In 1999, the first National Novel Writing Month was dreamed up. Affectionately known as NaNoWriMo or NaNo by those of us who undertake the writing adventure, the entire venture began, as founder Chris Baty explains, because they were a bunch of twenty-somethings who, “wanted to make noise.” Creativity is an essence of humanity itself, an element of humanity that we all possess, but into which only some delve. Be it fear, lack of confidence or disbelief in the natural possession. Abraham Maslow posed the query: “The key question isn’t ‘What fosters creativity?’ But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.”
That first year there were twenty-one participants in NaNoWriMo. Last year, there were 200,530. In a keynote speech at a publishing industry conference in 2004, Baty described NaNoWriMo as, “a grassroots revolution…afoot in the way people related to books and writing…142,000 kids, teens, and adults give up their entire Novembers to take part in a writing contest where the only prize was writing itself. I told them I’d seen countless people find friends through books, find hope through books, and find their sense of themselves remade through books.” Evidence that NaNoWriMo has become an important event for writers and even more notable, a creative undertaking for the sake of creativity and the writer her/himself.
I spoke to one of my local Municipal Liaisons (ML), Teresa Schultz-Jones, about her thoughts on NaNoWriMo. Schultz-Jones, who was an engineer for over twenty years and then left to home-educate her children, is now devoting her time to writing. She has been a participant and ML since 2004. MLs are volunteer moderators who serve as support for localized regions. According to Schultz-Jones, “There are actually very few responsibilities [as ML]. You have to have a kick-off party and a ‘thank goodness it’s over’ party and you have to moderate the forums. You have to mention fundraising and that’s about it. And you have to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel! Those are the required responsibilities, but very few MLs do just that alone—most do a lot more. We have a plot-planning potluck party which was sort of a kick-off and we have a lot of events throughout the month—mostly we get together to write but we have little games that we play during those… I put together a whole package from my WriMos… I’m kind of like a cheerleader for the region.” Schultz-Jones supports 316 participants in one region and a group of 1,170 “Elsewheres,” which is a catch-all group for those cities that do not have their own group or ML. I asked her about the benefit of grouping people: “We’re all competitive and so when you get together and somebody’s written so many words and you know you can do just one more word than them! It’s a thing that keeps you going.”
2011 marks the twelfth year of National Novel Writing Month. The impact of the endeavor is immediately apparent to the individual participant. I can attest first-hand—this November will be my third year. In the last two years, I have won both times, producing rough drafts of two novels that I have been completing and editing since. There is no better time to accumulate such a quantity of writing—to accomplish so much work. That looming deadline is a great motivator, especially in conjunction with the support of the NaNoWriMo community—a vibrant, active and cooperative group. The NaNoWriMo site itself is rife with tools to track your progress, ideas on how to succeed, highly active forums and supportive podcasts. All this is paired with local writing events and gatherings and regional representatives on whom you can call for support. The accomplishment is exhilarating and creates a momentum that can carry you into the new year, with the possible benefit of creating the habit of writing everyday. It makes you realize that you can do it, which is motivating and confidence-building. Schultz-Jones agrees: “Doing this in the month of November—it’s a doable time period. You’re not writing something over the course of many years, you’re not committing to even finishing it, you’re just committing to spending thirty days on it.” It feels big yet achievable, and it is, after all, only a month. Often, the NaNoWriMo forums carry on throughout the year, and at all hours of the day and night, filled with WriMos working through their novel revisions—another component of the writing process where community helps move the work forward.
