There are many metaphors for NaNoWriMo: NaNoWriMo is a creative explosion, an endurance test, a writing party, a voyage to fantastical lands, an excuse to drink too much coffee.
I like all of those metaphors, but the one that speaks most to me is that NaNoWriMo is a creative experiment. NaNo’s very genesis was a creative experiment, after all. How do you write a novel? Try writing 50,000 words in 30 days.
There are always grounds to experiment within an experiment, though, so my question each year is what can I tweak, or downright alter, about my creative process? That’s why I read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The book tells the story of how 161 creators—everyone from Stephen King to Maya Angelou to Charles Darwin—approach the act of creativity each day.
“I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself and vice versa,” writes the editor Mason Currey.
Obsessiveness, Late Nights, and Hats
Some people’s rituals are obsessive. Beethoven counted exactly 60 coffee beans each day for his perfect cup of coffee. Others are fraught with self-destructiveness. The painter Francis Bacon ate and drank with wild abandon late into the night, but still managed to work each morning until noon in his paint-splattered studio.
I particularly enjoyed reading about authors who wrote NaNo-style before NaNo was around. William Faulkner averaged 3,000 words per day during his most fertile period, and often wrote as many as 10,000. Stephen King writes 2,000 words every day of the year—including his birthday and holidays. He believes in a strict ritual of writing in order “to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.”
I envied such artists who had the luxury of adhering to a routine that supported their optimal imaginative time. Anne Beattie religiously writes from midnight to 3 AM. Conversely, Haruki Murakami wakes at 4 AM. and writes six hours straight.
Since I have children and work, however, I related more to Toni Morrison’s experience: “I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”
The art of writing “in between”: predawn (if possible) + weekends (betwixt soccer games) = my writing time. Not optimal, but the main thing is to do it because a little writing each day eventually adds up to a lot, right?
I was particularly inspired by Nicholson Baker, who sticks to a strict routine of writing, yet does something new with each novel. “It can be almost arbitrary,” he says. “You know, you could say to yourself, ‘From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if that feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work.” Baker wrote his last novel in a car—like Raymond Carver, who often did so to escape the ruckus of his household.
A fresh approach changes the whole endeavor, like adding spices to a stew. So here’s my plan: in lieu of writing in a car (which could get cold), I’m going to buy a special writing hat. Seriously. A hat invites in a new persona like nothing else (and I’m always looking for an excuse to buy a hat).
Beyond that, my friend Rachael Herron just told me she wrote 10,000 words in the last two days, so I might schedule a couple of super NaNo days in November and see how many words I can write. I’m also toying with the idea of writing with an outline this year (or at least my version of an outline)—a wildly aberrant act for a pantser like me, but then it’s in such deviations that new ideas are often discovered.
I’m sure I’ll join Murakami at 4 a.m. or thereabouts as well. The one constant of my noveling is many, many cups of coffee, after all.
Are you going to experiment with your approach to NaNoWriMo this year? If so, how?
— Grant Faulkner