writing
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NaNoWriMo or NaBloPoMo: No, Thank You

November is a busy month for writers and bloggers — on November 1, a number of events kicked off, notably NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, and NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. (There’s even NaNonFiWriMo, but that makes my eyes hurt so I’ll just type “NaNo” here to mean everything.) We’re promoting these month-long challenges over on WordPress.com, where I work, as we should — one goal we have on the editorial team is to help encourage bloggers to post regularly and write better. To get writers excited about writing.

And will I partake? No. But it’s not because I don’t have the time. I realize, over and over again, that I’m not a sit-down-each-day-and-write type of writer. I’m not that regular. As mentioned before, my writing comes in spurts, making this blog an awkward space — a pseudo-wasteland — that comes to life every few months. I let the internet know I’m still alive, then simmer down.

I can date my most productive writing sessions so far to 2006 — my second and third semesters of my MFA program at Goucher College. My first semester was a mess — while many of my classmates had solid book-length ideas for their manuscripts, I came into the program with several big ideas:

The warehouse rave scene and techno in the 1990s, and my first brushes with a maternal machine!

My time in Southeast Asia and the paradoxes of Thailand!

My fascination with Tokyo and the friction between modern and traditional!

* * * * *

So, Cheri — what’s your book about?

Well, it’s a collection of essays weaving disparate threads about techno music and the underground dance scene and the rise of the dot com industry in the Bay Area and the juxtaposition between those and then my experiences in Thailand and feeling like everything was backwards and my other travels in places like Tokyo and Montreal and the visual friction between old and new and French and English and and and…

Ugh.

I feel for the mentor assigned to me that first semester — I really do. There was not much she could say but to just write — to vomit it all out, to see what emerged. I think she was the one who had first suggested, after reading all of my crap, that I needed to poke at the scab that had formed after all those years of partying.

So, the rave it was.

Semester two was better: perhaps my new mentor, essayist Diana Hume George, sparked something in me. I woke up in the morning and slipped right into typing and — come afternoon — churned out 10, 15, 20 pages in Word. I’d never written like that before. At the time, I was living with my parents and working part-time here and there, so I set aside several days a week to sit and write. Sometimes it meant just sitting and not writing. But eventually, after a lot of sitting, the words spilled out. Perhaps I could liken the process to establishing a more regular bowel movement, but that might be disgusting. But that’s how it felt.

And still, that’s how it feels.

Under Diana, I wrote whatever I wanted. My fascination with the techno beat, for one. How mechanical and soulless it might sound on the surface, and yet how human and in tune with our bodies it made us feel. (I’d revisited this last year, over on Cyborgology.) Or, my earliest observations of the dot com industry in 1995 — of the excitement over technology and the internet, of a collective desire to use gadgets to make our lives easier — juxtaposed with a very different experience with technology when the sun went down: in abandoned warehouses in Oakland, where we surrendered to the sound of a machine, merged with its beat, came together like a tribe, and let it manipulate us.

The third semester was just as freeing. My third mentor, author Joe Mackall, helped keep me on track: I wrote even more each day. The words just came out. I explored the warehouse as a womb: dark, warm, nurturing. Dance crews like hunter-gatherers, staking out their territories on the dance floor. And the ecstasy.

Oh, the ecstasy.

The last semester was hard. Coming into this final stretch, I had hundreds and hundreds of pages, written over the past year. As I drafted my plan to the finish line — to present “my book-length manuscript of publishable quality” — I realized most of the material I’d written, while intriguing, was unusable for the manuscript I was working on at that very moment.

I felt defeated.

My final mentor was kind but firm; she suggested that what was missing, in all my commentary and analysis and big ideas of this fantastic dark underground, was me.

You need scenes, Cheri. You need *you* in there. You are the story.

When I realized I was to write a piece of memoir — at twenty-six — I cried.

* * * * *

November is just your beginning.

