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A Writer Writes? Sometimes.

A few weeks ago I watched Throw Momma From The Train with my reg­u­lar movie night crew. It’s a dark com­edy about an author (Billy Crys­tal, before he got bor­ing) with writer’s block who teaches a cre­ative writ­ing class. Billy Crystal’s maxim is “A writer writes. Always.” He doesn’t let that stop him from iter­at­ing an open­ing line that would get thrown out of every work­shop I’ve been in (“The night was hot/humid/moist/foggy/sultry.”). Evi­dently a writer writes first lines. Over. And over. And over.

It’s National Novel Writ­ing Month, a bad idea made worse by the event’s man­gled short­hand, NaNoW­riMo (or NaNo for those with espe­cially cur­tailed atten­tion spans). Every Novem­ber, would-be nov­el­ists unclench their cheeks and squeeze out 50,000 words of gush­ing log­or­rhea that enthu­si­asts swear is just like the real thing. That’s a lit­tle over 1,500 words per day, includ­ing Thanks­giv­ing Day, Black Fri­day, and what­ever other por­tions of the month we spend in the kinds of stu­por that is slightly at odds with the act of coax­ing words out of our febrile brains. I can think of few exer­cises less pro­duc­tive than attempt­ing to stitch together a coher­ent thought or two amid the cacoph­ony of foot­ball, fam­ily squab­bling, and what­ever sound a Wal­mart shop­per makes while being tram­pled to death under the feet of this year’s cap­i­tal­ist vin­tage down at the Wal­mart. Don’t for­get, that’s all hap­pen­ing dur­ing NaNo’s crunch time, near the end of the month when you’re already 8,000 words behind because you skipped one week­end to just sit in a the­ater and watch the new Twi­light movie over and over again and spent the entire first week of the month hav­ing sternly worded Face­book fights about the elec­tion with your crazy uncle. Which, not coin­ci­den­tally, you will shunt into your novel-in-progress, because oth­er­wise you’d be 10,000 words behind — those Face­book com­ments were both elo­quent and inspired. It may come as a shock, given my unfet­tered enthu­si­asm, that I am not par­tic­i­pat­ing in this farce.

I am all for Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts” approach to writ­ing, in which “the first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, know­ing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” (from Bird By Bird — go read it). If no one is going to see it, I’d just as soon not spend what free time I have writ­ing about writ­ing instead of toil­ing away in obscu­rity where I belong. It’s obvi­ous at this point that the num­ber of words writ­ten about National Novel Writ­ing Month far exceed the num­ber writ­ten under its yolk. I don’t see the value in sta­pling a word count to your fore­head, then won­der­ing why you have a migraine. For a writer who isn’t already in the habit of sit­ting down to com­pose on a reg­u­lar basis, it’s a bit like decid­ing to become a pro­fes­sional marathon run­ner and bypass­ing all the long months of train­ing that lead up to each race. You’d pull a mus­cle. Cramp up. Crap your pants and col­lapse in a heap within tan­ta­liz­ing sight of the fin­ish line. Die of heat stroke or dehy­dra­tion. Let’s say you do upheave the rest of your life and man­age to hit 50,000 words this month. What then? What hap­pens in Decem­ber? You spend it reac­quaint­ing your­self with your friends and fam­ily, grate­ful there’s no loom­ing word counter on your cus­tom NaNoW­riMo pro­file page to shame you for hav­ing the gall to live your life. After Novem­ber, the project’s done, it’s over, and there’s no rea­son to keep sit­ting down every day. This does not a habit make.

The pro­pa­ganda can now point to sev­eral “suc­cesses,” pub­lished work that began as National Novel Writ­ing Month projects. This nar­ra­tive con­ve­niently elides the months of revi­sion, edit­ing, sub­mit­ting, cop­ing with rejec­tion, more edit­ing, and yet more rejec­tion that hap­pens after the end of Novem­ber. You know, the unglam­orous, unquan­tifi­able work of fix­ing the fever dream you thought of as a novel and then try­ing to get it pub­lished. There is a National Novel Edit­ing Month, I checked. Imag­ine my ecstasy.

All this is to say I haven’t updated my blog in a while. I’m not sorry. It started feel­ing per­func­tory, so I stopped play­ing the syn­chroblog­ging game that had become my main excuse for writ­ing here. This post is, actu­ally, part of that game, on our shared topic of “Max­ims.” I’ll be back eventually.

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