Why I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo This Year

I flirted with but ultimately rejected the idea of doing the National Novel-Writing Month challenge again. NaNoWriMo (as it’s very geekily called) is a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel during November. That’s about 1,670 words a day, or about 5 to 7 pages, depending on how you write.

I completed the challenge, writing 50,000 or more words, in November 2013, 2014 and 2015. Each of those years, I followed professional writing disciplines, such as outlining the plot and completing character studies. In 2014, I volunteered as my region’s coordinator for the program, so I gave pep talks, set up “write-ins” at area libraries, fielded questions, held hands, and organized parties for the kick-off and the completion celebration.

I ended up with three very rough first drafts of novels, since 50,000 words is really more novella length – not enough for the complexity of my stories. I tried writing mainstream fiction, each based on a “big” concept or theme, such as sovereignty over one’s body, or technology’s tendency to disenfranchise people who don’t get it. Yeah, pretty heady concepts, and pretty pretentious, looking back on it.

I gave myself a break last year because of work pressures, and told myself I would instead work on revising the most promising of the three novels. Rereading the manuscripts, I was by turns delighted and horrified by what I’d written. I couldn’t really make headway on the best of the lot, so I set the whole thing aside for another day.

I have since tried “The Artist’s Way” to reconnect with my desire to write, but a roadblock proves immovable so far.

The work pressure is off this year, but I find myself unenthusiastic about trying again:

  • I don’t need a fourth unfinished half-assed novel in my life. I am afraid of failure and always driven to achieve things. Getting the “yay” moment at 50,000 words is nice, but it’s not enough for me anymore.
  • I’d rather spend my time doing other things, such as sewing, taking care of my health, and building my career.
  • The effort is not that great for me, since I can write very quickly and my long commute affords plenty of time. But the project took me away from my husband a lot in November; he resented it, and I felt guilty.
  • I never connected well with anyone in my community like I thought I would. I was hoping to make friends, or at least a colleague I could bounce things off of, but that didn’t happen. This sounds awful, but the people I met were all weird and I didn’t want to spend time with them. They probably regarded me as some entitled snob, which is true enough.
  • The NaNo crowd skews heavily toward genre fiction. I’m not putting genre fiction down, it’s just hard to relate to someone who’s writing what they hope is the next Twilight or Star Trek series while you’re exploring more down-to-earth themes.
  • My new job is more challenging than my old job, where I had lots of time to screw around. Many a time when I was supposed to be working at my old job, I’d be writing my novels instead. A couple times in 2015 I wrote during my lunch break on my personal laptop, but it was a weird thing to do in my office environment and it made me uncomfortable.
  • Part of me feels I need to get over this silly dream and just focus on my career anyway. I’m 47, for chrissakes.

I sometimes miss writing (but hey, I have this blog for that). I toyed with “pantsing” it, that is, writing a novel by the seat of my pants – no outline, no characters, no theme. But my control-freak mind would be most unhappy. I also toyed with the idea of doing something goofy, like fan fiction, just to do it – try something different, get out of the ol’ comfort zone.

Part of me feels sorry that I am passing this by. I really do want to write and to publish one good book in my lifetime. That may not happen for a variety of reasons, but if I don’t do the work in the first place, that will always be reason #1. Corny motivational sayings such as “winners are losers who gave it one more try” and “it’s never too late” are all true. Also, there is never a perfect time, let alone a good time, to do the work. You do it because you need to. You make the time for it. You sacrifice and scrimp and sow resentment if you have to.

There’s nothing magical about National Novel-writing Month. It’s just a month, just a goal, just a structured community to participate. I can do it any time. So why don’t I?

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Exorcising Demons in The Artist’s Way

I’ve hit a roadblock in my efforts to follow the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. The roadblock is unexpected, scary and very hard to get through. I have been thinking about it since June.

In brief, the book recommends readers follow a multistep process to gain increased creativity. (For some old posts about the process so far, see Trying “The Artist’s Way”An Artist’s Date to the Vintage Shop and An Artist’s Date on the Linear Trail.) I am doing this to try to break through my fear and inertia to do more creative writing.

One of the early steps involves exorcising demons, in a way. You’re meant to write down times in your creative life when you felt discouraged, ridiculed, scared, or otherwise blocked by someone else from living the creative life you’ve wanted. Maybe your parents discouraged you as a kid. Maybe classmates tore your work apart with criticism. Maybe your husband or kids or job gobbled up your energy and will.