— Chuck Wendig, “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo”

I’ve read a number of posts and comments this week about how people plan to finish NaNoWriMo and get their novels published.

That’s wonderful and all — I love your enthusiasm, your dedication, your optimism. I’m envious, really. But I don’t think that’s how it works. Do read Chuck Wendig’s “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo.” It’s entertaining and honest.

I look back on the times I’ve invested effort and money on improving my writing; I think about those four semesters, each lapse a NaNo in itself.  A focused, dedicated period to draft material. Slowly improving, trashing whole chapters, editing the few passages that were salvageable, and working toward a polished product — whatever my idea of “polished” was at the time.

I finished my MFA program in June 2007 and produced a book with a beginning, middle, and end. In that sense, I was relieved and happy. But it’s an interesting feeling to get your bound manuscript in the mail, shortly after finishing, opening to the first page, and then wanting to throw up.

What is this alien thing in my hands, and why is my name on it? 

It was the first time I realized what it really meant to write.

* * * * *

I said above that what I’d written was unusable. Technically, yes. But that’s what must be done, isn’t it? I wonder what I’d write about today had I not written what I did. But that’s the thing: do we really write to get things out of us? Do we ever shake these things — these things we’re deeply curious about, these things we’ve experienced and have changed us to the core?

(Shall I point out that I’ve written this post before? That if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve said nothing new here?)

We’re always growing and changing. You’ll see vestiges of past material — hints of my obsession — in my posts today, no matter the topic: on Zadie Smith and memory (“I’ve been exactly there“), on writing at five in the morning (“Ten years ago at this time, I’d be leaving the warehouse”). Musings, then and now. Despite their fate, it’s all still me. I must remind myself that writing I’ve cut, of which I might be ashamed, is as valuable as writing I’ve published and am proud of.

So this archive of writing I have filed away — a record of perspective — is a treasure. It’s hard to read, yes, but it’s a treasure in its own way.

And what’s more to be said about writing a memoir when young? I think it’s silly in some cases, but I ultimately don’t think it’s a waste of time. Write it, but expect to write another one, and then another one. Not because you have so much to say and have accomplished so much, but because you probably won’t get it right, or you realize the moment you’ve finished, the wheels in your head have turned again.

The more I write, and the more I read the writing of others, I realize I have so much to learn. So much to improve. It’s a humbling process. I find it amusing that a big part of my current job is inspiring bloggers to write and improve their craft, when I can’t seem to follow my own tips. I’m no expert. When you begin to think you have all the answers, and think you know what you’re doing, it’s probably a good idea to check yourself.

If I impart just one piece of advice to those who read this blog, I’ll say this: if you’re a writer, you can always do better.

17 Comments

  1. Your posts are so honest, so direct, so deeply felt! I love your writing, Cheri!
    This is really the first day I’ve been able to look at some of it, since I began Writing 101.
    You must be exhausted from doing that, and all this!
    And you’re an excellent writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s no way I could blog in that way – my adventure travel/hiking blog has taken a back seat as I have been editing an online magazine on expeditions and adventure travel for over a year. That just went into print and copyediting has taken up all my time. So my blog has suffered a little. But I’m also writing fiction. Not just under one name, but two. Not just in one genre, but two. My first thriller is nearly complete (110,000 words) and my first sci-fi novella – the opener to a series – is also nearly complete (45,000 words). Both need to be edited by me then copyedited. I then need to write the follow-ups. And continue my adventure travel mag editing.

    None of this is my day job. I’m exhausted! I write as much as I can, when I can, because I love it. I hope it comes through in my writing. But if I were to submit to something like NaNo, I’d feel like I was being forced to write and I think that, for me, is a bar to creativity. I’ve managed to convince myself that all the other writing commitments I have are not forcing me, but allowing me. NaNo would change that.

    So, interesting perspective you shared.

