Seasonal Writing

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November, of course, is NaNoWriMo, which brings All the Feelings.

As a writing teacher, I love that tens of thousands of people from all over the world are frantically putting 1667 words to page every day.

But! teacher voice cautions — quality matters so much more than quantity. Wouldn’t you rather have 500 good words than 500 good plus 1167 filler that you’ll just have to cut later?

But! People are writing! They value it. They have formed a community around it. Writing has an entire month.

But! Writing should have ALL the months. And the community has an element of competition (which can be good and bad). What if you don’t make your word count? What if you fall hopelessly behind? What if you’re way ahead?

NaNoWriMo daily word counts remind me of the bad side of ballet school: the girls who’d weigh themselves every morning and get sympathy on their “fat” days and jealousy on “skinny” days. Sure, you want to be healthy, but shouldn’t we value the feeling more than exact numbers? Again, I’d much rather have a writer high from 500 words that make a scene click than from a statistic.

But — the contrary voice protests — consistent, high word counts provide momentum.

But — what about the inevitable day when something else comes up? How quickly is that momentum derailed?

Speaking of feelings, besides all of these silly pros and cons, NaNoWriMo mostly makes me feel left out. November is never the right time of year for me to push through a first draft, which is, I think, the best use of the exercise.

Despite all of my intentions to be one of those free-spirit plungers who dives into a story, I’m a planner. I spend weeks outlining and sketching characters and making calendars. I make several drafts of outlines. As I’ve learned, I’d much rather toss 5 pages of outline than 200 pages of novel. Thanks to extensive pre-writing, first drafts go quickly. Then I spend a long time reverse outlining, asking questions, free writing, and mapping the second draft. The second draft doesn’t go as quickly as the first, but it moves faster than the tough, daily work of analysis and reflection and re-imagining.

Back in poetry school, I took a literature class called Fiction and the Migrant with Ha Jin. On the last day of class, he did the original version of a Reddit AMA — he opened the floor to any and all questions, knowing many of his students were writers. Of course most questions were about balancing writing and paying work (funny, we always talk about the challenges of work/life balance, but artists have it worse — work/life/art balance!). He said that the best job he ever had for his writing life was as a nightwatchman because he could fill the empty hours with imagining. He got so much thought work done that the actual writing came easily. As a professor, he was bound by his academic schedule. He couldn’t spend hours imagining — his to-do list was too long between prepping and grading and office hours. So he switched to spend his summers imagining and writing first drafts, and during the rest of the year, he tinkers and tweaks and revises in whatever chunks of time are available.

Although I’m no longer in the classroom, I still have a similar academic calendar. Fall is tough for new work. There are simply too many other things happening for me to clear my head. Instead, this is my time to revise, reflect, and wrap up. It’s the incubation period for new ideas, which will become springtime doodles and then summertime drafting.

My personal NaNoWriMos are “off-season” and lonely because of it, but that’s also why they work for me. There’s only the writing.

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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