Personal Story, Writing

A Personal NaNoWriMo Retrospective

Alright, so I know November isn’t over yet and thus, technically, NaNoWriMo is still going on, but I wanted to talk about NaNo as close to the end date as possible, and with Drunk Movie Monday happening the first week in December, that means today. I’ve already talked about why everybody should do NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t really touch on my experience of it. So here’s my NaNoWriMo retrospective. To be honest, this is probably more going to be a post for myself than for anyone else, but I guess you can read it too, if you like.

I first heard about NaNoWriMo in the fall of 2004, when I was in high school, from my friend Emily (her blog here!). She’d discovered it and decided to try, which meant that a lot of our IM conversations that November consisted of her freaking out about her word count. At the time, the prospect of writing 50k words in a month sounded downright insane to me, and though I’d already decided that I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t think NaNoWriMo was something I’d ever be able to do, so instead I enjoyed it vicariously.

Fast forward to the next year, when just before November rolled around, my parents decided to take a long vacation to celebrate their 20th anniversary, leaving my brother and me in the care of our grandparents. Now don’t get me wrong, because I absolutely adore my grandparents, but when you’re 16 years old and your elderly grandparents want to spend every evening listening to NPR with you, excuses to be in the basement ‘working’ start to seem like a excellent prospect. Plus, I’d been through some pretty awful relationship drama that summer which had severely reduced my social activities, and writing about somebody whose problems were infinitely worse than mine was an appealing prospect.

Thus, I embarked on my first year of NaNoWriMo at the self-important age of 16, amid interpersonal drama, familial dotage and an absurd amount of homework and extracurricular activities, with nary an outline in sight. I mean, I had some idea of what story I wanted to write (I’d dreamed it, which is always a good sign), but the premise was shaky at best, and the protagonist even worse. Looking back now makes me want to cast my eyes to the sky in an over-dramatic show of nostalgia and sigh, “ah, youth.”

Needless to say, my first NaNo project was an absolute train wreck of a story, but I adored it anyway. The phrase “lived and breathed it” comes most immediately to mind when I think about that whirlwind month, when it was hard to think about anything else. I remember sitting in class, staring at my teachers while surreptitiously writing under my desk, so that later when I went to type it up I could barely read the words. The whole month, I would stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning writing, get up at 6 for school the next day, slog through homework and crew practice, then rush home and straight to the computer to do it all over again. Even so, I was behind on my word count when Thanksgiving hit, and I spent most of the break burrowed in the basement, but it paid off. I won. I wasn’t at the end of the story, and I never did finish it (small mercies), but I’d written 50k in a month. I’d done the impossible. I was a god. A god who was very behind on school work, and had to scramble to get my grades up before progress reports went out, but a god none the less.

I made lackluster attempts at NaNo the next couple years, but not in earnest until 2008, when creative writing classes had sparked my writing habit and I felt up to adding an insane challenge to my college course load. But it was different. I was writing a story I’d been trying to write for years, and it was like I knew it too well to really be able to fly through it. What started off as a promising effort soon devolved into lackluster word count scores, and I found myself on the last day of Thanksgiving weekend with a 35k word count and a story that had barely moved past the threshold. It was not promising, to say the least.

Except that I had just discovered the magic of Write or Die, and for some reason I got it into my head that I could not lose. Stubbornness has its advantages–mine lead me to sit down on the very last day of NaNoWriMo and input 1000-word intervals into Write or Die literally all day long, until my eyes were unfocused and my wrists were cramping and I never wanted to type another word again. It was a miserable day, but at the end of it I came out with 15k words, putting me over the finish line just before dinner. Once again, I was an all-powerful master of the universe, but the victorious feeling was fleeting; my story was utterly pointless, and it felt like I had written 50,000 words of nothing. I didn’t try for NaNo again until 2012, when a similarly dismal experience kind of turned me off to the whole concept.

You know how this story ends, though. At least, how it ends for now. After a good year of sulking, I finally decided enough was enough, and if I wasn’t suited to NaNo, I would just have to find a way to tailor NaNo to me. And thus the short story concept was born.

Boy, did that turn out well.

As I write this, I am sitting at just over 100k words, with a week left to go. I have written 9 stories, with another in-progress. One of those stories is 35k+ words long. I wrote 10k words on the first day, and 12k on another day, without really meaning to. They aren’t all winners. In fact, they almost certainly all suck right now, but they exist, and I made them exist, and that’s a hell of a lot more than I was doing before. Before November, I had finished one short story this year. One. Somehow, I went from painfully slogging through daily word counts to blowing past them without even noticing in the space of a year. It’s so easy now that I’m suspicious of it, like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and suddenly discover that my fingers have been forcibly removed from my hands as penance for having such an asshatishly high word count.

I’m naturally suspicious of epiphanies, because I tend to think any claim to suddenly have shit all figured out is straight-up hilarious, given the constantly changing/learning/growing nature of life as a human being, but it really does feel like somehow, somewhere, I flipped a switch. I didn’t go from 0 to 60, but I’ve moved off the starting line, and it’s hard not to feel like I’ve got my shit together just a little bit more than I did before. And that’s a nice feeling to have.

Long, rambling story short: if you are doing NaNoWriMo, I hope you are getting something out of it, even if it’s just a temporary feeling of god-like accomplishment whenever you hit your daily word count. If you are not doing NaNo…maybe you should consider it. You might not win, but at least you’re doing something, right?

Yours invincibly,
M.M. Jordahl

“Sucking is a necessary evil.” -Chuck Wendig

P.S. Here’s a blog post Chuck Wendig wrote about NaNoWriMo hate, because it’s vaguely related and too brilliant not to share.

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