National Novel Writing Month—usually shortened to NaNoWriMo—is an annual creative writing event in which participants set out to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in the month of November. More than 400,000 people participated in 2021, writing approximately 1,667 words a day, according to NaNoWriMo’s website, which touts successfully published results such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus as examples.
I understand why NaNoWriMo wants to tell you about their published authors as they try to convince you to join their ranks. But, as a NaNoWriMo participant myself, I think bringing up their “successful” authors as a way to lure you into participating is the wrong angle. I don’t think you should write 50,000 words in a month in hopes that you will get discovered and Penguin Random House will buy your Next Great American Novel, Gatorade for Lemurs. I think you should do NaNoWriMo to stick it to capitalism.
Capitalism tells us that everything we do has to be productive. You should sell your wares on Etsy or become such a good baker that you’ll end up on reality TV, which will get you more Instagram followers, which will get you a cookbook deal. Knitting, woodworking, baking: Hobbies that once brought joy to the maker—and to the family and friends who received the resulting socks—are now side hustles, because one job is not enough. Now you must use your free time to set up a camera so you can timelapse your progress on your papier-mâché sculptures of lemurs drinking Gatorade, making sure to tag Gatorade, dreaming of one day being able to add the hashtag #ad.
One of the many ways that we can resist this idea that our capital defines us is to do things separate from the market and do them with gusto. And that’s where the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is. Because here is the thing about writing 50,000 words in a month: What you do write will be bad. Very bad. I am co-teaching a romance writing workshop right now, and our advice to participants is to just keep typing. Do you not like the chapter you just wrote? At the end of the chapter write: “That’s what our characters would have done if they were idiots.” Or, as one of our students pointed out, excitedly, “If you type I don’t like anything I just wrote, then that’s seven more words!”
This is the part where you probably expect me to say that you can always go back later and make your writing better, that the bad first draft is what gets you to the good second draft. It can be. But publishing and becoming a successful author should not be the point of NaNoWriMo.
I am an atheist chaplain. That means I spend a lot of my time trying to think about ways that we can make our lives more meaningful without God or religion. I want us to learn to treat things as sacred so we can learn to treat our neighbors as sacred, because drought is coming and I want us to be ready to share our water. And I find writing a bad novel is an amazing sacred practice. Sure, you could be the next Colleen Hoover, but statistically, you probably won’t be. Writing a bad novel is a belief that something doesn’t have to be “productive” in order for it to be worthwhile. It is a belief that you being you is, in and of itself, a worthy thing. It’s faith that even if it never turns into anything but itself, it was worth the time and practice of writing the thing anyway. And that’s something that your job, your boss, and the marketplace really don’t want you to believe.
I hope that we all have places in our lives in which we allow ourselves to be a bit sloppy. I also hope that we all have places in our lives in which we allow ourselves to imagine. But this is one month a year we get to harness both together.
Supremacy of all kinds lies in the idea of perfectionism; that there is a right way to be and only the supreme know and do it and the rest of us don’t have a chance. Supremacy also thrives on a lack of imagination. The idea of imagining a different way of being is a threat to those who are holding power. The act of sitting down and spending time not creating something for the market, not trying to be part of a grand tradition of anything perfect and refined, and imagining a world that is different from the one you live in: well, that is an act of resistance in approximately 1,666 words/day. NaNoWriMo technically started last Tuesday, but since this is an invitation for sloppiness, I can safely say: It’s not too late to join.
(This post was not sponsored by Gatorade. Nor was it sponsored by lemurs.)