Like most fourth graders, I didn’t have too much homework. Yet every night, for language arts class, I was instructed to try to read for 15 minutes and write for 15 minutes. This small assignment, which I pretended to complete every night without fail, no doubt made me a better reader and writer. But the two tasks were not equal. Reading for 15 minutes was nothing — I’ve loved to read ever since Harry first emerged from the cupboard under the stairs. Writing for 15 minutes is actually quite a chore. When you’re not inspired, those 15 minutes drag.
I’d like to think we’re past the age when we need due dates and quotas to force us to become better readers and writers. But in high school I learned about a movement that is both a continuation and a bastardization of my childhood homework. National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — was something of a phenomenon among the more literary members of my high school class. Last year, I discovered that NaNoWriMo exists at Yale too.
NaNoWriMo, according to its website, is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59 p.m. on November 30.” It is not a small movement. More than 250,000 people participated in NaNoWriMo last year, of whom nearly 40,000 (including several Yale students) completed the assigned task in the alloted amount of time.
For some people, NaNoWriMo has all the fun of a marathon while sitting in front of a computer. I have friends who participate, many of whom have become addicted to the energy of frenetic writing. Writing with utter abandon certainly sounds liberating to me, someone who is quite often disappointed with my own work and feels the need to go back and revise compulsively.
But NaNoWriMo also worries me. Though it is a satisfying and liberating activity for some people, for others (and for the literary canon) it may be harmful.
For starters, art should not be predicated on length or time frame. Not all great novels need be 50,000 words — an arbitrary length, I think we can all agree. Some people write quickly, while others write slowly. If the goal of NaNoWriMo is “novel writing” — and presumably good novel writing — then I think one month is a little restrictive. Genius cannot, and should not, be forced.
Virgil reportedly wrote only two or three lines a day. Proust spent decades on “Remembrance of Things Past.” Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee each toiled painstakingly over their respective novels for years, a task so arduous that neither ever wrote anything else — yet they produced perhaps the two greatest American novels. If they were given a time limit and word limit, would either of them have been able to achieve greatness?
For those who write slowly, introspectively, or in spurts, NaNoWriMo puts dangerous constraints on their writing. For those who like to rewrite and revise, NaNoWriMo may make them feel like they’re falling behind.
Some accept NaNoWriMo’s time constraints and insane length requirement as an incentive to get them to finally start that novel they were thinking about. “[NaNoWriMo] has gotten me to write,” said Zeke Blackwell ’13 in a Yale Daily News Magazine article last year. “Granted, this is not the best writing I’ve ever cranked out.”
Sadly, NaNoWriMo pushes its participants to sacrifice quality for quantity. As Nat Harrington ’14, another NaNoWriMo participant, put it in the magazine article, his novel includes “two French essays, a German paragraph and a fable,” all of which he took from class assignments. “One of the French papers even makes sense where it is.”
According to NaNoWriMo’s website, its participants “started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.” But did they walk away with something they were really proud of? Binge-writing is like binge-anything — indulgent and rarely productive.
Especially for us college students, where so much of our work is produced in an intensely rushed atmosphere, it can be argued that good work can be done in the face of a looming and specific deadline. But D.S. papers are typically not art. Class work serves a stated purpose and answers a specific question. Novels create a new world that can spur our imaginations and maybe even inspire us.
I think writing — especially fiction writing — is one of the healthiest things people can do. But I refuse to have the terms of my art dictated to me. On its website, NaNoWriMo keeps statistics on the “winners” — those who complete the prescribed length in the prescribed amount of time. Restrictions are not the way to encourage good novel writing.
Scott Stern is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum. Click here to continue.