I have a confession to make. I’ve been a member of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for nearly seven years, and I haven’t completed the challenge once.
Not once. In fact, I don’t think I ever got past a couple of thousand words. Click on the image below for the sad, big picture.
That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. In those seven years I have written and published four books—one (non-fiction) with a large New York publisher, two (also non-fiction) with a smaller independent publisher, and one (children’s historical fiction) as an indie author.
However, my NaNoWriMo failure continues to haunt me, and this is the year when I’m going to do something about it.
Failure isn’t too strong a word here, because I’m not using it to be hard on myself. I’m using it to figure out how to do things differently. This academic term I gave my creative thinking students the assignment of writing a “failure resume,” which is an exercise developed by Tina Seelig of Stanford’s D-school and author of inGenius: Unleashing Creative Potential:
“If there are rules in place where you get punished if things don’t work out that’s really unfortunate because you’re obviously not going to try anything new.
To get over this, I think leaders should fail publicly and acknowledge it in a thoughtful way, ‘You know, we tried this. It didn’t work. Here’s what we learned from it.’ That’s the point – you need to mine the failures for insights.” Read More
Many of the students struggled mightily with acknowledging rather than ignoring their failures, and their struggles helped me to see that I, too, refrain all too often from looking closely at places and times in my life where I’ve fallen short in areas that are important to me. The goal isn’t to berate myself but, as Tina Seelig says, to mine them for insights, to change, which is the same as saying to grow, to be alive.
That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in. I find that I can’t simply forget about it. Each year I regret never having seen it through, not because I have never finished a novel-length book but because my own personal demon is persistent and preemptive editing. I like to share with my students Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird to be willing to write a “shitty first draft”:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
The problem is that, until now, I haven’t succeeded in following that advice myself.
What will make this year different? The insight I have mined from the NaNoWriMo item on my failure resume is that lack of planning has been my downfall in more areas than this. Like everyone else I know, I’m busy, and November is a busier month than most for me, in part because our college has final exams the week before Thanksgiving, which means well over 100 papers and 100 exams to grade and extra time spent in office hours. I will not shortchange my students. I also do freelance work, which I love and brings in a nice chunk of extra income. Then there are my family, my friends, household tasks.
But the writing time has to come from somewhere, and if I don’t plan for it, it won’t mysteriously appear (insight!). I know my body well enough to realize that I cannot sacrifice sleep. Something else has got to give. That something is Facebook, at least for the month of November. The only exceptions I will make are brief, once a day checks (five minutes, tops) using Messenger and Pages apps after I’ve reached my daily word count goal.
It comes down to this: What is my writing worth to me? What am I willing to do—or not to do—to wake up on December 1st knowing that I have completed the NaNoWriMo challenge once and for all (or at least until next year), not just to have a new draft but to have a new set of skills and sense of personal accomplishment?
The choice is easy.