writing on command

I am one of the bizarro nerds who makes a yearly attempt at writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month, also known as Nanowrimo.  Or at least I think about making an attempt.  Or maybe I just feel vaguely guilty that I totally reread like three Stephen King novels for the seventh time, instead of making any progress towards any of my life’s goals which definitely include writing a novel (or at this point, just finishing anything, ever). 

For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that participants try to write a fifty thousand word novel between November 1 and November 30.  I have never completed it.  This year I turned to the magic of social networking and joined the Nanowrimo Facebook group as a way to sort of guilt-trip myself into trying.  Despite daily barrages of Nano updates in my news feed, I still managed to forget about it until about November 12, after noticing that about 47 people of the Facebook group had already finished their novel.  Many of the online community members encouraged me to start on the 12th anyway.  One man told me to take the 12th as a day to plan out my story and then start writing on the 13th.  But I started receiving advice to ignore the established Nano word-count schedule and try to reach 2777.77 words a day instead.  I didn’t even realize there WAS a schedule.  I’m not great at schedules, or even time management, in the most general sense.  Scheduling writing seemed very clinical and unlike the creative blaze of writing passion that I wanted to generate in myself.  I had always pictured myself on fire for Jesus literature, banging away at the computer and pumping out roughly ten thousand perfect words in one caffeine-fueled overnight word bender.  Never mind the fact that I had no idea where to start, with not even the vaguest whisper of an idea or a plot or a character inspiring enough to warrant 50 000 words.  Or any words.

Here’s the issue I have with a lot of the “wrimos”, as some of the Nanowrimo participants call themselves, and with a lot of authors who give advice about beating writer’s block.  They advise people to sit in a chair and write X number of words like it ain’t no thang.  They advise a writing schedule, where you write the same amount of words at the same time every day, or allot a certain amount of time to writing each day.  I’ve even seen bloggers creating a sort of Pavlovian experiment for themselves, where they listen to the same music at the same time every day, and write words, hoping to create an association with the song.  Never mind the fact that this business of “daily schedules” does not apply to shift workers — 8pm might be morning for me this Monday, and bedtime next Monday.  The problem I have is that sitting down and typing does not generate ideas nor quality writing for me.  I can’t just do it on command.  I write when I have something to write about, and that’s it.  Due to 12 hour shifts, I also have other things to do during that one hour a day that I’m supposed to be writing.  A more realistic although equally unlikely scenario is one where I write 7000 words on my day off once the house is clean, my laundry is done, my six pets are cared for and entertaining themselves, I have no social obligations and my fiance is busy doing something that doesn’t involve romancing me.  Then on the other days of the week, I might write 250 or 100 or 500 words.  But none of that will ever happen if I don’t have something to write about in the first place.  I keep trying to tell myself to “just do it”, to write anything, even if it’s terrible.  It doesn’t happen.  Maybe I just get too excited about the word count and beat myself up too much if I fall short.  Or maybe that approach just sucks.

There’s another suspicious tendency I’ve noticed in wrimos, and also in the same authors who advocate the whole “writing schedule” thing (Stephen King seems to be one of them).  It’s the claim that characters take on a life of their own and steer the story in an unplanned direction.  I’m not even going to get into Stephen King’s claims that the story is like a pre-existing fossil that he merely tries to unearth, or that the writer is just a vessel that the story flows through.  Let’s instead talk about the wrimos and their weird Facebook group again.  People were posting things about how their character did something unexpected and quirky, and ruined the whole story.  Or someone unexpectedly turned out to be gay and now the love triangle is confusing.  I actually like the idea of a character coming to life in my brain and just existing like a real person whom I can’t manipulate, because it makes the process of writing into a process of just taking notes on what this person is doing.  As if instead of a writer, you’re an inept and overly verbose spy.  Except a character really is a fictional construct whose identity totally exists in the writer’s mind, so I also just don’t get it, and don’t understand how all of the wrimos are sitting down to their desks every day and in the process of transcibing exactly 1667 words, an imaginary person comes into being and starts doing and saying things outside of the author’s control.  I have tried.  I want this to happen.  But the imaginary randos in my head are conspicuously silent and still…

Inspiration, for me, seems to be totally random.  I draw from dreams that feel real enough for me to want to bring them into waking life.  I draw from “what ifs” that I can unspool into a story.  I try to make things out of symbols that speak to me, although work based on symbols seems to be dull and pretentious at best.  But I can never “force” a story.  The best I can do is wait, live my life, and hope that I have a notebook and a pen handy when inspiration strikes.  I’m starting to worry that a really good idea, a really big idea worth fifty thousand words or more, might never even happen to me.  Short of sitting at my computer desk and staring at a blank Word template, I have no idea how to make my brain do what I want it to do.  So I try to learn from the brief spurts of creative energy.  Like this morning, when I woke up an hour before my alarm went off, excited about a new idea and actually possessing the energy and drive to type words about it.  I wouldn’t be able to tell you what was different about today as opposed to any other day.  I plan to cling to that idea as long as I can, write as long as I have words to write, and hope that it works out.  Beyond that, I have no clue.

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