running and writing

or, different is good—right?

Lurking in the Shadow, by Don Solo <http://www.flickr.com/photos/donsolo/3271552182/in/set-72157608227598982/>As a runner and friend of marathoners, I appreciate the spirit of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month for the unaware. I was thinking about that this morning, actually, as I ran along the harbour, under the sunrise over the sea, in Scotland (yes, that really happened to me today—and about a couple times each week).

Jenna St. Hilaire, a loyal NaNoWriMer, made the observation yesterday that ‘there’s a real value in the simple act of challenging yourself.’ The self-discipline and resulting reward of writing a 50,000-word novel in a month, from scratch, is well worth the sweat and the clenching neck muscles and the rhythmic muttering ‘i-HATE-mylife, i-HATE-mylife,’ which, coincidentally, is the exact same reason most people I know run marathons—with a few mad exceptions who like running marathons, and who can be likened to Real Authors.

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. Because challenging myself to push my limits and do break out of the comfortable and feel exhilarated afterwards is why I run. Not why I write.

Now, this time of year I tend to embrace my superstitious tendencies and think that it’s not a bad idea to try and get a lot of writing done while a lot of other people are getting writing done. Misery loves company, but doesn’t often find it in such quantity. So I’m trying to complete my existing novel-length manuscript, which has been leering at me for far too long, by the end of the year. And that’s in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, isn’t it?

Not really.

You see, I run and I write. Sometimes, like today, I even choose to run instead of writing. They’re both important to me. They both matter. But they’re important to different parts of me, and they matter for different reasons.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about NaNoWriMo:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

OK, that’s really from the NaNoWriMo official website, but same difference. (The Guide probably says something like ‘It’s best to avoid Terra Sol in November. The natives seem to be crankier this time of year. ’) Lay aside for the moment the ponderous fact that I’m disqualified from NaNoWriMo by virtue of continuing an existing project. In these four paragraphs, NaNoWriMo and I must regretfully part company.

As much as I may applaud the literacy initiative and team-spirit inherent in NaNoWriMo, there is a philosophical commitment here that I can’t embrace. Numbers are not the value of worth. Size does not matter. Permission to make mistakes, have false starts and foiled leads, should not equal permission to write a lot of crap, and curse the world with more clichés.

I write because I’ve thought long and hard about writing, about the pain and life-hating and sweat stains that accompany the determination to actually Be A Real Writer. I write because I value craft and language and clarity and style, for the beauty of words and the love of sound. I write because quality matters, beauty and wonder and joy matter, even in spite of an age that tells us there’s 3,456,789,462 hits on any given query, that success lies in numbers, and a majority can’t be wrong.

I write because quality matters, not quantity. Because writing a lot of crap is never a good thing.

‘You can’t edit a blank page,’ the dictum warbles. And nobody expects you to. You edit your telling of a story, you edit for beauty and grace and clarity and style. But I tell my stories in my head, poring and mulling over them in my mind until there’s just that right pitch, that resonance, that tells me the story wants to be told. And I tell it.

Of course I edit, often severely. But if there hadn’t been that first harmonic of beauty, I never would have written. And occasionally, just occasionally, the words that I write are final words, and my first draft is my last.

I don’t think I can write a crap draft. I must at least suffer the delusion that this looks something like a final form, that this story is the story I want to tell. Otherwise I’d give up in discouragement for a few days, or weeks, or months, until another story came that wanted to be told.

When I write, I’m telling the stories. I’m not preparing to tell stories. Editing for me is looking at a told story—even a deeply satisfying, troubling, beautiful story—and asking myself, how can I tell this story better?

‘The ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output,’ is production—even mass production—and meeting goals and deadlines, of having a stat that looks impressive on a quarterly report. But that’s not the only thing that matters to me.

I wish you the joy of NaNoWriMo. If it gets you writing and working hard, hurrah. But please remember that it’s the practice and craft of writing to create beauty and poignancy and wonder—that the craft of editing is something different entirely—that a good editor does not a writer make.

