I first learned about National Novel Writing Month back in 2008. I was a sophomore at the time and fancied myself a writer, so when a fellow writer/good friend of mine stumbled across the NaNoWriMo website, the two of us leapt at the challenge. A 50,000-word novel in one month? Nothing to it. We clicked over to the registration page, created profiles, cracked our knuckles, and settled in to work.
Mike never finished. Within a week and a half, his minimum words-per-day rate had climbed to roughly 2,200 and then, dissatisfied with the view, had decided to keep on climbing. I did finish. Barely. And the novel I produced—a titleless fantasy story composed entirely of classroom scribblings and late-night word-vomit—was so appallingly bad that Anne Lamott herself, queen of shitty first drafts, wrote me to suggest that I burn the document, which I didn’t.
Instead, I sent the whole mess over to the kind folks at Yucca Mountain, who buried it. Contrary to NaNoWriMo’s site-banner, the world did not and does not need my novel.
I might entertain the possibility that I did. And do.
As crummy as that novel turned out and as exhausted as it left me, NaNoWriMo ’08 was an exercise in what writing can be: absurdly fun. Sucking midnight coffee and flipping the bird to silly notions like “artistry” and “syntax,” I pounded out words faster than my mind could censor them. I spun out dross and sometimes gold; more plot holes than plot twists; and even, in rare moments, scraps of dialogue that a reasonable person might utter. Creation—unaffected and unassuming—was that November’s order of business, and although I wrote poorly, my Yucca-bound novel taught me that writing itself can be pure and simple pleasure.
Also it taught me that you can win a super-sweet, printer-friendly certificate if you run your 50,000-word novel through NaNoWriMo’s word-count engine before 11:59 of November 30.
Nowadays, memory of those NaNo lessons—both of them—haunts me as I go about my “serious” writing. In contrast with garbage-chute gush of my ’08 novel, my current writing process moves forward with surgical precision: slow, painful, and rarely fun. I stare at screens. I pace a lot. On bad days, I get worried not when the writing dries up but when it comes too easily, when it tumbles out onto the keyboard with a clatter like a hailstorm. Obviously, in those moments, something went wrong, and I assume I must be saying something foolish or facile or unoriginal. If it does not hurt, I reason—and isn’t this a writer’s cliché!—clearly I am no artist. So I leave my desk. I wander the apartment. When I return, I scroll up a few paragraphs and begin revising.
And all the while a hazily recalled past in which the creative act brought joy and not frustration scritch-scratches away at the fringes of my consciousness.
If it’s not clear by now, I’ll say it pointblank: I want to go back. I want to re-find the fun in writing. November rolls around, and each year, invariably, my mind strays to my old, neglected writing projects. Soon after, my mouse-hand moseys over to the bookmarked link to my old NaNo profile, and for an hour I browse forums, thinking.
I’ll grant that perhaps I’ve made of my ’08 novel something it was not. Perhaps I’ve turned it into some species of fantasy—a halcyon, nonexistent past where the words came easy and where delight was there for the taking. This may be so; and yet I offer in response What life isn’t composed of fantasy? What past, present, or future do we have outside of our little fictions, independent of the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make “reality” intelligible and render action possible? I’ve been reading a lot of psychoanalysis for one of my grad courses, and I recall something that Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek wrote:
The gap separating beauty from ugliness is thus the very gap that separates reality from the real: What constitutes reality is the minimum of idealization the subject needs to be able to sustain the horror of the real.
So, sure, maybe I have invented a past for myself. Sure, maybe that memory of ease and pleasure is a lie, through and through—a phantom I’m wrong even to pursue.
But unreality has not deterred that pursuit. Not at all. And neither can it negate the fact that on some days, those rare days, when the words inexplicably start pouring forth and I tip headlong into the rush of clattering keys, I catch a whiff of something old and undeniably familiar.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.