Every November, Twitter, Facebook and blogs are full of tales from the front line of NaNoWriMo – or National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write 50,000 words during November and it does seem to galvanize writers everywhere into action.
But while I agree that it is good to sometimes have deadlines and targets, the thought of NaNoWriMo makes me shudder. Can it be good to put so much pressure on yourself?
Writers are terribly insecure beings on the whole. And we’re also our own worst critics. We set ourselves up, a lot of the time, for failure by putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves when we don’t really need to. And I can’t help feeling that for me, and possibly for a lot of other writers, NaNoWriMo could pile on that pressure and add to writers’ guilt.
You know what that is – berating yourself because you haven’t met an artificially imposed target; stressing out because you didn’t manage to write enough this week, or today, or in the last half hour; feeling terrible because you spent half an hour reading the comments on a Guardian article instead of writing (I just can’t help torturing myself at the moment). We all do it. We all think everyone else is writing for three hours before breakfast and then doing a full day’s work (I’m talking here about those of us who have other paid work in addition to our writing). We all secretly suspect that everyone else is up until the small hours, pounding away at the laptop while we, lazy losers that we are, are terrible enough to sleep.
We’ve all read those articles in the back pages of writing magazines – ‘My Writing Day’ or ‘My Bloody Perfect Life’. You know the ones. ‘I get up at seven and drink lemon juice and water. Then I write for three hours solid before taking the dogs for a long, refreshing walk in the acres of woodland just outside my cottage, before coming home to a healthy salad for lunch and an afternoon of editing.’
I don’t know about you, but my reality consists of squeezing in some writing amongst the paid work, and sorting out the kids and the dogs and the house and the cooking and the shopping and the hundred other things that have to take priority. Sometimes it’s genuinely impossible to write. That often makes me feel really bad. I don’t need NaNoWriMo to make me feel worse.
And you know, there’s nothing wrong with taking your time over your writing. Sometimes the reasons we don’t write are genuine reasons and not excuses. If you have family or a mortgage to pay or an elderly relative dependant on you, or the washing machine packs up, or the dog needs taking to the vet, then writing, rightly, takes a back seat. And you shouldn’t beat yourself up about that.
And there’s also more to writing than the actual writing. Sometimes you need time to think about your work. This can be just as important as getting the words down themselves. Sometimes you need some time away to sort out your ideas or to work through a tricky plot point. Deadlines that really don’t matter aren’t going to help with that.
I’ve worked as an editor with a lot of authors who get themselves in a pickle because they have become obsessed with a self-imposed deadline that they just have to meet. Their work suffers. I know the idea of NaNoWriMo is to get your writing going, and I know that for some writers it might well help. But, knowing as many writers as I do, and knowing how they punish themselves when they miss deadlines or aren’t as productive as they feel they should be, then I personally think that NaNoWriMo isn’t helpful.
Modern life is horribly stressful. It’s busy and demanding. Shouldn’t your writing be the opposite of that? When I have a whole afternoon free to write, with no pressure, no stress, no word count in mind, it feels wonderful. I don’t want to turn that into a chore, another task to tick off a list. And I don’t want to feel like a failure if I don’t write enough. So if it works for you, then go for it. But I won’t be joining in.