November is a National Novel Writing Month – a supposedly fun collective undertaking that has a stated aim for its participants to pound away at their keyboards for 30 days, in order to produce a 50,000 word novel. The organizers of the whole thing go out of their way to stress that it is quantity that counts, urging the participants “to write without having to obsess over quality”. I have no intention to prescribe other people the kind of fun they are supposed to have (or not, as the case may be) — if writing a novel in a month is what floats your boat, then sure, go for it.

However, I can’t help but wonder where is this whole notion of “writing a novel for fun” coming from. It would seem to me that for most great novelists, writing was not something done for fun, rather than out of necessity. Kafka or Beckett didn’t write because it was so much fun – if anything, the opposite must have been the case. David Foster Wallace, a prolific producer of huge quantities of text, was obsessed over anything he wrote, constantly second-guessing its worth.

There is a passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera that addresses the same topic:

The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within them, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: “We are all writers!”

For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.

One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.

Given that NaNoWriMo started 10 years ago with just 9 novels written in 30 days and has grown to 32,178 finished novels last year, this morning may be drawing close.


2 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo!

  1. Perhaps not everyone is a writer, per se, but everyone has a story to tell, somewhere inside of them. Granted, not every story is as interesting as the next, nor half so well written. But these little stories, these snippets of life help people connect to the world in their own fashion. You’re creating something in this world, and encouraging others to do so as well.
    And yes, NaNoWriMo emphasizes quantity over quality because sometimes that vicious inner editor makes it damn hard to let the words come out. This “contest” gives you an out: It’s okay to make mistakes because you have to meet your quota. When it’s all over with, when you’ve figured out the plot and how it all ends, you can go back and let your inner editor loose. I don’t think of my novel as “done” when that 50K mark is reached, just as most authors don’t think of their first draft as a publishable work.

  2. I would have hoped that there are very few, if any, participants of NaNoWriMo who consider this event as a license to unleash their creative genius on unsuspecting readers by producing 50k words in four weeks and then be done with it. I fully understand that it is aimed at overcoming a very specific kind of a barrier by simply encouraging people to get started, to actually get something written — and worry about perfecting it later. And again, I can absolutely relate to this.

    However, I think that Kundera’s quip was about something else. To me, he doesn’t come across as someone annoyed about philistines getting involved in the solemn art of writing. He appears to me rather sympathetic, if somewhat ironic over the somewhat broader idea of some kind of privileged form of self-realization through literary creation, of writing a novel as a way of dealing with Weltschmerz.

    It is very much my personal point of view and, as I said already before, I have no intention of imposing it on anyone else, but silencing one’s internal editor, even if it is only temporary and for the supposed greater good, might indeed be a good way to produce 50 thousand words of text, but that’s about as far as it goes. This is not to say that people shouldn’t try, simply that this trying shouldn’t be easy if it is to be of any good. And perhaps this is why I will likely never even try. However, let me conclude with what Samuel Beckett has said about his experience of writing: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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