Okay, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as National Novel Writing Month, but I’m saving my good words for my, well, novel writing. As some of you may know, November is NaNoWriMo, a worldwide event during which a bunch of people get together to (individually) write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve done it the last several years and I’m doing it this year, too. It’s hard, it’s fun, and it’s valuable.
As some of you may also know, Laura Miller, a writer for Salon, published a piece decrying NaNoWriMo. (Turns out she published that piece 3 years ago, but it's making the rounds now because NaNo is upon us. Bah, I'm still posting.) This made a lot of wrimos pretty upset, and I’ve seen some rather vitriolic criticism in response. Miller’s main point seems to be that there’s already enough crap out there and we don’t need to saturate the world with more of it. Moreover, she thinks we could all do a little more reading and a little less writing.
Well, as a NaNoWriMo participant and self-important blogger, I think I’m going to respond to Miller’s criticism. Of course, maybe that’s exactly what she wants. By writing this now, I’m not writing my NaNo novel. Dastardly plan, Laura Miller.
Now, I understand the angry response to Miller’s piece. I really do. It has a very “get off my lawn” feel to it that seems to miss the point that, for a lot of people, NaNo is just plain fun. But her two points aren’t terrible points, and I think they’re worth responding to in a civil, constructive way. So here goes.
As is obvious to anyone who’s read this blog, I quite like science. That’s what the blog is about, after all. In fact, I’ve been interested in science ever since I was a child. I read books about science, I had toy science kits, and I loved science fiction as a genre.
Yet this blog about science is not even a year old, and I’m writing this post as a freshly minted 28 year old. Why is that? Because up until about 2 years, I didn’t do anything with my interest in science. I took plenty of science and math classes in high school, but I mostly dithered around in them and didn’t, you guessed it, practice.
It wasn’t until 2 years ago that I sat down and decided it was time to reteach myself calculus. And how did I teach myself calculus? By giving myself homework. By doing that homework. By checking my answers and redoing problems until I got them right. And now I can do calculus. Now I can do linear algebra, differential equations, and physics. I’m no expert in these subjects, but I understand them to a degree because I’ve done them. I’ve practiced, just like you practice a sport.
The analogy here should be clear. You have to practice your sport, you have to practice your math, you have to practice your writing. Where some may disagree with this analogy is the idea that writing 50,000 words worth of drivel counts as practice. The answer is that it’s practicing one skill of writing, but not all writing skills. This follows from the analogy, too. Sometimes you practice free throws; other times you practice taking integrals. Each is a specific skill within a broad field, and each takes practice.
And as any writer knows, sometimes the most difficult part of writing is staring at a blank white page and trying to find some way to put some black on it. We all have ideas. We all have stories and characters in our heads. But exorcising those thoughts onto paper is a skill wholly unto itself, apart from the skills of grammar, narrative, and prose.
So it needs practice, and NaNoWriMo is that practice. If you’re a dedicated writer, however, then it follows that NaNo should not be your only practice. You have to practice the other skills, too. You have to write during the rest of the year, and you have to pay attention to grammar, narrative, and prose. But taking one month to practice one skill hardly seems a waste.
I’ve less to say about Miller’s second point, that we should read more and write less. This is a matter of opinion, I suppose. But I do have one comment about it. America is often criticized as being a nation of consumers who voraciously eat up every product put before them. We are asked only to choose between different brand names and to give no more thought to our decisions than which product to purchase.
Writing is a break from that. Rather than being a lazy, passive consumer of other people’s ideas, writing forces you to formulate and express your own ideas. Writing can be a tool of discovery, a way to expand the thinking space we all inhabit. Rather than selecting an imperfect match from a limited set of options, writing lets you make a choice that is precisely what you want it to be. You get to declare where you stand, or that you’re not taking a stand at all. You get to have a voice beyond simply punching a hole in a ballot.
You shouldn’t write instead of read, but you should write (or find some other way to creatively express your identity).