’ for either approach is too simplistic, akin to the way certain types of people blame social media and smartphones for every societal ill.

(Interestingly, research seems to suggest that for some writers, NaNo may actually have an adverse effect on mental health: “Recent scientific research shows that if you use the part of your brain devoted to intense analytical thought for too long, it can trigger depression, which afflicts the same part of the brain.” I don’t know whether this explains my own deep dives into depression and anxiety whilst attempting NaNo, but it’s certainly food for thought.)

The “done is better than perfect” adage has merit. And certainly, just because I edit as I go doesn’t mean I don’t return back to the finished draft to edit, and edit some more. But editing an already-edited piece is a far less stressful experience for me, personally. I already have the measure of it; I can do more with a piece of writing that is already halfway there than a collection of words I’ve slammed out in a desperate need to have words. (My experience, not necessarily representative of all NaNoers!). I can’t really relate to the urgency of NaNo; why the 50,000 words need to be there sooner rather than later, why you need them now and not tomorrow. I don’t need fast words, I need words that work for me, and that means I have to put them down slowly, piece by piece. You may disagree. That’s absolutely fine. I’ll sit here in my corner slowly sculpting my story; you sit in yours, painting whatever comes to mind. At the end of it all, we’ll both hopefully have beautiful art to show for it.


2 thoughts on “the strange urgency of NaNoWriMo

  1. I love the painting analogy! And as a fan of your writing, I am glad you choose to sculpt your words instead of paint by numbers… it shows! (Although I do think learning to finish is important, and beginners can busy themselves with details and distract themselves from storytelling with endings…)

    1. I completely agree – I think there are very useful tools out there for beginner writers and NaNo is absolutely among them. If it helps reduce the fear and intimidation of writing a large story, then it’s a good thing!

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