Tag Archives: essay

I Did National Novel Writing Month and All I Got Was This Meaningful Experience

This November was my second attempt at National Novel Writing Month. The gist is to write 50,000 words in November. I tried it last year and wrote about 23,000 words (~500 words = 1 page), which felt like an accomplishment. And it was. Then I let that writing sit fallow for the whole year while life preoccupied me in other ways. This year I decided to try it again, for three main reasons:

  • I wish I wrote more than I do, and this is a discrete, external motivational structure in which to do so.
  • I’ve been kicking around for years a website or program idea to help people like me write novels. Fully participating in NaNoWriMo seemed like good research.
  • I think about discipline and focus a lot, and what those mean in our overstimulated digital age. It seemed impossible to write 50,000 words in a month without learning something about those two things.

My plan of attack involved waking up at 6:15 and writing for 60-90 minutes before work, and then some longer writing sessions on weekends. I arrived on Saturday, November 30th having written about 39,000 words. So I sat down at 10 AM and, with some breaks for food and a shower, stared at my laptop screen for ten hours. At a little after 8 PM, shortly before friends were due over to play board games, I checked my word count for the 800th time that day and saw it read 50,124. I felt like a literary John Henry, although instead of dying I just got a little drunk, a little loopy, and lost badly at 7 Wonders and The Great Dalmuti.

If you had to pick one line that represented an "oh fuck" moment, which line would that be? Take your time, now...

If you had to pick one line that represented an “oh fuck” moment, which line would that be? Take your time, now…

What follows are some reflections on how this month went for me. I’m writing with half an eye towards an audience, but unlike most of what is on this blog, this is not an entirely outward-facing piece of writing. Forewarned. That said, I think my experience is valuable to anyone who aspires to write, who is curious about NaNoWriMo, or who is interested (as I am) in peeking under the hood of others’ passions and projects.

One – Discipline and the enervation of day jobs
I typically maintain a reticent attitude about my writing. I will express to friends and acquaintances a generalized interest in creative writing, but aside from what I’ve written for The Onion and other websites, I don’t go out of my way to talk about it. Which upon reflection seems strange, considering that I am a firm believer in the principle that telling someone you will do something makes you far more likely to do it.

This November I did not share my progress on Facebook (mostly because of my feelings about Facebook). But what I did do was tell my friends that I was getting up before work to write. And I was surprised at how much that seemed to impress them, more so than my saying my goal was 50,000 words, or I wrote for X hours on Saturday. And their respect in turn encouraged me to keep doing it.

I think this was the case for two reasons. First, the “artist fitting creation into the cracks around his day job” is a well-known and admirable narrative. Second, I think we (read: people like me) respond positively to displays of discipline, especially when they fly in the face of the narrative of “I work a lot and am therefore tired when I’m not at work.” The actual project is immaterial. Going to the gym before work, or visiting one’s sick grandmother before work, or even going to the grocery store before work. Each shows that we can do more if we want to and we need not give in to the indulgent weariness (typically compounded by drinking) which our day jobs propagate, a weariness that in turn gives us cover for bailing on events or projects and just going home to watch TV. (Note: some people have legit exhausting jobs. I am not one of them.)

Two – A reminder of the power of the book
I spent a good deal of time in November reading “The Gone Away World” by Nick Harkaway. I read it nearly every day, sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for 90. I read it because it was supremely entertaining (if not always successful in what it set out to accomplish), and because I have joined a book club and deadlines, people. The book is 500 pages, and I read it in less than 3 weeks. I haven’t read a book that fast in years, and I was utterly absorbed.

Which was fan-fucking-tastic. I had forgotten how your imagination can absorb a good novel and the seep it back out during your walking-around time, like those bulbs that slowly water your houseplants, only for your mind. I can’t believe I forgot this feeling, either. Which brought me back to the genesis of my desire to write in the first place: reading books as a child which made me want to do that too, to have done that, and to make others feel the way Jack London, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Mark Twain made me feel.

