The only time I ever attempted getting up on water skis (when I was young and twenty-something) I wiped out within minutes. The instructor told me to let go of the handle if I lose my balance. Intuition (more like panic?) told me otherwise. I held on, for dear life. The price I paid was a rope burn across my thigh that left a scar, for years.
Water is clearly the overriding force (for anyone living in the Northeast) these past weeks, and the image that came to me on this particular morning is all the more striking in the wake (ha ha) of my decision to bow out of NaNoWriMo after barely dipping my toes in.
Weeks earlier NaNoWriMo fever began spreading through my social networks. Writer/friends who had signed on sent sparks my way. Why not? I figured. There’s always something simmering on the back burner for me. Here’s my chance: Just do it.
Steven Pressfield reminds us, at the very beginning of The War of Art (his clever spin-off of the Sun Tzu classic, The Art of War), that Resistance is the enemy when it comes to the pursuit of a goal, artistic or otherwise. The truth be known, resistance has never been my issue as a writer. On the contrary, when the surrounding forces of a writer’s life — the paid work (when it’s less than satisfying), the cycle of submission/rejection/submission, the effort and time spent in building an audience — overwhelm me, sitting down to work on a story or an essay will set everything right. Doesn’t matter whether the shaping of words into sentences is effortless or has me stumbling along, one slow paragraph at a time; it’s what I do. I write, therefore I am.
So why bother with NaNoWriMo in the first place? Well, let’s just say the challenge intrigued me. Deadlines have a way of stoking the writing fires. And when the heat’s on, the words have been known to come fast and furiously. I needed a boost, following the recent completion of a novel (with its ‘what do I do now?’ letdown). I needed a project to carry me through the slow, dispiriting process of trying to interest an agent/publisher in my novel.
I was revved up and ready to roll. Then came Sandy, a superstorm if ever there was one. Looking through my windows I marveled at tree branches whiplashed this way and that. I heard the weaker ones fall in my yard. By nightfall the power was out. The next morning would reveal what I couldn’t see last night — power lines and trees down everywhere. It would take almost a week for power to be restored in my area, which, in the grand scheme of things, places me among the fortunate. At which time I could listen, with post-storm irony, and extreme pleasure, to early Springsteen, ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).’
My commitment to NaNoWriMo (coupled with the sanity I needed) had me stealing off to places where I could catch some WiFi and recharge. And write. I managed a couple of thousand words in those first days. And, when the power was restored at home, I was convinced I could make up for lost time.
Thwarted by circumstance, I would come back in full force. It had happened to me before. It would happen again. Or so I thought. I got down to work. I started counting words. I read pep talks on the NaNoWriMo website. I reminded myself, again and again, ‘I’m not quitter.’ Another few days, fits and starts in the writing, no real stride, brought a moment of truth: This novel isn’t working.
More than once, in online interviews re: my approach to fiction, I’ve been asked if I’m a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser.’ No writer worth her salt is completely one or the other, but we have our predispositions, at least when starting a piece of fiction. For me, it’s often an image or a line that will begin a short story. With the novel I recently finished, there was a framework, an idea around which to structure the underlying theme and story.
The new novel, the NanoWriMo one I was hoping would spew forth, also had an underlying, very deliberate framework. I tried — really I tried. But, whether I’m plodding along or moving by the seat of my pants, I have a basic tenet that keeps me going: if I wake up wanting to know what’s happening to my characters today, I’m in. If, despite all my best intentions and grandiose schemes, the story is not pulling me along as a writer, how can I ever expect a reader to be interested?
So, with no regrets for having tried, it’s time to just say no to NaNoWriMo. No failure in recognizing when something isn’t working. One writer friend suggested I might be overthinking this a bit. Another one reminded me I had given myself permission to cast everything aside and write write write. The wisdom they both bring to the table is something I value. But maybe there’s as much to be said for the kind of wisdom that tells you when it’s time to bow out, and the permission to just say no more. Maybe time spent drafting a new novel is better spent working on shorter pieces begging for my attention. Not to mention a reenergized effort at moving that finished novel from its netherworld between manuscript and published book.
There’s no denying strength in numbers, and the power of community to spur one on. But at the end of the day, when a writer’s head drops to the pillow, all the writing prompts and workshops, the pep talks and Twitter/Facebook interactions give way to something much more powerful and profound, namely a writer’s own instincts. In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (originaly subtitled: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property) Lewis Hyde writes: “The artist who sells his own creations must . . . on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. . . . And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to sell his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell.”