Oh NaNoWriMo!

A time when aspiring writers gird their loins to start and complete whatever “masterpiece” that’s been lurking at the back of their creative consciousness – and also an excuse for many would-be authors to grand-stand. NaNoWriMo is a good idea. But like many good ideas it can lead to self-indulgence on the part of its participants.

For those unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo is an annual event in which writers are challenged to write and complete a manuscript through the month of November. There are websites where aspiring writers can gleefully post their daily word-counts: A perfect medium for writers in need of reassurance and also an ideal forum for bull-shitting.

In effect NaNoWriMo allows the literary world to become like a giant Starbuck’s franchise: A place where aspiring writers go to work on their manuscripts and to look pained while doing so in the hope that someone will pay them attention. After all, it’s not real writing unless you’re seen to be writing!

A writer’s job is a thankless one and one that doesn’t deliver much by way of public accolade. When was the last time a writer was interviewed on a late night television show by someone like Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien or Graham Norton?

Not recently but it has happened! I can’t remember the date, but I’m pretty certain the author in question was Stephen King, who I’m fairly confident doesn’t write his manuscripts in a Starbucks. At this point in his career the man could probably buy most the franchises in his home state of Maine if he wanted to.

In short, unless you’re in the literary stratosphere like Stephen King or have a die-hard cult following like Chuck Palahniuk, for the most part nobody in the wider public really gives a shit about writers.

That’s because most writers are pretty boring by conventional standards! They’re boring because they spend a lot of time alone struggling to string coherent sentences together and always with the background worry that said sentence isn’t definite or could be better worded. Very few writers are the life and soul of any party. Assuming that a writer gets an invite to a party in the first place he or she tends to be an on-looker rather than a participant. Shyness can be a factor but more often it’s because their creative brain is always at work.

Moreover, exceptional writers are seldom welcome in polite society because their work is often subversive. Voltaire, arguably the most significant writer of the modern era, was despised by polite society and didn’t give a damn about it either.

I say most writers are boring people but there are exceptions to that rule. If anything the most successful writers tend to lead interesting lives.

For example Charlaine Harris, the novelist behind the TV series True Blood and Midnight studies martial arts and is active in her church. In addition to being one of the highest selling crime fiction authors in the world, Jonathan Kellerman is a clinical psychologist and a talented guitarist. Stephen King plays in a rock band and collects muscle cars. The late Robert Ludlum was theatre producer who travelled extensively for research purposes and brought his family with him on these travels. Patricia Cornwell is a pathologist as is Kathy Reichs. Chuck Palahniuk is a chef who participates in dinner clubs – one of the inspirations for the novel Fight Club.

The point being that exceptional writers have lives outside of their writing and the resulting synergy (at least for those named above) is good for both their personal and literary lives. Not that their personal lives do or should matter to their fans. Writers aren’t life models. Their job is to challenge received wisdom through their craft.

The late John D MacDonald said it best: If you want to write, then write! In keeping with that basic philosophy NaNoWriMo should be a non-event in the literary world. However, everyone, writers especially, crave validation and some more than others.

Now having cut down NaNoWriMo and the literary world I feel it opportune to invoke my own hypocrisy on the matter. For the first time in my life I will be participating in NaNoWriMo – albeit with a few caveats. I’m not going to post about my progress or radically change my writing schedule (such as it is at present) to accommodate a November timeline. I’m also not going to guarantee that the novel will be completed by the end of the month. A few years ago I did write an entire manuscript in the space of a month (it was during the month of May), but the first half of it was garbage. The characters in my works tell their stories in their own time and forcing the issue with them is a little like trying to win over prospective in-laws: Usually both parties end up dissatisfied.

So why am I participating in NaNoWriMo you might be asking? Because my literary engine needs a jump-start on the motivation front and I need to restore discipline.

Also it’s a good excuse to visit Starbucks.


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