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  3. Love this and certainly identify with spurts of writing. It is amazing how artists come in all sorts, some can pluck the sliver from the skin while others allow it to fester until it finds it’s way to surface.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says

    I’m not a “writer” but I enjoy reading very much and definitely enjoy your work. I like this statement, “Write it, but expect to write another one, and then another one.”

    I look forward to reading more of your work, Cheri.

    Like

  5. Cheers for sharing your thoughts about not NaNoing 😉
    I am not that ‘regular’ either (I was the one starting with my university papers a week before deadline day while others began at least two months earlier 😛 ) but still I want to try NaNoWriMo this year for I hope it is a way of stopping me from finding new excuses every day to not sit back down and write. I do not participate hoping to win anything, I basically just wanna get the first 50000 words done and from there, continue. So it is a chance, no must and I am looking forward to see how it turns out. Worst case I do not make it and well, then there still is DeWriIMOwTiMo (December-Writing-In-My-Own-Time-Month). 😉

    Like

  6. I completely identify with your description of writing in spurts – and that the only sure fire way to get writing is to just sit for a really, really long time until all those other distractions and inner turmoil reach some sort of peak.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Taryn Marie Writes says

    Love this post. I chuckled at the mention of Chuck Wendig, I adored his “250 Things You Should Know About Writing” and have bookmarked the post you linked to read afterword.

    Also, I don’t think it’s silly to write a memoir when you’re young. I think we go through a lot of things when we are young, a lot of firsts, a lot of learning experiences that leave impressions on us and mold us into the people that we grow into. I’d like to remember the woman I was when I was 20, and remember how she viewed the world, and how I view the world now, at 25, and how I will view it when I am 40, and long after that.

    Like

  8. What a relief. I’ve been struggling all day about whether to participate in nablomo and how I might get it done. After reading this honest post, I feel better. Maybe it’s better to write quality over quantity – since I get too busy to write on most days. Thank you for sharing this.

    Like

  9. Thanks for this post. Not every challenge meets the needs of every person, and you’ve stated very valid reasons against accepting the NaNoWriMo challenge. I applaud anyone, however, who takes stock of hisher abilities and motivations for writing short stories, essays, articles and even novels. We need good writers, but not necessarily ones who can pump out a novel in a month. Best wishes to those of you who can and do. And, to those who are taking the blogging challenge: best wishes! You have at least one admirer and reader anxious to see what you produce. November should be one of my favorite months for reading and writing!

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  10. Nice post. I do not think NaNoWriMo is the best way to write a novel. The story has to be focused and not rushed and just having 55,000 words doth not a novel make. Well done to everyone for committing to the task though and it is definitely important to write regularly but I would imagine that creating a finished novel is about more than quantity and speed of words. I am writing a novel and I care about it and am invested in every single word, I have to tell the story that still needs to be told so do not want to rush it. That said targets are important I think and if you tend to procrastinate then NaNoWriMo could be a great idea, giving you the challenge that you always needed to buckle down and write a novel. I am doing the NaBloPoMo as I do see it as a chance to engage with other writers and maybe write in different styles and genres. I am also planning to publish an e-book by Christmas and I think through blogging more regularly and consistently that I maybe able to build up my following and also get good feedback from my fellow bloggers.

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  11. In the same boat this year. I will use November to improve and revise my existing writing. Cheers to all of you who decided against NaNoWriMo this year and also to all of you who are doing it, of course.

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  12. Get out of my brain! 1) It’s a HUGE relief to see someone else not participating in NaNo – I’m drafting right now about how I can barely maintain the twice a week posting I’m currently attempting 2) What your book is about (everything) 3) Techno beat and how dance, when we dance wholly, like nobody’s watching, is a transcendent experience and connects us with the pulse of the universe (at least that’s how it makes me feel) 4) The story is better when you put yourself in it, but boy is that uncomfortable – can’t I just write pretty words? 5) the reams of unused material 6) I can always do better.

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