This exercise brought up a memory of college. I recently ordered my transcript to see if I could do a little fact-finding into this episode. There the class is – MET EN202, Creative Writing, spring of freshman year. I got an A-.

I was a full-time student at Boston University, but I took a creative writing class at the BU night school (called Metropolitan College) to ease up my schedule a bit so I could work at my day job more hours and make more money. Adjuncts taught these classes. The professor was this older guy – a tall, skinny man, with a long face and a short gray beard. I can’t remember his name. He had published a few short stories, including one in The Atlantic of The New Yorker or something prestigious. I vaguely remember one of his stories – about some short guy who wore a fez around to attract women and to make himself look taller.

I was working on a story about this kid I knew in high school. I don’t remember anything about it. That is, whatever that story was about, it wasn’t memorable. I once had to go to the professor’s office hours, which were at night of course. His office was on one of the upper floors of a crummy building in this campus no-man’s land along Commonwealth Avenue. He didn’t sit behind his desk but rather sat in this little sitting area to the side, and I sat opposite him, where I could watch the neon Citgo sign from Kenmore Square grow and shrink and grow again over his shoulder.

The other thing that was growing was his erection. I was no virgin as a freshman in college, but I was still pretty inexperienced. I knew and yet I didn’t know what was going on. He talked about what a great talent I was. He talked about how the publishing world loved the young. If I could publish my first novel before I was 21 or 22, I would have the literary world at my feet. All I needed was someone who could help me. Of course, he could be that someone. I was 18.

I was wearing this peach-colored L.L. Bean mock-neck T-shirt that I’d had about a year. I remember it because I wore this shirt one of the first couple of times I had sex with my high-school boyfriend. My boyfriend didn’t like the shirt because it pulled on over my head. He wanted to a button-up shirt so he could watch my breasts emerge as he unbuttoned it. I never wore it with him again. He was well out of the picture by that spring. But all I could think about was how my breasts looked in that shirt and how I wish I’d kept my jacket on for the meeting with the professor.

Nothing happened. That is, he didn’t touch me or proposition me directly, or expose himself or anything like that. He just sat back in his chair, his legs crossed widely, ankle to knee, and displayed his bulging crotch through his khakis while he spun a story of my swelling genius.

I was majoring in journalism, not creative writing or English or anything impractical and doomed to unemployment. I came from a lower-middle-class family, which regarded college as the place to get skills to get a job, not as a place to sit around and write great thoughts. I was conflicted about journalism. I threw myself into it and I liked the writing, but I didn’t really click with it my freshman year. The professor discouraged journalism, saying newswriting’s flat tones and deadline pressures would “ruin my voice.”

I left that meeting and finished the class and got my A- and never went to his office hours again. I did very little creative writing after that. I took another writing course in the English department, called “Advanced Composition,” (for which I earned an A) but the pull toward an English major was over. I got instead into literary journalism, finished up my courses, got my diploma and started at a small newspaper making $300 a week. Journalism did not work out for me in the long run – I was a journalist for about 12 years and then gave it up for corporate jobs.

The next time I wrote fiction was just a couple of years ago, when I tried NaNoWriMo. I had forgotten about this tumescent professor and his promises. I really forgot. Maybe I blocked it out or maybe the significance of this event faded with time. But now I remember it well enough to ask: Is this the reason I gave up the hopes of a literary life? Did he scare me enough to kill my ability and desire to write? I really don’t think I was any child prodigy genius, but did I have something that smothered before it sparked? Or, am I blaming him for my own failings?

I’ll never know. That’s the problem with introspection – you can ask yourself questions all day and never get answers.

“The Artist’s Way” encourages you to write letters to people who held you back, then destroy them, as a way to exorcise any demons that whisper to you that you’re not good enough. I have been wanting to but unable to write this letter to this professor. I have been stuck for since June on this problem. I figured I’d write about it here to see what happens, before I plot my next move.

An Artist’s Date on the Linear Trail

This week’s Artist’s Date – solo adventures meant to inspire creativity – was to an old haunt of mine: a linear park perfect for walking, jogging, cycling and rollerblading.

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I used to come here all the time. First, when I was dating my husband, we’d come here to rollerblade or bike. We did a lot of sporty outdoors stuff when we were wooing one another. Now, not so much.

Then, when I used to work at home a lot for my old job, I’d come here for a rollerblading workout after work or during my lunch break.

