At a recent faculty gathering, a colleague asked me if I’d heard of the terrible thing where you write a novel in a month. Instead of saying saying NaNoWriMo changed my life a year and a half ago! I said, “Yes.” It seemed more professional somehow. The conversation continued and others joined in–who can write a novel in a month? What does that teach people?
I know where they’re coming from. We, the faculty, are highly trained people who value our training and have been hired to train our students. Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo forces the writer to leave behind instruction and write willy-nilly, giving a finger to the rules for the sake of quantity. And do we really want to encourage quantity over quality?
Also the novel one produces during NaNoWriMo is, well, rushed and sloppy. If someone brought her unedited NaNo novel to any one of us (including me), red ink would collect in grim noir-y pools all over the manuscript.
So, yes, in the big picture, there are many, many problems. But, having done NaNoWriMo myself, I know it teaches valuable lessons about writing in an organic way. And those lessons will sink in more deeply when my students discover them on their own (as much as I’d like to believe my workshop tangents and impromptu lectures are equally as profound).
What are those lessons, you ask? My students learn:
- Writing is fun. It can be breathless and exhilarating. It’s an awesome way to spend free time.
- How to form communities around creative projects. My students are planning gatherings throughout the month to meet up in person and also finding user names so they can meet up online. They’re excited about other people’s success. They might want to read their peers’ books. They’re learning how to be good literary citizens through personal experience.
- Writing takes discipline. To get to the 50,000 word goal, one must produce roughly 1,700 words a day. That means sitting down, carving out time, making writing a priority. It means fighting through the tough patch mid-month when the initial euphoria wears off.
- Writing a novel takes organization. Many of my students will discover the value of outlines. And when students discover the magic of outlines on their own, they keep using them.
- Writing takes patience. That awesome outline is going to get undermined at some point–in a big way. Characters are going to say and do lame, cliched stuff. Because word count is the only thing that matters, students learn how to turn off their inner editors, hit enter, and keep going.
- It gets their ideas out of their heads and down on paper so we can begin the real work of writing.
- It may ease students into a higher level of editing by showing them how much fun it is to cut things out of a manuscript. Killing the darlings is that much easier if many of the darlings aren’t very dear.
So, write like the wind students! Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t make the 50,000 words. Very few do. And you still have homework you need to get done (ahem).