Since Chris Baty told us in his email how NaNo has changed his life and since more than one person over the years has asked me how exactly NaNoWriMo has changed mine, this seems like a good time to tell my tale. We’ll start with the story of my first NaNoWriMo.
It was October 2002, and I was fifteen years old. Like many people at that age, I was going through an angsty phase. Ending a romantic relationship with one of my at-the-time best friends and being one of the so-called “smart kids” in my class didn’t help much here (I eventually graduated second in a class of nearly 300 with a year of college credit and enough awards and extracurriculars to fill over a page). But I knew one thing, and that thing was that I loved writing and books. I kept (and still do keep) a paper journal About three years before I attempted writing a novel but crashed and burned after a few chapters. The first draft of those chapters still exists; maybe I’ll post it sometime so everyone can laugh at it.
But if I wanted to be a writer, I had to write a book, right? That was my mindset at the time, and to this day I prefer long-form novel-writing to just about all other forms of writing. Therefore writing a novel was the first step to becoming a writer, and when I discovered NaNoWriMo while browsing diaries on Diaryland one night in October 2002, I fell in love with the idea. Writing 50,000 words in a month sounded crazy, especially with my schedule at the time, but people had done it before. That meant I could do it, too. And I never turn down a good challenge. Besides, according to one of my old blog posts, maybe I could write away my angst.
My first NaNo novel turned out to be quite the mirror of my life at the time: an asocial high school overachieving girl who says screw everything and learns that friends are good. This is where I met my muse: Nat, a goth high school dropout turned bestselling writer. Completely unrealistic? Of course. Completely fun when you’re struggling for word count? Absolutely.
And struggle for word count I did. I got a good head start in the beginning with this beginning, but then school and my activities interfered. I fell further and further behind. By the halfway point I was at 12,000 words. Ouch. That’s not great in itself, but ten days later I was still lagging at 20,000 words. Double ouch.
But I told everyone about NaNo, so backing out wasn’t an option. Thanksgiving break would be my saving grace. Well, if my wrist would stop acting up. No. Quitting because of silly mortal injuries wasn’t an option. I strapped a wrist brace on and went to town. I don’t endorse this behavior if your wrist is in pain. Listen to your body. It’s the only one you have.
Those last six days were the most writing-intensive days of my life so far, and if you told my fifteen-year-old self she’d be doing things like the Three-Day Novel weekend or 50k weekend in a few years she’d cry and say no. But I pressed on, sneaking to my grandmother’s computer after Thanksgiving dinner and taking dares from a NaNo chat room like the catatonic fisherman and the purple people eater and nailing fish to a tree. I still talk to some of those folks now, almost ten years later.
At some point during the last six days I decided that the madness of NaNoWriMo would have to happen again the next year through the unofficial (and now defunct, though other versions live on) National Novel Writing Year in order to write about Nat. I never wrote about Nat, but this is where the soul-selling must have begun.
I found myself on November thirtieth with almost nine thousand words to go, ready to write all day, when my parents told me that the vet was putting our dog of almost my whole life down, and if I wanted to see her I had to go. After what was already a busy and rough month, the death of my dog wasn’t going to be the last straw. It wasn’t. So I went, said goodbye to her, helped bury her out back, and managed to write a poem for my English class whose topic just happened to be an elegy. Then I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more, and around 6pm my word count read exactly 50,000 words. After removing a few contractions for safety’s sake I verified and won. I was a winner and a writer. A real live writer (who happened to lose the winner’s certificate and 2002 pep talks a few years later).
The story of 2002 is important because today’s writer shines through in surprising ways. Finishing NaNo looked impossible during the last week, but I did and with almost six hours to spare. The ability to cram one more thing into an already-busy life has stayed true to this day, even during my last year of college in 2008, the year Write or Die came out, when I thought I had no time to write but busted out two thousand words in half an hour before collapsing into bed. That was when I really saw my potential as an overachiever.
NaNoWriYe turned out to be a bust, but I was on the forums immediately on October first. Having two easy classes in computer labs meant I did my work quickly, wondered how other people didn’t find it so easy, and spent a lot of time on the NaNo forums. This is probably why I still spend a lot of time on the forums. The community that formed on the site was already tight-knit, and I was fortunate to be part of it, both through forums and through chat rooms (get-togethers weren’t an option until moving to an active NaNo area). The teenage me with few friends found solace in these forums because finally here were a bunch of people who liked writing as much as she did. Whether we discussed characters, plotting, or urinal cakes, the bond between Wrimos proved to be an unbreakable one. The community behind the forums is the beginning of why my social circles consist almost entirely of Wrimos. It’s part of why Wikiwrimo exists, to preserve all that culture and community that was being built and as a way to give back to an organization that has given me so much. Everybody belongs somewhere, and I finally found my place.
NaNo has even gotten a hold of my love life, what little of it exists. Only one person I’ve dated has never done NaNo, and he made fun of me for it. That’s a sign he’s not a keeper, right? Everyone else has at least tried NaNo, and more recently folks have come directly from NaNo. It may be NaNocest, but really, only other Wrimos would understand. If ever I find myself interested in a non-Wrimo, this post may be required reading.
NaNo has shown me that I can not only write a book in a month, I can write two and even three in a month. I can write scripts and even a musical. It has given me the drive to push myself to limits I never thought was possible and then repeat. That’s how 300,000 words and 50k weekend happened last November, and it’s why I did the Three-Day Novel weekend last year and plan on setting aside my Labor Day weekend again this year. It turns out that writing prose very quickly is one of the few things I can say I’m better at than many people with some degree of confidence. Even if those books are terrible, what matters is that the words made their way out of my brain and onto the screen. What matters is the creative process of letting your words run wild, and the concept applies to every area of life. I’ve said “If I can write a novel or two or three in a month, then I can do X” so many times before, and that confidence boost works.
And that’s what NaNo is so great at: embracing the creative process and making it fun. It was something I struggled with before discovering NaNo and still struggle with sometimes, but NaNo taught me that sometimes you just have to put something on paper and take that first step. You can’t edit a blank page. Chris, I salute you for taking that first scary step. Best of luck to you, and be sure to keep us updated on your adventures.