Why I Flunked NaNoWriMo

I initially thought I flunked NaNoWriMo* because I have perfected the art of procrastination.  Just ask my college roommate who watched me furiously write my senior thesis in about two weeks after researching and talking about it all year.  Or my legal mentor who would give me a fake deadline for a brief, knowing full well that I would talk my way out of the deadline, but still manage to come up with a good final product just in time to make the court’s deadline.  I like to have things percolate in my brain before I actually start writing, so my excuses seemed typical, almost predictable for me.  First, I was on a bus snaking through the Andes Mountains at 12:00 on November 1st, which surely absolved me from beginning my novel at the challenge’s official starting time.  Said bus took me on a three day vacation packed with sightseeing and quality time with Matt.  Upon our return from the trip, I had to run household errands and then volunteer that afternoon.  So I started on Tuesday, November 5, and wrote and rewrote an excellent first page.  On Wednesday I wrote a terrible second page.  On Thursday, with a whopping total of 908 words, which I would write as “nine hundred and eight words” if I were still doing the NaNoWriMo challenge, I threw in the towel and decided to paint our bedroom, which was a four-day endeavor.  I actually didn’t admit at that time that I was throwing in the towel, but as I haven’t written another word of my novel, that is exactly what I did.  The ultimate irony? The working title of my two-page, draft novel is Surrender.

The surprising part is that I don’t feel bad about my white-flag-waving retreat from novel writing.  And I have no excuses whatsoever for quitting.  I don’t work by choice and good fortune, so I am not looking for a job or anxious over not having one.  I don’t have kids.  Given that we have only lived here a few months, I don’t know a lot of people or have a lot of time commitments.  Our small, Peruvian town in the Andes mountains has few distractions.  In short, if I can’t write a novel under these perfect conditions, I am not cut out to write a novel.

And I’m not cut out to write a novel.  At least not right now.  I love to write and I write in some form every day, but not a novel.   To create real characters, plausible ones, even if they are trolls or serial killers or goddesses or teenagers or ghosts or whatever, you need to draw on all of your experiences, which includes the people you know.   Friends, relatives, enemies, mere acquaintances and the person you overheard in line at the grocery store.  Even though my intended novel is not remotely autobiographical, its characters have the traits and nuances of those I know.  Distorted and magnified, but still there.  And I’m not ready for that.  I’m not ready for a friend or relative to recognize herself in my writing.  I’m not ready to write uncensored.  Every word on this blog is self-censored.  Matt once expressed some discomfort over two lines I wrote in a post.  Before he told me which lines, I already knew because I had worked and re-worked them a half dozen times to cause as little offense as possible while still conveying my thoughts.   But you can’t write a good novel, a novel with honesty and integrity, if you fear offending your Great Aunt Mabel who just might recognize herself in a minor character.

Is this just another procrastination technique on my part?  To forgive myself for my failure by writing about a plausible excuse for it? I don’t think so.  While I recognize the arrogance in speculating that I would be fortunate enough to publish a novel and that people I know would actually read it (my blog stats showing me that the latter might actually be less likely than the former), this fear of offending hamstrings my writing.

But that is only half of the truth.  I also have a fear of exposing myself.  To write honestly, you must expose your heart, mind, and soul. Put on paper your greatest fears and your greatest loves. Open yourself and the world and characters you create to criticism and ridicule.  A  mother may tell you that is exactly what it feels like to send a child off to school.  But it isn’t.  At some point a child becomes separate from her parent and responsible for her actions.  Your characters don’t – you decide what they do, what they think, whom they hurt and who hurts them.  You decide how they will be presented to the world and that, in turn, presents you to the world (even if that world is limited to the 5 people who read your book). My favorite writing quote is Red Smith’s in which he responded to a question about whether writing a daily column was a chore with “No, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” I thought writing a thesis or a legal brief was hard, but they really only require good research and strong writing. A novel requires so much more.   And I’m just not ready to bleed all over the page.

*NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and is a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel (or part of a novel) during the month of November.  http://nanowrimo.org/