There are many benefits to collectivising a writing effort. NaNoWriMo is a very visible example, and I love the camaraderie it injects into the very solitary process of writing. It’s easy to get buried in self-doubt when you’re accountable only to yourself, and solitude is an excellent breeding ground for the million-and-one ways that we sabotage our writing efforts. The thing is, when your story exists only inside your head, it’s perfect. The narrative flows, the characters sparkle, the world builds itself in front of your awestruck mind’s eye. And then you sit down to write the thing and the blank page opens up in front of you, looking all blank and unwritten-on, and your creative muscles seize up. Words emerge, but they’re not necessarily the words you’d heard when the story was unwritten, and they seem clunky. Unwieldy. Graceless.
Here’s the problem, though. Waiting to feel inspired is a great way to never write a word.
The myth of the frenzied artist wildly hammering his typewriter keys in his freezing garrett, lost in creative passion, is pervasive — and damaging. Sure, sometimes the writing flows so effortlessly that you’ll look up and hours have passed; the house has got dark and you’ve forgotten to eat since breakfast. If that’s ever happened to you, you’ll know that it’s absolutely transcendent and glorious. It’s also incredibly rare. For the most part, writing is not like that: it’s about showing up to the keyboard and making your novel appear bit by bit, and some days it’s fun and some days it’s like pulling teeth. But I’ve worked with enough writers now to know that the days when the words just won’t come, or they won’t come right, can very easily get mapped onto that image of the creative genius in a way that whispers, “Yeah, if this was really for you, you wouldn’t find it so tough.” Not true, of course. Absolutely not true. Everyone finds it tough — as Thomas Mann himself once said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” — but that’s the problem with writing as a solitary endeavour. There’s nobody but you to push back against the voice of self-doubt.
And that’s one of the things I love about NaNoWriMo. The focus is on getting words on a page. They don’t necessarily have to be good words; they just have to meet a certain word count. In essence, that’s all a first draft actually is: putting enough words on a page to meet a certain word count (yes, of course I’m over-simplifying; bear with me). The second draft is where you polish those words into something closer to your original vision. Some writing takes more redrafting than others, but everything you write will always need at least one more pass before it’s ready. NaNoWriMo leans into that idea, embraces it, and says, “The quality of your first draft could not be less important. The important thing is to get it down on paper; you can’t edit a blank page. Writers, let’s do this.”
Second-guessing your writing is just part of the creative contract. We pour our souls into the words we write and we’ll never not be scared that someone will look at those little bits of soul infused through our work and go, “Ugh.” But ignore those people. Those people are not your audience. Your audience are the people who go, “Wow!” And they can’t ever get the chance to go “Wow!” if you don’t write the thing. So forget about perfection, forget about flowing narrative and sparkling characters and awe-inspiring worldbuilding, and just get those words out of your head and onto a page, whichever way you can.
So, go on, then. How many words are you going to write today?