The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about crappy writing:
That turned out pretty good! I should maybe make some crappy Xeroxes of that thing and sell it over at Bubs’s. Or at least some snooty independent record store.
Not really. But a Strong Bad quote was inevitable at some point in this discussion, so I figured we might as well start now.
It’s more interesting to read Jenna St. Hilaire’s eloquent defence of writing crap. She raises the intriguing point that we, who by and large share a similar writing philosophy, should have such very different reactions to the phenomenon of NaNoWriMo, the headlong race against the month to complete a 50k word novel before November ends. Jenna runs straight at NaNoWriMo every year. She’s drafted at least one novel-length manuscript that way. I think about it, and run the other way, shrieking, ‘Wolf!’
I haven’t completed a novel manuscript.
So where does that leave me? Out in the cold with the less-intrepid, the cautious, and the idle dreamers who will never get published, poor things? I’m certain Jenna doesn’t think so—we share a sincere professional and personal respect, while acknowledging the weird differences in our working styles.
But frankly, some of the NaNoWriMo rhetoric makes me feel that way. As when the official website declares that one of the joys of the month is ‘to write without having to obsess over quality’ and ‘to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.’ Is that for a bit of a laugh? Probably, and I do chuckle. But I wince.
Tell me that joke about the Priest and the Rabbi, and I’ll wince too. Sometimes there are truths about us in our humour—truths we’d rather ignore.
As a literary critic and a creative writer, I think about literary quality incessantly. I can’t help it; it’s how my mind and imagination is wired. As a husband and father with a full time career and other responsibilities, my writing time is between 0530-0730 most mornings, give or take on either side. It would seem NaNoWriMo would be made for someone like me—but that’s forgetting the first sentence of the paragraph.
Hello, world. I think about the quality and melody of prose at 6 o’clock in the morning. I just can’t stop. To be frank, I don’t want to. That would be like turning off the Me switch.
Jenna movingly says in her article:
Attempting to write fast freed me from caring too deeply about every sentence to progress. It gave me permission to mess up and just keep going, to not care that Chapter 5 wasn’t polished before I went on to Chapter 6, to allow some plot points to remain ambiguous or to fall out of use entirely. More, it gave me a need to finish that was stronger than my need to overthink everything. I can’t express how much I needed that. Maybe I really only needed to do it once, to open my mind to the process necessary for creating a complete first draft. I hadn’t written one since I was nineteen.
I read that and wonder, do I need that kind of freedom? Is my manuscript imprisoned in misplaced perfectionism? Am I, as NaNoWriMo suggests, writing too slowly, caring ‘too deeply,’ and do I just need to have the grubby draft in hand to say I’ve done it?
There’s an inherent problem with these questions. I write fast. Fifteen hundred words a day is my normal target, not a November thing. When I am able to sit and write, I write quickly. Even while I’m trying to write well.
Maybe that’s an anomaly, and I’m OK with that. But the point is, it can be done. You can write quickly without discarding a deep concern for writing well—without giving up your desire to linger over resonant prose and listen to the overtones of emotion unfold from the words. You don’t have to face your first draft with fear and loathing and burn it with solemn vows to never speak of it again. And sometimes, your second draft will be your last.
In a comment on Jenna’s post, George cuts neatly to the heart of my concern with NaNoWriMo:
I […] think there’s an unnecessary dichotomy going on. That it either has to be scintillating prose dripping from your pen after you’ve pondered five years exactly what you should say or a stream of consciousness flowing from your pen which you plan to straighten out later. Or to put it in the vernacular, a stream of crap.
Anyway, I think NaNo may have made mistake in promulgating the idea that you’ll be churning out a lot of crap during the contest. Certainly what is churned out won’t be polished or complete. Some may be good, some may be bad. As someone said, there’s no requirement one must write crap for NaNo. And not even the greatest writer, who is an accomplished wordsmith & who cherishes craft & beauty & style and what not, comes out with a perfect first draft.
George is, I think, absolutely right. The dichotomy is simply a straw man. Speaking as a working writer, the dichotomy looks good on the screen but it just doesn’t work on the page. No one who really writes—I mean who has writing in their soul, who can’t help but write—spends five years pondering a sentence, although many writers will let ideas turn and mature for years before writing. Neither do they simply write a long string of terrible prose if there isn’t something in there that isn’t terrible—a gleam of an idea that needs to be saved from the pile of whatsit. The extremes may exist, but I think every writer finds themselves ultimately somewhere in the middle.
Tolkien took fourteen years to write The Lord of the Rings. Sid Fleischman thought about and kept trying to write The Whipping Boy for ten years. Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country in three months. Mark Twain spent years working over the first section of Huckleberry Finn, and created the great American masterpiece; he wrote the ending quickly to meet a deadline, and wrote a lot of crap.
I wrote this blog post in thirty minutes. Happy November, everyone.