NaNoFAILNo: Cracking the code

Ever feel like these 2008 Olympic tri-athletes?

I did last month, when (ten years postpartum) I decided to get in shape. Though our three golden retrievers have always kept me walking, this fall my prodigious cross-country-running son inspired me to pick up the pace a bit and run.

I followed all the training recommendations, slowly building up pace and stamina. I alternated running and walking until I could run a good couple of miles without stopping. As I trained, I noticed a tiny twinge in my left knee. Nothing major. Nothing too painful. Then I ran a 4.5 mile race on Thanksgiving Day. My knee hurt about half-way through, but I continued, finishing the race with a dull throb I thought would dissipate.

The next day, the pain felt excruciating. Days of ice, rest, compression and ibuprofen didn’t help. Convinced something major was severed—or needed to be—I went to the orthopaedic hospital for x-rays.

I left with the disappointing diagnosis of tendonitis. As much as it hurt, I expected a cast or bandage or something to show for it. Instead, I limped back home and continued rest, ice and ibuprofen for the next 5-6 days.

Finally, the pain subsided and I attempted my first walk since the race. I barely walked a block before the knife-like pain dug into the side of my knee. By the time I got home, all I could do was curl up in my bed with an ice bag and weep. One by one as if at a wake, our three dogs and three sons filed by the bed offering reassuring licks and hugs (respectively).

All of this occurred as NaNoWriMo drew to a close, along with my pathetic word count. I struggled with feelings of failure, futility, inadequacy, even doom regarding both my running and writing. Even so, I gleaned some wisdom from the experience—wisdom I thought fellow writers might appreciate.

1) First, it’s okay to try and fail.

Like most folks, I started NaNoWriMo with fervor and motivation. I had accountability partners. I tweeted word counts. Laundry piled high. Then life happened: three kids had to be three places at once; my family actually needed clean underwear; a day job and bank account needed me to work more hours; one dog licked open a hot spot and two others stepped all over my laptop whenever I sat down to write. 

All the while, that annoying NaNoWriMo daily word counter thingy crept upward. On the first day, the counter said to maintain a 1,667 words/day pace to meet the 50,000 goal. As writing time waned, the goal increased to 2,300/day. Then 6,534. On November 30, I would’ve had to write 26,000 words to meet my goal.

Still, I’m 24,000 words farther into my WIP than if I never tried at all.

2) Second, free writing leads to discovery of strengths, weaknesses and voice.

Psychologists use a journaling technique with some patients in which they tell them to use their non-dominant hand to write themselves a letter. Many times, this leads the writer in unexpected directions, opening doors to new and more productive stories. Similarly, as I continued through NaNoWriMo, I discovered new ways to write scenes. New characters felt free to emerge. I felt free to kill a few off and start over. I found my voice and lost it several times over, and even discovered new ones. Free writing, well, it frees us from editor mode, allowing uncharted creativity to emerge.

3) Keep going, but stop if it hurts.

I learned after-the-fact running shouldn’t hurt, and if it does, you should stop. Same thing with writing.

I know—I know. We’re supposed to allow our hearts to “bleed upon the page.” We ought to pour ourselves through our pens until we can sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen” in a grand, unrelenting crescendo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

But, most of us writers are melodramatic, hyperbolic saps. Seriously. If it’s too difficult, take a break. Find a new angle. Cross-train by reading a few books. Settle in to what works for you. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, be proud of whatever word count you achieved. If that sort of jump-start works for you, participate again. If you hated it and the whole month felt like a proverbial knife-in-the-knee, don’t bother.

4) As Captain Barbosa (from Pirates of the Caribbean) said, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

So it goes with writing, including NanoWriMo. Writing advice on the web, in books or taught in classrooms are guidelines—not code—we need to tweak and apply to our unique lives. For example, the “write every day” advice is not feasible for my life stage, which includes boys, dogs, work and possibly undiagnosed ADD. For a long time, I beat myself up for not meeting that seemingly ultimate criterion for being a “real writer.” Now I’m learning to embrace my quirky—if manic-depressive—methods of achieving word counts.

You might wonder what’s become of my knee injury. I decided to head to the local swimming pool. A competitive swimmer in college, I returned to the place I knew I could find a niche and was gentler on my joints and 10-year-postpartum body. As I glide (pain-free) through the water, voices and the noise of the world are assuaged until all I focus on are breathing.

Kicking.

Reaching.

Pulling the water behind me.

More water.

More words.

Ever behind us.

Ever before us.

Ever beckoning each of us to write.

What about you? Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? If so, what did you take away from the experience?

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