It’s nine o’clock on November 1 and there’s a pink Post-it note on the door of the Branford dining hall. On the slip of paper someone has written a phone number for “NaNo-ers” to call to be “let in.”
The scene seems secretive and puzzling. It’s the wrong hour for yellow light to be leaking out of the dining hall windows. It’s cold to be standing outside in front of a locked door, and the words on the note seem to be in code.
I dial the number, and a voice on the other end says she’ll be down to open the door in a second. A moment later, a brown-haired girl lets my friend and me in. “We’re in the middle of a ten-minute word war!” she says as she jogs up the stairs.
Before I have time to ask her what she means, we’re in the dining hall. Some 15 students are seated around a long table against the wall, typing away on laptops. On a table in the middle are boxes of Oreos and biscotti.
I sit down and open my computer. I close various emails and syllabi that remind me of the hundreds of pages I should be reading for the week. Then I do the last thing I should be doing at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night: I start a novel.
This novel-writing extravaganza isn’t just a Yale quirk. Worldwide, around 200,000 people started a novel on November 1 as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. People in the midst of working, raising families, and studying set aside their obligations to attempt the breathless creative sprint that is writing 50,000 words in 30 days.
But NaNo-ers looking to write the next great American novel in those 30 days would be better off adjusting theirexpectations. Zeke Blackwell ’13, a first-time NaNo-er, puts it this way: “[NaNoWriMo has] gotten me to write…. Granted, this is also not the best writing that I’ve ever cranked out.” Churning out 50,000 words in 30 days doesn’t allow you to carefully construct sentences, edit them, and rewrite them, as you might under normal circumstances.
For that reason, as I sit down to write my novel, I’ll need to give myself what Ari Susu-Mago ’13, who founded Yale’s Noveling Club in 2010, calls “the permission to suck.” My goal isn’t to create something good; it’s simply tocreate.
I find that focus on quantity liberating. Noveling becomes less of an effort to unmask great truths and attempt stylistic breakthroughs and more of an attempt to merely tell a story, one that can incorporate all sorts of pieces of my life. Nat Harrington ’14, treasurer of Yale’s Noveling Club, is writing a novel that, at this point, includes “two French essays, a German paragraph, and a fable,” all originally written for class, he says. “One of the French papers even makes sense where it is.”
Blackwell’s novel incorporates material from the people he knows at Yale. “A few times, I’ve written in my common room and have taken inspiration for my story from talking with my suitemates while in the middle of stagnant writing sessions,” he says. “One of my suitemates actually makes a cameo in my novel based on something he said that I thought was really funny.”
Writing under NaNoWriMo’s constraints starts to change how I relate to the text. When there’s time to craft and to edit, ego enters the work, and I think too much about how the quality of the piece reflects on me. NaNoWriMo shifts the focus from myself to the story. Susu-Mago underwent an extreme version of this in one NaNoWriMo stint in 2009. Her writing process “became like reading a book rather than writing a book,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen and it didn’t seem to matter that my hands were the ones doing the typing because the words were appearing on the page.”
When I first followed Susu-Mago up the stairs to the dining hall, I told myself I’d stay for half an hour, but my novel demanded more. I kept extending my time limit by five minutes, or 200 words, or the end of a scene. Next thing I knew, it was almost midnight. True, the writing was not my best — but I felt enveloped in a story in a way I hadn’t in a long time.