So reading enthusiastically in parallel with NaNoWriMo was a great move. And surprise surprise, it affirms one of the near-universal bits of advice writers give to wanna-be writers: read, my chickadees! Read loud and hard. (Incidentally, I worried that I would read “The Gone Away World” for writerly tips on how to structure a novel, and not be able to enjoy it as an un-agenda’d reader. Turns out I could do both.)

Three – Inspirational quotes from basketball players

Patrick Ewing, writing coach

Patrick Ewing is my novel’s power animal

Two quotes that frequently came to mind during the month. I don’t know who said them, but I’ve heard them attributed to very tall basketball players:

  • “Being a professional means doing what you love to do even on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” ~Patrick Ewing(?!?!)
  • “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” ~Kevin Durant (and a thousand other people, I’m sure)

Four – Discovering all that writerly advise on my own
I seek out authors whom I admire talking about their craft and process. I want role models and schematics for this mysterious and lonesome art. As I moved through November, I was surprised by how many pieces of their advice I discovered on my own:

  • Thinking about when to write diminishes your writing. I discovered that planning and sticking to a schedule for when I would write left more mental energy for the writing. Spending lots of time thinking about how or when I’ll fit in my writing feels like writing, but isn’t. And it takes mental bandwidth that could be spent writing.
  • Find the time of day that works for you and write then. I discovered that writing in the morning, after breakfast and with a cup of coffee, was my best time. At the end of the day, too much flotsam had piled up in my brain. Learning this feels like I now know something important about myself I didn’t know in October.
  • Writing is infinitely easier if you make it a habit. It’s like running – it takes weeks to get into shape, and days to fall out of shape. But running while in shape is way more pleasant than running while out of shape.
  • One of the joys of writing is discovering things you did not plan. Countless times doing improv comedy, I’ve discovered something in a scene neither I nor my scene partner planned or foresaw. “Oh, you’re my dog AND my doctor!?!? *blackout*” But that had never happened to me in writing until this month, when a relationship between two characters, and a big plot point, and some other details just came out unexpectedly as I wrote. I believe that happened because I was writing often enough for my brain to become accustomed to thinking in that way, which allowed for these discoveries. It was one of the highlights of the month.
  • Thinking like a writer out in the world is a thing. And it doesn’t mean wearing jackets with elbow patches or attending FanFicCon. Spending so much time in that headspace, I discovered that I was framing experiences in terms of their application to writing. Moments I encountered in life began to pop with narrative potential. The only other time my brain has worked this way was when I first started writing for The Onion, and I tried to condense everything I experienced into a pithy headline. “You’re waiting for an elevator. How is this funny? This is funny. Elevators are funny. Maybe…Area Man Thinks Elevator Is Lazy. No. Area Man Suspects Elevator Hates Him. Perfect!” That was an exhausting time – this was far more enjoyable.

Five – The power of company
The person I talk with about writing more than anyone is my friend Kat. We became friends over our mutual interest in creative writing, and I learned about NaNoWriMo last year from her. She was a source of motivation this month, and I owe her my gratitude.

Like any cult member worth his tinfoil fedora, I in turn tried to get my friends involved. Four of my friends signed up on the NaNoWriMo website, but only one really went for it. However, he really went for it. Tim is one of the few friends from high school with whom I’m still in good contact. (Despite not living anywhere near each other, we have drifted on similar winds during our formative twenties, such that we still have much in common and friendship comes easily. It’s pretty cool.) He’s also not above some good-natured competition, and seeing his word count rise like lava on my heels kept me going. He finished several hours before I did on that final Saturday, and the way our digital correspondence shifted in the last few days from “Fuck you and your impressive word count” to “C’mon buddy, power through” was both reflexive and terrific.

There’s nothing that a little good-natured smack talk won’t improve.

