Last year, I wrote a post about National Novel Writing Month, expressing my reservations as to whether focusing on quantity at the expense of quality – hence the slogan: “No Plot? No Problem!” – could ever be a good thing.
Then, just recently, I received a comment that posed a very interesting question: “But anyways, isn’t a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story better than no story at all?”
If you are interested in my opinion, you can read my reply to that comment. But, today, I want to go deeper than that, and answer the question: Why is it that NaNo became so popular in the first place?
I think there are plenty of reasons, and some of them are good. For instance, NaNo creates a sense of community between writers: it makes us feel closer, and gives us the warm feeling that “we are all in this together.” Additionally, having a deadline and a goal pushes us to write even when we don’t feel “inspired,” or when we would rather be doing something else. Basically, it ensures that we get something done, and something is better than nothing, right?
However, I also suspect that there are other, less benign reasons for participating in NaNo, the most dangerous of which is that NaNo feeds off of our modern belief that we should do things quickly, that the goal – getting to the 50,000 word-limit at the end of the month – is a lot more important than the result – writing a novel – or the process – what happens to you as you go through all of the steps of writing that novel.
Thus, writing becomes just another thing we check off our to-do-list: “Writing 1,666 words for the day…check!” This attitude easily extends to all other aspects of life, even some that, like writing, should be more about the process than about the final result. “Earning degree…check!”… “Finding girlfriend…check!”
The most ironically dramatic example of this was given by Bhuddist teacher Gil Fronsdal, who once told a story in which the Dalai Lama was talking to a large audience, and someone asked him a question. The question was: “What is the fastest way of becoming enlightened?” The Dalai Lama stopped for a long time… was just really silent,” said Gil. “And then, apparently, tears went down his cheeks. [...] At some point, he said something about how sad it was: this drive, this ambition, this greed, to get results as fast as possible.”
We can all agree that someone who starts practicing meditation with the main purpose of becoming enlightened as quickly as possible is probably very far more obtaining enlightenment. But what does this have to do with writing? The thing is, I am starting to learn that meditation and writing are very similar. Both can be painfully slow, both should be practiced regularly, and both can make you a truly happier human being – provided that you pay more attention to the process than to the end result.
If we meditate with the main purpose of becoming enlightened, we will be immensely frustrated whenever we sit down to do our however minutes of breathing, and come out with no further understanding of anything. In the same way, if our purpose as writers is reaching those 50,000 words, or publishing a novel, or becoming the next Stephen King, writing will never be a truly enjoyable activity for us.
We will not be able to get peacefully engrossed in the act of writing itself because we will always have our goal in mind, and our preoccupation with reaching that goal or the fear of not being able to attain it will take away from our ability to become aware of how the simple act of writing can enrich our lives.
Instead, if we meditate or write without a goal, we can do it calmly, without expectations, fear or time constraints.
How would writing without a goal be?
Everyone probably has their own answer to this question, and you are welcome to leave yours in the comments. I, for one, know that I would enjoy it more. I would write exactly what I want to write, without worrying about whether someone would be interested in publishing it or reading it. I would also write what is meaningful to me so that, if I feel the need to let go of my novel for a day or two, and write a short story that popped into my mind, I can, without experiencing the pang of guilt that sometimes accompanies such decisions. Most importantly, I would write without fear or rush, putting exactly as much time as I need, not worrying if I have to re-write the same page 2, 10, or twenty times, but resisting the urge to rewrite it twenty-one times. For once, I would not let myself be guided by the fear that what I write “will never be good enough,” because I don’t need it to be good enough to attain something. I just need it to be.
Writing without a goal can be difficult and I can’t promise that it will allow you to become a famous writer, or enable you to write 50,000 words a month. Nevertheless, I’m sure that you will still be able to write something, and that the final product you end up with will be more than “a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story.”