Over the years I’ve walked here with a pregnant friend, walked with her and her infant daughter in a stroller, walked my dog, and just walked.

The last time I was here was a couple of days after the US election when I was despondent about Donald Trump’s election victory. I wanted to go someplace where I could really think, alone. I am not a very political person. I became a political person that day.

The election encouraged a lot of soul-searching in me. I used to be a journalist, so while I am very well informed about the issues, I rarely have an opinion about them. I can see both sides, and I avoid getting caught up in day to day debates. I read widely, I always vote, but I don’t belong to a political party. Even though I have not been a journalist for years, I had always told myself that I should remain neutral in case I ever want to get into journalism again.

Who am I kidding?

I felt physically ill about Trump. I couldn’t sleep. I would think about him and my heart would race with anxiety. I had never had such a reaction in my life. I realized that I have been very fortunate in my life, selfish and privileged.  I realized I need to do more to share with others, to stand up for what I believe in, to educate myself about issues and speak my mind.

I have tried to do that. It’s hard and sometimes depressing. It’s easier just to avoid the newspaper and talk about fun things and laugh at the Trump impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” But then reality sets in and I get angry and anxious again.

On my Artist’s Date yesterday I thought about this as I rollerbladed along. I have done several political things I have never done in my life. I marched in protests, wrote letters to congress members, donated money to political causes, signed petitions, and spoke out whenever I felt I should. I have alienated some relatives and a few friends, but I feel good overall. It’s time to pick sides.

I also thought yesterday about what to do next. I am going to give a speech about civil liberties, which have been under siege under Trump. I crafted out the speech in my mind, and next I need to write it and practice it. I’ll give the speech before an audience at my Toastmasters club later this month. It’s my way of informing people, giving back and letting people know where I stand.

The Artist’s Date has been an excellent boost to my thought processes and desires for action so far. Where should I go next week?

Trying “The Artist’s Way”

A lot of people think that creative genius just … happens. You’re born a genius, like Madame Curie, outshining all the men in the lab, or you’re struck with a bolt of inspiration, like Georgia O’Keeffe in the southwestern desert, or you just see the world so differently that you can’t help but be creative, like shy Emily Dickinson in her little room in Massachusetts.

Nonsense.

Genius is hard work. Creativity requires dedication. Success requires a belief in yourself, as well as a willingness to tell naysayers to go to hell.

I’m learning this as I started reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron this week as a self-improvement project. I find myself frustrated by my inability to do what I really want to do and instead I keep going on with jobs that don’t satisfy me. I throw up roadblocks to success. I allow self-doubt to creep in. I just don’t put in the work.

The book has a spiritual component that does not appeal to me, but the advice so far has provoked thought and action. I started with two central activities:

  • Morning Pages – Every morning, first thing, write three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness prose. This discipline is meant to remove cobwebs from your brain and get creative juices flowing.
  • Artist’s Date – Once a week, take a small, solo adventure somewhere for a couple of hours. This is meant to open your eyes to new experiences and unexpected connections.

Morning Pages has been interesting. Since I am comfortable with writing already, I’m not challenged to fill the three pages most mornings. After a few days of doing this, I noted how themes repeated themselves – my various aches and pains, my husband’s various actions and inactions, and the little things that set me off or please me, plus (as always) diet and food. I’m interested to see where this goes.

Yesterday I went on an Artist’s Date. For a mid-afternoon break from work, I walked from my office in Times Square down to Columbus Circle and back. I have done this a couple of times before, but I took a different route this time. I didn’t bring money or a cell phone or anything but my badge to get back into the office. I made note of anything that surprised me, such as:

  • Aggressive peddlers of bicycle rentals, including one guy who was using his job to harass women.
  • A coffee truck promoting the new “Twin Peaks” TV show. (“Damn good coffee.”)
  • A tall young man dressed all in black except for hot pink high-top sneakers.
  • A group of young people drawing some promotional thing on the sidewalk with chalk.
  • The startling green of Central Park in early spring.
  • An older man dressed in what looked like a cricket uniform.
  • So much “French” food – little bistros and quick-serve places with French names.

I didn’t immerse myself into this experience as much as I wanted to. It was my first try, OK? But I noted a few things that attracted my attention – bright colors, fattening food, and the somewhat puzzling activities of people young enough to be my children.

I am already thinking of where I want to go on next week’s “date.”