For the individual writer, NaNoWriMo is an exercise in letting go and a means of making the time to write—it’s a foundation from which a solid novel begins to be built. It is the concept of experimenting simply because you can. Let life fall apart a little bit for a month and focus on creativity. Let the control slip slightly and see what comes of it. “Some people go in with the novel they’ve always had in their heads and it comes out fine,” says Schultz-Jones. “I think most people, though, when they try to write from life or something they’ve gone through or something they have too much invested in, it doesn’t work. It’s almost better to just throw it all away and write something, figuring it’s only thirty days, let me see what happens.” It becomes a writing technique. Schultz-Jones commented, “Often when a person learns to write in school, they learn there is a process to writing. They learn about outlining and drafting, and thinking things out and NaNo says, ‘No, there’s another way to do it.’ You can forget about quality. Quality comes later—work on the quantity. It’s a very viable writing technique that many people have never even thought of trying. Pump your 50,000 words out. And I do see people get so hung up on ‘The Great American Novel’ aspect of it that they can’t get that far. But if you can really throw it away and write 50,000 words and not worry about the quality of it, you’re going to go back and find that there is some quality there and you can polish it. And so you’re actually learning a really great writing technique that may be the one for you.” It is a big undertaking and the business of life carries on through November, but somehow, the time gets carved out. Hence the NaNoWriMo maxim: “the busier you are, the easier it is.”
How do you write 50,000 words in 30 days? There are some rules, which have been instituted on the basis of a myriad of questions sent in by writers in the early years. As Baty explains, they were necessary to helping participants achieve the goal: “Because, from my years of work as an editor, I knew that having a set of unbendable rules and a merciless deadline was absolutely essential in giving writers the mental focus and shared sense of toil necessary to tackle daunting projects.” The humor comes through, but the rules provide the nudges we all need to get the task done.
Word-count is a significant aspect of the NaNoWriMo novel-writing process: quantity over quality. Will your 50,000-word manuscript be of high quality in the end? Nope. NaNo is all about quantity. And upon that fact is where the naysayers feel compelled to pipe up. The argument has been made, why write drivel? And, does the world need another mediocre novel? But they’re missing the point. It’s about the creative spark—taking that as impetus and moving through a large piece, the unknown road before you. Maybe to some, NaNo is a silly idea, but there might be some merit in something Albert Camus’ said: “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.”
From the participant numbers, it is clear that there is a need for a creative outlet like NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo’s participant numbers grow every year—from 21 participants in 1999 to over 200,000 in 2010. And why? Because NaNoWriMo proves that creativity matters. Why are people compelled to do NaNoWriMo? What is driving this desire, this need to write? Simply the need to be imaginative and expressive—to fulfill the need for creative output, to be a part of a community. The response to NaNoWriMo came as a surprise to the founders in the early years. The participants doubled between year one and two. By year three, the organizers were expecting about 150 participants—they got 5,000. Driven by chatter on blogs, which were a new form of media then—largely ignored by mainstream news—writers wanting to take part in the event were directed to NaNoWriMo’s website, which was far from having the infrastructure and functionality to support so many people. They managed to pull it off and, with a little duct tape and bubble gum adhering their website, they got through 2001. But what I think it speaks to is the human need to be creative.
Creativity helps form alternate perspectives. It promotes originality and fluency and flexibility in the thinking process. It allows us to problem-solve, elaborate on ideas and redefine what we already know. Creativity fosters the development of complexity in ideas. Making new things and developing new ideas makes us, simply, happy. Research shows that children whose creativity is encouraged become more successful adults—it is a component of the cultivation of life skills and the ability to decipher problems and determine answers. The success of NaNoWriMo is fueled by our need to cultivate our natural imagination and expression, nurture clarification and communication and as an outlet for that which we need to work out, to express. NaNoWriMo fosters that creative spirit.
The array of groups dedicated to NaNoWriMo supports the idea that the organization is being driven by this need to create. Simply Googling “NaNoWriMo community” calls up an extensive return. But what is striking is the diversity among groups represented: New York, Seattle and Denver Public Libraries (among many other libraries), gaming websites, Pagan community sites, Mormons, a wide variety of genre fiction groups, a Star Wars forum, a woman baby boomers forum—to name a few. It’s an indication of the scope and reach of NaNoWriMo and its impact on communities of all kinds.
