Thursday, October 23, 2014

When writers discourage writing

So I've decided to give National Novel Writing Month another shot this year. I did it in 2012, had a lot of fun, made many friends and did, in fact, hit the 50,000-word mark (though the story was far from finished, to say nothing of its quality).

I'm not sure yet if I'll continue with If That's What You Want or start something new. The manuscript might decide that for me. I wont bore you with that process, opting instead to bore you with what results from it.

Calling yourself a writer opens you up to all sorts of Brian Griffin jokes. George Carlin claimed running wasn't a sport because "My mother can run! You don't see her on the cover of Sports Illustrated!" Writing is very much like running — most people can do it, and it's healthy, but few work up to a professional skill level and even fewer can claim it as a legitimate meal ticket.

And like running, many people will groan if you're giving constant writing updates to everybody. Indeed, the very first article that comes up in a search of NaNoWriMo (after its official site) is titled, "Attention, #NaNoWriMo Fans: No One Cares How Your F***ing Novel Is Going." The premise of this article seems to be, "Keep your tedious novel updates of the Internet because no one cares, and there are cats to be seen." But I tend to err on the side of, "Let people ignore you." The logic about groaning over updates can apply to literally anything anyone shares. In that respect, people accomplishing a goal, like writing or running, tend to be ahead of the pack. I'm certainly more interested in that than in inside jokes or what someone's drinking at the moment. But those people can keep on posting too, because freedom of expression isn't governed by what I'm into.

That's a lesson that Laura Miller should heed. In her article "Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy," she makes a multitude of claims that not only rub me the wrong way, but could permanently discourage promising writers:

"I am not the first person to point out that 'writing a lot of crap' doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November."

Well, to quote Dave Grohl, "Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f****** drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll f******* start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s***** old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-a** s***, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!"

"Writing a lot of crap" is exactly how good stuff gets written. Even if the manuscript itself can't be saved, the practice is equity. I have piles and piles of awful writing in a closet allocated specifically for that purpose and on numerous thumb drives (and here) dating all the way back to childhood that ensured that some of what I write now is readable. Every creative process — hell, pretty much every process — requires this. Why on Earth would anyone discourage that?

"Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it? Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read."

Ah, she's apparently inundated with manuscripts. Everybody can stop writing now.

"NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary. ... Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say."

I'm as self-motivated and hellishly persistent as any writer, but those 50,000 words I wrote in November 2012 would not have existed had I not jumped into the NaNoWriMo fray, where I got to meet fellow writers, received feedback and was motivated to try something different. Isolation fosters composing, but it isn't a virtue in and of itself. Indeed, some feedback during the process can help steer a story into readability before it has a chance to careen off the rails.

"Why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily?"

Interesting logic that writers are supposedly narcissistic for seeking motivation but readers benefit from it. I have no problem with reading groups (which exist in droves), but let's be consistent here. Both writers and readers can function with a support group and both without. Everyone's different, and sometimes people are different within themselves. Why slam on people for doing what they want?

"After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it."

Any good art is done with the intention of expression. Anything that comes after that is gravy. 

I've been writing long enough to have confidence in my processes — and to know which advice to heed and which to ignore. But I worry that someone else — a first-timer, perhaps — will read these anti-NaNoWriMo screeds and be discouraged from even trying. They'll think that writing is something they have to get perfect every time, and that interacting with peers is narcissism. They'll believe that they'll get lost in the fray and readers don't even want to have time for them. They'll take the words of an overworked literary critic at face value and snuff out their fire before they have a chance to strike the match.

Those are all the wrong reasons to quit.

I'd rather endure a million bad novels than kill one good one. Not everything can sell, but creativity is an infinite resource. If you have that drive, in any endeavor, try it! Even if no glory ever comes of it, you've added some color to the world — something to enjoy, dissect, talk about. Even if you or no one else ever sees it again, it's served a purpose. 

Just do it.


Robin said...


I read your post twice; it's an excellent piece. I'm trying do some writing of my own, and if I'd read that woman's article first I'd be ready to throw in the towel! (I have to agree with you that runners constantly talking about their running gets old very fast!)

Here's to a good NaNoWriMo for you!!


Ian McGibboney said...

Thanks, Robin! I don't think anyone should be discouraged from doing anything. It's one thing to find out something isn't for you, or to understand going in what you're in for, but telling people not to write seems like a particularly mean manifestation of that.

Ian McGibboney said...

Oh, and I'd read anything you write.