“Remember above all things, Kid, that to write is not difficult, not painful, that it comes out of you with ease, that you can whip up a little tale in no time…” –Jack Kerouac
November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as its abbreviated. It’s a call to action for professional and amateur writers alike, to spend exactly 30 days drafting a story of fiction at least 50,000 words long. It’s a big task to take on, no doubt about it. But as someone who makes his living as a writer, someone who fantasizes pervertedly about selling a novel and having it reach literary legend status, this is an idea and a challenge for weaklings.
Jack Kerouac is lauded as one of America’s—if not one of the world’s—greatest writers. He defined a movement, he changed the way we read, write and perceive. If he had only published one book, On the Road, his affect would have remained the same. He wrote On the Road in just three weeks. In the copy of the book I own, his story spans 307 pages. The average word count per page is 250. That means that his masterpiece is more than double that of what NaNoWriMo is encouraging its writers to complete—minus seven days.
Kerouac was a maniac. Most of the greats are, but most of the greats didn’t write their defining work in less than a month. When he said that writing was easy, he was half right. If you know your story and you commit yourself to telling it, yeah, it’s a goddamn breeze. And it’s fun. But if you are trying to make something up from where there is nothing, or you don’t have the tools and the training and the discipline, it’s a wretched exercise in masochism. Most would be better suited to gargle nails or spend an afternoon discussing the benefits of deductive reasoning with Ann Coulter than to subject themselves to the self-doubt not being able to write can bring.
I didn’t know it was National Novel Writing Month until I saw a story on BuzzFeed just a day after returning from a week-long, self-imposed writer’s bootcamp. One of the greatest friends I’ve ever had and a fellow self-loathing employed writer, Jarret Keene, retreated with me to Michigan with the strict intention of each of us writing 50,000 words in seven days. We were idiots for thinking we could do it. But it had to be done. We had stories to tell. Stories that have been banging against the inside of our heads for years. It was time for the stories to come out. And there was no way we were ever going to complete these novels by finding time in our regular lives to write them.
Because our regular lives are filled with commitments, monied projects, friends, wives, kids, girlfriends, parents, meals and bathroom breaks. All these things simply get in the way of the writing mission and so, we turned off the Internet, shut down our phones and set up a writer’s sweatshop in a gorgeous and quiet hideout far away from any one and any thing that would deter from the mission. No TV, no women, no booze.
Because the important thing is discipline. Those participating in National Novel Writing Month, will need that above all else. And if these participants can do it, I applaud them. But not loudly. Because I can’t help but think National Novel Writing Month is just a big circle jerk of literary heroes and wannabes. Because here’s the thing; if you want to write a novel, you’ll write the damn novel. You shouldn’t need a special month set aside to do it. Because in addition to the stress and mental pains you’ll incur throughout these 30 days, you have that terrible deadline of November 30 staring you in the face. Deadlines are good. Most of us work better on them, I know most writers certainly do. But a hard stop for a novel with only 30 days to do it, is just absurd. You’ll be writing against time instead of writing to your story. That makes it dishonest. And no one likes a liar. Ask James Frey. (Unless of course you come right out and say it’s fiction, then everyone loves a liar and hopes you lie more.)
For seven days, Keene and I were liars. We wrote from mid-morning until early morning of the next day stopping only for egg and bologna sandwiches, to make another pot of coffee and to walk around our camp, fearing if we didn’t move our bodies out of the chairs, we’d end up dead from embolisms.
The first day there, I wrote approximately 5,000 words. The next day, I threw them all away and wrote another 5,000 words. The day after that, I panicked. I didn’t know how to tell the story, though I knew it well. I stood up from my chair across the long wooden table where Keene was steadily chopping away at his work and barked, “Christ! I can’t do this. I need to figure something out… I’ll be back.” I grabbed a few books we’d brought with us and ran out of the house raving about my inadequacies. After several hours of reevaluating the story, the process and everything I knew about myself, I had my story structure back in place. Keene came looking for me. By that time, I was wandering the grounds trying to understand the effect erosion has on property value. I couldn’t explain this concern to you today if I tried. It was pure mania.
We headed back to the sweatshop, he poured me a cup of coffee and I wrote out my plot and the characters on several pages of a legal pad. This is important to note because I did not use a Moleskine notebook as Molly Horan mentions writers might do in her BuzzFeed story. Moleskines are too small and too fancy for my purposes. I’ve never used one. Never will. I need something big and cheap because my handwriting is terrible. Plus, legal pads are harder to lose among piles of notes and coffee cups. And after four hours of scripting out my book, I started to type it. Six hours later, it was well into the next day and I had churned out over 6,000 words. And they weren’t all that bad.
When we were in it—our stories—punching away at the keys, man, I tell you we flew, we thrummed, we were machines, we were gods. It was when we stopped for the bit of sleep we did allow ourselves that things got bad. Keene howled at the walls as he lay in his bed. Moaning with pain, “Why? What am I doing?” I had dreams that I was still writing. When I woke 20 minutes later, I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t written what my subconscious had. We said to each other, “What are we doing here? Why are we doing this? What sort of monster writes a novel? This is hard.” We both understood why so many of our favorite writers ended up blowing their brains out—it’s a whole lot easier than writing.
We didn’t reach 50,000 words in 7 days. We knew we wouldn’t. But we had to chase that goal. What we did get was about 25,000 words each in 7 days. That’s half a novel. So, now we’re stuck back home with our responsibilities, but we’ve got a helluva start. Half of two decent first drafts. We’ll finish them at a much slower pace with the howling and the sleepless psychosis in polite check. But we will finish them. And when we do, we’ll re-write them because the first draft is never on the bookshelf. Even Kerouac made edits to his On the Road manuscript.
And when we sell these novels and they do make it to some bookstore somewhere, we’ll want to make even more edits. Because the stories might be finished. We may have reached the conclusion, but a novel is never finished. Not in seven days, not in three weeks and not in a month. It’s cute that people want to think so. And it’s cute that they want to try. There’s a romance to writing a novel, a glamor, I get it. But the real truth is that there’s nothing glamorous about it. There are no shattered scotch bottles on the floor. There are no cigarette stains or half-dead hookers strewn about. There is, however, speed delivered from coffee and anxiety and adrenaline and a lot of yellow-lined pages of notes crumpled up at the table legs.
Perhaps I’m feeling a bit superior to the National Novel Writing Month participants. But that’s because if we could financially afford to take another two weeks away from the paid work, we’d have finished our novels and even had time to do a re-write. I wonder if these people taking part in National Novel Writing Month are going underground or just trying to squeeze this work in among their human daily activities. If so, I warn them against it. Their work may suffer. If they want to really bang something out, they need to disassociate themselves from their lives.
Because when you make the commitment to go quiet for a while with the sole intention of turning out a true piece of fiction, you end up taking yourself apart and seeing what you’re really made of and what’s really in there among the guts and bones and blood. And once you realize it’s all just junk and shit and bile, then you can find a quiet place to write your story and commit to making it good. And you won’t do it for some collective online glory with strangers, you’ll do it for yourself, then in hopes of someone somewhere one day reading what you wrote and think, Damn. That was good. I feel something. I want to read more.
But you won’t wait until November to do it. You’ll wait until you’re alone. Or at least with another equally lonely psychopath ripping his insides up, too.