The Artistic Anarchist and NaNoWriMo

[This is not the speech I gave at McGill Library in Burnaby last night. This was my attempt, the day before, to put my thoughts in order. My thoughts, as I spoke them, were distinctly less ordered, which is rather a pity]

It’s NaNoWriMo time, so here’s a shout-out to the intrepid writers attempting it this year. Bravo! You are boldly taking that first step on the proverbial journey of a thousand miles.

There are as many different reasons to write as there are writers writing. Personally, I write because I want to make art, and art is one of the finest, most humane things we can do. It’s also one of the most intimidating, and it comes with a lot of baggage. We’ve all been told that we didn’t have enough “talent,” or been mocked for being sincere or enthusiastic in public, or been asked – sometimes nicely, sometimes not so nicely – to stop singing. The world tells us all no, over and over. The easiest thing is to listen and obey – to give it up – and most of us do.

To quote Carla Speed McNeill: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Art is abundantly worth doing, whether you have expert skills or not. I’m in two choirs. For years I danced. Am I fabulously talented at either? Nope. But once I figured out that I couldn’t die of looking silly, there was no stopping me.

My favourite thing about NaNoWriMo is that they’re convincing people that it’s ok to try. I applaud them for that. We all have something to say and we are worthy to say it; art is not and should not be exclusively the domain of “experts.” In my dreams, art is a verb, something we all do for the love of it, and for our own sakes.

I’m kind of an artistic anarchist, to be honest, and I’ll tell you a secret: in art, there are no rules.

Now this is something of a paradox, because in fact art has lots of rules. You learned a bunch at school — how many syllables in a haiku and feet in each line of a sonnet; rules of spelling and grammar; musical keys; colour theory; dance steps. Viewed from a certain angle, art is nothing but rules, and this is not a bad thing. If I decided to sing in whatever key I wanted, I’d be kicked out of choir; if I eschewed spelling and grammar, no one but me could read my novel (and I’d be faking it, trust me). We need art to have rules so we can understand it.

What I really mean is “art has no rules that can’t be broken.” We get to choose what rules we’ll follow, understanding that there may be consequences to these choices (like getting kicked out of choir). If any rule is hindering instead of helping, we are absolutely free to let it go. Every rule is voluntary, and has to pull its weight.

I mention this because NaNoWriMo is a month of intensive rule-following. The letter of the law is straightforward: write 1667 words per day for 30 days and end up with a novel-length chunk of text. But what’s the spirit of the law? Why do this at all? I can’t get on board with arbitrary rules unless I understand what they’re for.

The spirit of the law, to my mind, is twofold: one, if everyone’s doing this at the same time — keeping track of word-counts together, having writing parties, egging each other on — then there’s a nice camaraderie there that one doesn’t often get in writing. Misery really does love company, and I think that goes double for writers.

Two: writing quickly, without editing can keep the mean shame-Grendels in your head at bay. They are nothing but the echoes of the world telling you no, telling you you suck too much to do this. Nothing stops writing in its tracks so effectively. We all have them, and we all have to find ways to shut them up. NaNo offers one specific way: work so fast and furiously that you don’t have time to listen to the haters in your head. It’s a clever strategy, and it works for lots of people.

However: if you find these rules don’t work for you, you are not a failure.

This is something I feel really needs to be said, among all the cheer-leading and pep-talking. Not everybody works this way — and that’s good, right? We’re all different; it’s going to be reflected not just in our art but in our processes. If you find you can’t NaNo, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer.

True confession: I’ve never finished NaNoWriMo. The first time I tried it, I’d already written a novel, so I knew at some level that I could do it. And yet, I couldn’t NaNo: the pace was doable, on a per-day basis, but I require down-time. I couldn’t write that many days in a row without a break. The well ran dry. The pressure of it weighed down on my heart, and I felt like I’d been chained to my keyboard. I was having a miserable time.

I got really depressed. It felt like everyone could do this but me! If I hadn’t already had a novel under my belt, I’d have thought I was no writer at all.

It’s hard when “the rules” are passed down from on high, with testimonials from Published Writers. It’s hard to go against the voice of Authoritah when you’re just starting out and trying to do things right. But let me raise a second, parallel voice, a descant over the main melody — because I’m an Authoritah too, friends — reminding you that all rules are voluntary. None of them are set in stone.

If the strictures of NaNoWriMo help you, huzzah! I’m glad you found something that works. If they don’t, give ’em the finger and kick ’em to the curb. Do not make NaNoWriMo a stick to beat yourself with. I’ve tried it; it hurts.

Now go out there and art!

4 thoughts on “The Artistic Anarchist and NaNoWriMo

  1. This is my third NaNoWriMo, and my first year as an ML, so I not only drank the koolaid but I signed up to help make more! 🙂

    I love NaNoWriMo because of exactly what you say are the good things: the accountability, the community (oh the friends I’ve made!), and shutting down the inner editor (funny you call it a Grendel, because I have a cat named Grendel who landed on my face last week and did a number to my eye, but that’s another story!).

    Three years ago I had written a full novel and most of a second, but had no idea what to do with them. I was also in a job that was a poor fit for my talents and interests.

    Since that time, and largely thanks to the NaNoWriMo experience and all the people I’ve met, and ideas I’ve gotten from these people, I am a full-time freelance writer by day and a novelist by night (sometimes in reverse). I have written four novels now, in various stages of completion, and am starting a 5th. I am also deep into indie publishing with my first novel (the one I had finished and sat on) coming out next month.

    Sure there are rules, but like they say, you need to first learn the rules before you break them. I like how NaNoWriMo focuses on writing every day and just getting words out (shut up Grendel!), because for so many people, that’s their biggest hangup. It was for me, and I had been writing my whole life. Do those rules work for everyone? No, but if you can drink the koolaid for a month and build up your own writing discipline, it can make a huge difference in the future. For me, it turned me from someone who liked to write into an actual bonafide writer.

    Anyway, thanks for your post, and thanks for your awesome books, NaNoWriMo or not. 🙂

  2. I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the fourth time this year, only this year I’m rebelling: instead of starting something new, I’m using the word count motivation to try to actually finish a novel. I’ve always managed the 50,000 words, but getting to an ending hasn’t happened. So I’m working on the novel I started in November 2013 (which I’ve been steadily working on a sentence at a time all year) and hopefully I can finally write “the end” on a first draft.

    Anyway, all that is to say it’s nice to read this. It helps me feel less guilty about rebelling, reminds me that if I manage to finish before I write another 50,000 words (which I should, otherwise it will be a really long novel) I will still have “won” even if the NaNoWriMo site doesn’t think so.

    • Modifying the rules so they’re useful to you is totally within bounds, as far as I’m concerned. One year I awarded myself the requisite number of words if I had managed to work for a certain number of hours.

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