November 30 was the final day of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) and I have failed. For anyone who doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo has been around since 1999 and the challenge involves completing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days, an average of around 1700 words a day. I’m about 25k short of the goal of breaking the tape at this particular literary finish line.
Funny thing is — I’m OK with that. I’m Ok with not meeting the requisite word limit goal. I’m OK with not finishing. I’m Ok with, well, failing.
Last year I tried it for the first time and managed to bang out 50k plus words, to date the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written. The manuscript, entitled The Liar Bird was a semi-autobiographical novel based somewhat on the family challenges and personal experiences faced over the past several years. At the time my wife thought it might provide some type of catharsis.
In a way it did that. Problem is, as a piece of writing it presents challenges. About a month after completion I sat to edit. The damn thing proved flawed in so many ways that I view it now as almost un-editable. Re-writable, yes certainly, but the manuscript requires way more than polish; it is most definitely schizophrenic. I have realized that the story is actually two novels held together only by my consistent act of sitting to write in order to break the 50,000 word barrier.
I also believe that part of the problem is the memoir-esque quality of The Liar Bird. Only until reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir did I realize how many issues memoir writing poses. I now understand that the bi-polar nature of the story is due to my ill-concieved attempts at cloaking the personal nature of the story within a layered masque of fiction.
On that level, the story really does not work. I also accept that, at the time, this was the only way I could write the damn thing — I was too close to the story, too tangled in a net of emotions that I had yet to wrangle free from. Since then I’ve gotten some distance and the possibility of crafting a “factual” memoir feels doable. So, what came into the world as a 50,300 word manuscript is not some singular being, but rather a set of conjoined twins in need of surgical separation. Oh, what fun! Please, pass the Advil and put on a pot of coffee, we’re gonna be here a while.
Bearing these revelations in mind, I decided to take another run at the challenge this year. My approach however would be different. Partly because my working idea came to me almost fully formed. My overarching impression for the story originated in an image that I saw one night as I was trying to fall asleep — a man stood in the kitchen of a farm house staring out the window looking at a horse standing in the pouring rain. That’s it. For whatever reason I could not shake the image. Each time I thought about it, reassembled it in my mind’s eye, the picture drew into greater focus until I had a name, a place and a rationale for the horse standing in the rain. In my opinion, I even had an kick-ass title: Deeper North.
This November my writing schedule was haphazard to say the least. I inconsistently managed my minimum word count of 1700 words per day. Some days 253, other days 4000, some 2500, some 0. But I was always thinking about the story and its three main characters: Aaron, his friend Tim and Manny a handy man working on the farm Aaron inherits from his recently deceased adult daughter. What? I know, right?
The endeavor became less about writing words just for the sake of writing words, or obsessing about the word count as if I was tracking calories or something. In terms of running some call the act of running just to add miles to some weekly total as “junk miles” — miles that do not enhance training or bring a runner closer to some overall goal. In essence many coaches encourage their runners to rest rather than force mileage for the sake of mileage because that can result in injury. I vowed no junk words, here, only words which mattered.
No, this was a bit more purposeful even if it proved inconsistent. This became more about creating rather than producing. I can’t take full credit for that last insight. I read a post on the site Medium by blogger Cory O’Brien. Never having been on Medium before the post sort of surfaced as the imminent deadline loomed and the certainty of “failure” edged me closer to a precipice beyond which lay the abyss. I also broke a cardinal rule and occasionally edited a few sections sometimes deleting junk words, garbage sentences and trash phrases. Talk about self-sabotage. That certainly did not help arriving at 50k.
Truth be told, my relationship with this particular story is far different than with last year’s story. I feel less of an urgent need to prove something, and it has been suggested that proving something to others, or redressing grievances, is the wrong reason to make art, any art, in the first place (Robert Henri? Or, perhaps, Gertrude Stein?). The bottom line becomes, in reality, anyone can produce 50,000 words. Think Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. What good are the 50,000 words if they only masquerade as part of a unified whole one might call a novel?
Unification of that whole, the bringing together of a thing and edging nearer to wholeness, is the act of creating.
At any rate, I am proud of the writing that came out. I am proud of the process I used, and I am certain that I’ve got something “good” on my hands. Even in its roughened state this manuscript is much closer to “done” than anything I’ve written in a long time.
So, while I won’t be able to break the tape at the finish line, and the race staff will have packed up and gone home long before I stumble though the home stretch, I will finish the marathon… but at my own pace. In the end, by the limits set by the NaNoWriMo challenge I have certainly failed, this exercise was by no means a failure. My bottom line is that the challenge is the reason for beginning but by no means is it the reason for completing.
With any luck, maybe you’ll be seeing Deeper North soon at a bookstore or an e-Reader near you.