National Novel Writing Month is admirable in its insanity

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is one of those things you know about if you’re a writer and don’t give a flying fart about if you’re not. It is a “competition” that had upwards of 300,000 participants in 2010, challenging individuals to write 50,000-word novels in 30 days during the month of November (anyone who does so wins a certificate, the option to print the finished work, and bragging rights). The goal is to encourage “quantity, not quality,” and to serve as a self-imposed litmus test: success proves that you have determination, diligence and at least one finished work under your belt. It can transform stay-at-home moms, hobbyists and Brooklyn yuppies into bona fide auteurs.

Staying the course requires a certain measure of insanity. Think about it. On average, these individuals must, by the end of November (all the while going to work, living their lives and partaking in a turkey and cranberry sauce extravaganza), write 1,666 words on average a day — the equivalent of a three-page single-spaced paper. Though I’ve never participated myself, I’m known to be judgmental of those who have … and jealous. I simultaneously wonder who would waste their time on this and whether, if I chose to waste it accordingly, I could really go the distance. I’ve had writers’ block for the past four years, and have come to a point in my existence (yes, existence) where I’m not really able to call myself a writer anymore, because a sentence a week in a story full of sickeningly-flowery sentences does not a writer make.

If you hie on over to Kohlberg lounge most nights, however, you’ll find a small group of night owls working dutifully on their ‘manuscripts’ who are willing to go the distance. Not everyone’s keeping up — even a few days into the competition — but whenever I stop by to hang out and ask questions with the pretense of writing a column about it, the stragglers are still there, plugging away. There are different ways people go about writing these crazy, error-filled novels: some start with a game plan (you’re allowed to prepare a plot outline before November 1), while others go with the flow, burning the midnight oil to the tune of word vomit. A friend of mine at Yale is working on a “Firefly”-esque saga about a crew of smugglers who learn to teleport speedily through space (thus avoiding the feared Republic!) with the aid of an idiot savant; another at Swat has a similarly intricate plot involving a rebellious heroine. Both are veterans of the competition (which bespeaks a different kind of insanity/stamina) and both are enviably skilled storytellers.

Among Swarthmore’s NaNoWriMo participants, concentrated typing sessions are often interspersed with chatting and chilling. Writing is one of those solitary activities that can really lead you to depression if you’re not careful, as you know if you’ve taken into account the histories of every famous author/poet ever. Like running with your cross-country team, you don’t need the company, but it’s always welcome.

In my column, which has discussed the finer mechanics of the publishing world, with a focus on technology, marketing, genre and readers’ preferences, I have often neglected to consider one important topic: authors themselves. Truly, the people who write the works we read are in the daily habit of committing their soul to the page. As much as literature attempts to reflect the real world (and distort it and challenge it and reimagine it), it also exposes the inner workings of the very tortured human being attached to a book’s byline. I bring up NaNoWriMo because, as much as I find a competition like this slightly ridiculous and navel-gazing in its predilection for dominating the Tweets and blog posts of writers everywhere (seriously guys, get a grip on yourselves, your word counts are as interesting as my baloney sandwich), the competition represents the Writer’s eternal struggle from page to press. Some self-published authors make millions, and rejected books at times deserve their fate, but all the same, publishing a novel in a saturated era is hard. Therefore, to all the writers with loans and leases, working as baristas or parents or CEOs, finding time between jobs or paychecks, between work and play, to those of you who attend law school and admire John Grisham, or attend med school and admire Michael Crichton, to those who read their starving, depressed predecessors but yearn for fame and recognition: I raise my glass to you.

Susana is a sophomore. You can reach her at

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