Did I choose my writing process, or did it choose me? This was the question I asked myself after 20+ years of writing fiction. I wondered if I’d stumbled thoughtlessly upon my creative practice, and instead of actively scrutinizing it or consciously constructing an optimal process, I’d just decided to live with the results.
Over the years, I’d read a bevy of writing books, innumerable author interviews, and a trove of hefty biographies about my favorite writers. I’d taken every sort of writing workshop, and even finished a Masters in creative writing. I’d dallied in outlining my stories. I’d written an onerously exhaustive character profile or two.
Despite all of that, I largely wrote the same way as I did when I first started: I opened my laptop and started writing a story sentence by sentence, sometimes going back to revise a paragraph, sometimes moving forward.
In other words, although I’d defined myself as a creator by becoming a writer, I wasn’t taking a particularly creative approach to my writing.
At the urging of a friend, I finally decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days in November. I figured it was time to shake things up, and as a Kerouac fan, I’d always been interested in his brand of “automatic writing” and wanted to see what crazy storylines I might unearth. I didn’t have anything to lose, and as it turned out, I had only novels to gain.
Full disclosure: I’m now executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so you can take my words as biased, but what I really want to get across is that as creators we should always be playing with our creative process as a living, evolving thing. A creative process that has dug a rut in your mind will likely produce rut-like stories.
Since my ticket to constructing a new and ever-changing writing process was NaNoWriMo, I want to share the five things I got out of “writing with abandon” with NaNoWriMo and later in Camp NaNoWriMo, a version of NaNoWriMo that happens in April and July.
1) Writing with abandon allowed me to test ideas. I have a long list of novel ideas backed up like cars in a traffic jam (they’ve been blocked by the semi truck of a novel I’ve been revising for, well, ages). NaNoWriMo gave me permission to dive in and test an idea in just a month instead of waiting until God knows when to write it. It’s easy, and even creatively beneficial to take a break from a long project to let one of those stalled novel ideas open its throttle for a while. Now I have a draft of a novel burning to be revised after I get that semi truck out of the way.
2) Writing with abandon allowed me to generate more ideas. To write good ideas, every writer has to try his or her hand at plenty of bad ones, but the more active your brain is, the more likely bad ideas will beget good ideas. Because I’d banished my internal editor, that censoring snob, I started following dangerous and even ridiculous story lines because of the urgency to forge ahead and keep my tale going. Sure, some of those narrative escapades turned into dead ends, but others opened up the tightly wound confines of my story into glorious vistas.
3) Writing with abandon allowed me to achieve “flow.” Flow is a concept of single-minded immersion proposed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who describes such states as egoless and timeless. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost,” wrote Csíkszentmihályi. Because I had to write with such crystallized concentration to hit my daily word count of 1,700 words, my brain seemed to enter an almost athletically saturated endorphin state. My inner world eclipsed my outer world in a way it never had.
Later, I read Charles Limb’s neuroscience research about how when jazz musicians improvise, their brains actually turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition and turn on those that let self-expression flow. Their brain regions also showed a heightened state of awareness—tasting, smelling, feeling the air around them.
Yeah Daddy-o. Play it!
4) Writing with abandon opened me up to a community of others. I was the worst kind of solitary writer. Years passed before anything I was working on was polished enough to show someone else, largely because I wanted to impress more than I wanted to receive feedback or simply share.
Because NaNo takes the cavalier approach of valuing “quantity over quality,” I let my hair down with my prose and reveled with others over the occasional atrocious phrase. Since we were all involved in a cauldron of a creative mess, we opened up to one another, and before I knew it, my friends and others I met in the NaNoWriMo forums were brainstorming ideas with me. Solitude, as much as I love it, can be over rated.
5) Writing with abandon is fun. Unfortunately, I’d made writing into work over the years. I thought of the Picasso quote: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” As I watched my kids finger-paint, I decided I should do the equivalent with my words. NaNoWriMo helped me shake off the shackles of writerly aspiration and rekindle the sparks of creative joy and discovery that made me want to do it in the first place.
My new promise to myself is to try something different in each NaNoWriMo event. What writing promises have you made recently? What are you doing to ensure that you keep them?