Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month – Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.
That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.
In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.
This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.
I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.
All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.
I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.
At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.
I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.
Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.
And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.