I am mid-way through my first-ever NaNoWriMo attempt. For those who don’t know it, National Novel Writing Month is a sprint challenge for would-be novelists and some real-deal novelists. The idea is to commit to writing 50,000 words over the course of November in the company of the many others ambitious or foolish enough to take up the task. If you write 1,667 words a day across the month, you end up with a rough manuscript around the length, if not the quality, of The Great Gatsby.
I’m not much in the way of a fiction writer. As a college student, I concentrated on writing poetry. As a graduate student and now a professor, I’ve produced researched nonfiction as well as more creative personal essays. Plot is tough for me. Nonetheless, I’ve always been inspired by one of my graduate mentors, the wonderful Cecelia Tichi, who, in addition to writing terrific scholarship on American literature and culture, penned a series of Music City murder mysteries under the name Cecelia Tishy. I still remember interviewing as part of a series of writers’ events and her saying, “anyone who criticizes novels should try writing one.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure about this provocation, but it’s stuck with me, and the idea of doing a NaNoWriMo has always seemed tantalizing. I like a good challenge, and I am an avid consumer of murder mysteries in my leisure time. Why not try writing one?
The short answer is that my job as a scholar and professor consists of doing A LOT of writing, so I don’t usually feel that I have much time for recreational writing, especially in a mode at which I know I’m not much good.
BUT, I am on sabbatical this year. I’m no longer suffering from either the pregnancy-induced anemia or the fertility-treatment-induced mood swings that have characterized so much of the last half decade of my life. I just have two children under five. Easy-peasy, right?
Well, dear reader, you’re probably a wiser woman than I.
I am failing at NaNoWriMo. I am also continuing to do it.
The combination of doing and failing simultaneously strikes me as characteristic of all creative work during this early period of motherhood. Because of the intensity of the challenge—It’s a lot of work in a compressed period of time—the NaNoWriMo experience is giving me a heightened sense of my normal feeling about trying to have a writing life while also parenting two babies. As I’m writing this post, for example, I’m also anxiously waiting for my older daughter to wake up and to see whether or not her cold of last night has blossomed into something that will mean I can’t send her to daycare for the day. (Note upon editing: she did have a fever; I’m now proofreading during her nap.)
How am I failing? Well, I’m not going to hit 50,000 words. I lost some time recently, and if you miss 3-4 days in the month, then, very quickly, the words start to pile up such that it’s no longer 1,6667 words per day, but something more daunting, like 3,000.
Too, I see the other writers in my region of the event knocking their word totals out of the park. At the mid-month mark, many of them have already hit 50,000 words. The other day, I had a remarkably efficient writing session on a piece of academic work. Ah, I found myself thinking, this is what life used to be like. I used to get so much done. It’s a tough comparison trap, as I evaluate my output against both the childless me who was able to take a working weekend or evening whenever she wanted, and also against writers without children. In bad moments, I resent some childless writers for their productivity and judge others for their lack of it. Of course, I know nothing about their lives, their feelings about having or not having children, their writing, or other pressures weighing on them. Like I said, these are bad moments.
But, in better moments this month, the condensed version of the writing life that is NaNoWriMo reminds me of important truths.
First, I am reminded of how much better of a human being I am when I have done some creative work, even if it’s very little. When I intend to work and miss it, I end up edgy and grumpy all day. Avoiding this bad feeling takes remarkably little. In just 25 minutes, I can write something, even if it’s pretty short and pretty messy. Because NaNoWriMo has a word and time tracker, I now know that I can do something like 450-500 words in about a half hour’s time. Not only is this better than nothing, but it’s a mercy to me and to my family. Announcing that I need a bit of time and then taking it means I’m a better partner and mother for the rest of the day.
And, little snatches of time add up. Although I envy other people luxurious quantities of time, their ability to meet up on weekends to write, and their 50,000-word manuscripts, it is the case that by the end of this month I will have close to 25,000 words, which ain’t nothing.
Finally, trying to hit my wordcount throughout the day reminds me that touching a creative project can be done in odd moments and in fits and starts. Stealing these scraps of time to make work is shaking me out of my stubborn assumption that I can only write in the morning or that I can’t write when the children are awake. Instead, it appears that if my older daughter is playing “Anna and Elsa” by herself, I can type out a messy dialogue sequence in fifteen minutes. Or, while my partner bathes the children, I can snatch 10 minutes to describe the corpse my protagonist is finding in an alleyway. (I’ve got a body count of two thus far…)
So far, the NaNoWriMo experiment has been one of moderating and managing expectations, recognizing that this moment of intensive motherhood and writing in snatched bits is one stage in my life. It’s also a stage with surprising creative joys. The almost-four-year-old Eloise has been doing more and more imaginative play and coming up with her own surprising turns of phrase and uses of language. In the tub the other night, she asked me to play human thesaurus and list for her as many words for “amazing” as I could. Earlier today she asked, “what do oysters have on their tongues?” And, because I am also trying to add more writing to my already writing-filled life, the month has also forced me to reconsider and shake up how, when, and where I write, itself an experiment worth doing, lousy murder mystery aside.