And that is one of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of NaNoWriMo: the community it fosters. Writing is most often a solitary venture and practice. But during November, the writer is drawn out into a sea of fellow creators—bolstered and spurred-on by other writers. Creating together cultivates artistic connection, a collaborative spirit and community-building. The founders recognized this immediately and by year two, when the participant numbers doubled, they were already beginning to think about connecting participants in their local regions and creating writing communities. Community and collaboration have been an integral aspect of NaNoWriMo from its inception.
Although one of the “rules” mandates solitary writing, NaNoWriMo is collaborative in terms of a large group of people coming together for a common goal, even if those goals are individualistic in nature. That quality affects the community energetically, affecting the writing process—you witness the word counts of your peers piling up and it becomes a point of competitiveness to match that pace. For some, it becomes a point of pride in self—a determination to meet the goal. But it is sparked and nourished by the energy surrounding the event. This is one of the many positives that have evolved from NaNoWriMo. As Schultz-Jones points out: “You start to know about what other people are working on and you know where their struggles are so it’s like asking after a friend who’s maybe not doing well or who’s doing really well… It’s very collaborative among the MLs and on some of the boards because we talk and exchange ideas… Over the years you can come to these things [write-ins] and there are certain people you see every year and you look forward to seeing them again and you look forward to who new is going to come in.”
A remarkable metamorphosis of the organization is how it has grown in its global philanthropic efforts. National Novel Writing Month has moved from something fun to do into a solid and organized approach to community outreach. From programs for youths to library-building in Cambodia, NaNoWriMo has grown into an organization that uses its reach to effect positive change. By their fourth year, Baty was seeking a means of philanthropy for the organization. 2004 marked the year when NaNoWriMo began collaboration with non-profit organizations in support of writing and literacy efforts. They partnered with Room to Read, the international children’s literacy program and the Cambodian Libraries program was born. It established and outfitted children’s libraries in three Cambodian villages, and the program continues to grow today.
In 2005, the Young Writers Program (YWP) was instituted, wherein kids could set their own word-count goals and NaNoWriMo sent stickers, posters and winner certificates to participating classrooms. Everyone from third graders to teens took part and by the next year, YWP grew from 4,000 to 15,000 kids participating. By 2007, YWP included programs in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Sweden. The organization launched new NaNoWriMo initiatives in libraries, bookstores, and adult-school classrooms. By 2008, 600 classrooms were signed up and 22,000 K-12 grade students wrote books. In a collaboration with Renaissance Learning, NaNoWriMo delivered computers to three YWP classrooms enabling them to participate in the YWP. In 2009 “Come Write In” was started in which NaNoWriMo partnered with over 75 public libraries and indie bookstores to create community writing paces. They began to use Twitter to instigate “Word Sprints”—group writing sessions for thousands of people. As of 2010, YWP expanded into a Virtual Classroom where teachers could interact with students online and 1,740 classrooms participate from around the world. Additionally, the Laptop Loaner Program loans laptops to individuals who want to participate but do not have access to a computer.
NaNoWriMo has eclipsed its quirky inception and evolved into what many consider a salient and relevant literary event. Still fun, still light-hearted, it is nevertheless an opportunity for would-be writers to try their hand at writing a novel, serious writers to get a large bulk of work accomplished and for others a chance to take a break from the “real world” for a month and let their creativity loose. There are few who can say they gain nothing from this endeavor, win or lose. It is a test of stamina and determination and an opportunity to learn something about oneself. From my vantage point, I see only benefits in people taking the time to challenge themselves and tap into their wells of creativity—an uplifting and energizing venture. NaNoWriMo has taken its momentum and directed it towards programs that support its participants and foster philanthropic endeavors globally. This could have been turned into a for-profit event, but instead they have followed the flow of the spirit of those who choose to participate: writing for the sake of writing itself and moving this generosity of spirit into the world at large, creating together locally and globally.
Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.