Lastly, the most resonant lesson from this month is the grave knowledge that I can do this, because I did it. And now there’s no going back to life pre-lesson-learned. I can write 25 pages in a day. So why can’t I write I write 200 in three months? “You’ve always wanted to write a novel, and now you have proof you can do it.” *Cue Inception noiseI have the discipline to do something hard, if I want to do it and put myself in a position to succeed (and I have the discipline to put myself in a position to succeed. Look – recursive self-discipline!).

good reading and thoughts on corporations

Today the New York Times published this article by author Wes Davis.  In it Davis discusses the Bell Corporation’s mid-century attempt to broaden the intellectual and educational horizons of its young executives.  In 1952, the President of Bell Telephone, W.D. Gillen, created the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives at the University of Pennsylvania.  The Institute provided a 10-month crash course in the liberal arts to select Bell Telephone managers and executives.  The objective was to stock the company with educated, mentally flexible executives who could respond to problems intelligently and creatively.

I had never heard of this before, and I find it fascinating.  What’s most fascinating, however, is this part at the end:

The institute was judged a success by Morris S. Viteles, one of the pioneers of industrial psychology, who evaluated its graduates. But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

This provides historical data to a belief I’ve held for some time about big corporations: that despite being composed of individuals, corporations themselves have no interest in the welfare of individuals or communities.  Their first and only responsibility is to their own preservation, as measured by profit, growth, market share, and other indicators of a company’s success.

This seems all the more relevant today, as national political debate simmers above the stovetop burners of the bank bailout and the BP oil spill.  BP has no fundamental interest in cleaning up the oil spill, except to the extent that it calculates doing so will help its bottom line.  If the profit gained from an improved corporate image is greater than the costs involved in improving that image, BP will clean up the spill.  If not, it won’t. 

Of course, individuals working for BP might feel strongly that BP should clean up the spill.  But the reason BP can’t and won’t clean up the spill is because it has competitor oil companies that won’t help, either.  Like any major corporation, BP has competitors, and they are locked in a never-ending race for financial success.  Every dollar BP spends unnecessarily is a dollar lost in its race with Exxon, Texaco, and others.  This fact requires BP to focus only on what helps its own short and long-term viability, and it must find individual workers who are best at obtaining those ends.  So BP naturally seeks and promotes individuals who are willing to place the company’s fiscal objectives ahead of any personal feelings, interests or moral responsibilities that might interfere.

Of course, what is best for BP is likely to be best for its workers, and they are individuals with families, communities, and environments.  But layoffs are the internal demonstration of how a corporation cares no more for its own employees than it does for the wider population.  If BP is $1 more profitable without you at your desk, you will be laid off.  To not lay you off is to lose a dollar’s worth of ground to the competition.

I believe this to be the case, which is why calls for massive deregulation drive me batty.  Big corporations are, like distant gods, indifferent at best to our livelihoods.  They are interested only to the extent that what is best for a community or an environment coincidentally overlap with its own interests.  Otherwise, they cannot step outside of their own objectives without risking their fundamental existence.  Some free market arguments would suggest that healthy communities and preserved environments are ultimately profitable for everyone, and so the market will look after them.  This has not yet been proven, and it’s not a hypothesis I wish the world to test.

The one corporation that can afford to deviate from the path of profitability is a monopoly.  With no rivals that threaten its existence, it can pursue other objectives.  The only such organization in this country is the government.  It is the only actor in the pantheon of corporate gods with the power to force them to care about our welfare.

So, hats off to that Bell executive who sought to broaden the horizons of Bell employees.  The company spent money to invest in its workforce as people.  Sadly, when it discovered that the investment resulted in less company-oriented workers, it cancelled the program.


UPDATE: Two articles in the July 8th, 2010 edition of the NYTimes are useful examples of the way large corporations do not behave with an eye towards anything but their own economic health.  The first is an article about Wal-Mart’s exhaustive fight against the $7,000 fine assessed against them after an employee was trampled to death on Black Friday in 2008.  The second is about Transocean, the off-shore drilling company involved in the Gulf of Mexico disaster.  Check out this example of Transocean’s attempts to improve it’s all-important bottom line:

A Norwegian newspaper, Dagens Naeringsliv, reported several years ago that a Transocean rig, while returning from a repair yard in Norway to a drilling site in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, diverted for several hours into British waters. During that time, Transocean transferred ownership of the rig between subsidiaries and later argued that it did not have to pay Norwegian taxes because profits on the transaction had been earned outside the country. The company subsequently settled the case involving that rig.