Running? Oh, that’s just putting one foot in front of the other out of a perverse desire to see where I end up, and whether I need to walk to get there or not. That’s about pushing myself to see how far I can go before I puke on the grass. That’s exercise.

Writing is something different.

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9 thoughts on “running and writing

  1. Haha. Way to restore the creative tension that the blogalectic was losing. I can’t promise a whole new blogalectic, but it was impossible for me to read this without imagining out a response.

    The short form of that response is: I both agree and disagree. The long form is much more than a comment. I’ll try to come up with something for next Monday. 🙂

  2. “Remember: ‘The Cat in the Hat’ could be 50,000 words if you use enough adjectives to describe the hat.”

    “If you get stuck, have an elf show up. This works no matter your setting or genre.”

    “Emoticons do not count as words until midnight November 29.”

    — @FakeNNWMTips

  3. Hey there John,

    First time I’ve ever commented, but I really enjoyed this post. So, I did not know that you ran. Good for you, and lucky that you have such a scenic place to exercise! I wish I had more than our retro 80s green rec-room walls at our apt complex to stare at while mindlessly pounding the treadmill conveyor belt.

    I decided to do Nanowrimo this year… as I’ve mostly promised myself over the past 10 years. I love the idea of writing, but you know, being A Real Writer is entirely intimidating to me, and is more than a month’s commitment. I laughed, because I absolutely find myself in the category of being one who will only “curse the world with more clichés.”

    And this also encouraged me, that while I might not be cut out for the leagues of “novelist,” I do enjoy blogging. And it’s not just about doing a daily post for the sake of quantity, it’s about producing something of quality as well. I feel better about not frequently updating with pics of cute puppies, youtube links, and random thoughts concerning screen doors.

    Hope you and Becca and your sweetpea are doing well. C & I love and miss you much!

  4. Jenna, I did think you might have a few thoughts to say. But you are warned, however, that lurking beneath the surface of this post are deep philosophical underpinnings that forms the core of my objection to NaNoWriMo–in other words, I’m poised to get a lot more complicated! Also, take a look at this link–now embedded in the post–to see another important distinction which I feel is too often overlooked by us writerly types. Now I’m really looking forward to Monday! 🙂

    Eric–HAHAHAHAHA!

    Molly, welcome (back?)! Thanks for your comment. Can I be on your beta reader list for the novel? I certainly don’t mean to discourage anyone from doing NaNoWriMo, as long as they’re doing it critically. If that makes sense, which I admit it doesn’t. I, for one, would be eager to read any ‘random thoughts concerning screen doors’ which you might have–sounds fascinating. Really!

  5. I look at Nanorimo as an accident waiting to happen. Creativity forced is one of the most depressing thoughts and feelings I know. It makes me literally sick – it makes me anxious and shakey and my tummy hurts. I could never do Nanowrimo because I don’t have a cast-iron stomach. Also – bad habits run rampant in a forced creative environment. If you do something wrong once, twice, three times just to get it done – the next time you need to do that thing – you settle. I have never in my life been able to settle. Perfectionism is the hallmark, if not the sickness, of most artists. That doesn’t mean that Nanowrimo is a good opportunity for some – just not for me. Besides – I’m not a writer.

  6. You’re quite right, Joivre, that NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. One needs to have the patience to be a meticulous editor afterward, for instance–unless it’s just done for the sake of doing it, and not for a polished product. Which I think it legitimate.

    To be fair, where I think NNWM is most useful is the marathon effect–the discipline of actually writing a novel. Which is, frankly, something that needs forcing whether done in a month or three years. As a writer with 5ok words (out of many, many more) in an incomplete draft, I can tell you: writing a novel hurts. So for someone who really wants to do it, but may not have the dream, or determination, or just sheer cussedness to see it through long haul, the flurry of excitement of NaNoWriMo may be just the thing. Yanking the tooth out all of a sudden, if you will, instead of wiggling it carefully out.

  7. Pingback: JuNoWriMo « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

  8. Pingback: November « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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