Reflections on National Novel Writing Month

There’s a good reason Jews are referred to as the “people of the word.” Our focus on texts is a long-standing tradition that encourages respect, even reverence, for the written word. Words are meaningful, powerful. They can create entire worlds. I highly appreciated this concept even as a child when I used to create fictional worlds through the stories I wrote. I loved writing for as long as I can remember, which led in later years to my participating in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in a month to increase the quality and quantity of their writing.

I’ve been a member of the NaNoWriMo community since 2007. Eight years, eight attempts to reach the finish line. Some years, my motivation failed me before the project even started; other years saw the creation of a new novel abandoned a few chapters in. Spoiler alert: To this day, I have not once successfully completed NaNoWriMo by finishing the 50,000-word goal at the end of the month.

Most years, I had good excuses for neglecting the project. High school and college took up all my time, and November was prime time for midterms and mid-semester papers.

But, when I graduated from college in 2014 and found myself in a stable work environment where November was a month like any other unmarked by any particular spike in responsibilities or projects and uninterrupted by any Jewish holidays I was determined to make that the year in which I finally achieved my goal. Surprise: I never made it to 50,000. I didn’t even make it to the halfway mark that year.

When November came around last year, I was prepared. I’d already decided what kind of writing I wanted to do and double-checked my planner to make sure nothing would get in the way of my churning out 1,667 words per day. I printed out a copy of a NaNoWriMo calendar on which I could track each day’s word count. You can’t go wrong if you’re super organized, right?

Well… I completely missed the first day. My planner told me that Sunday, November 1 was the first day of NaNoWriMo, but, after a busy day, I didn’t even open my laptop. I got to work the next day, and, over the course of that week, wrote on and off missing some days, not writing enough on others, and writing double the amount on the rare few. That was the general pattern for the next couple of weeks, allowing me to input decent numbers on my calendar but not enough to push me towards my end goal.

During the last week of November, I alternated between panic (I need to triple my word count) and defeatism (There’s no way I’m reaching 50K). The days raced by until one day I looked at the time and saw that it was past midnight. The last day of November had come to a close and so had my project.

My word count was somewhere around the halfway point a respectable number, even if I wasn’t among NaNoWriMo’s official winners, the dedicated writers who successfully churned out a 50,000 word novel.

I was nowhere near the 50K mark. But, as the clock struck midnight and I closed the document, I felt a sense of pride. Whatever amount of words I had pushed out that month was significantly higher than in any other month that year. I’d created a substantial body of work that would never have come into being without the pressure and motivation of a project with a deadline.

Winning isn’t only reaching 50,000. Winning is working your way toward 50,000, and writing more than you would have as a result. So, if you land in the 20,000s, you’ve still won! Because, without this project, you would have probably barely scraped together 5,000 words during that time.

NaNoWriMo gives me the motivation to exercise my creative muscles. That’s the goal of NaNoWriMo to get the wheels turning and get words on paper. Then you have all this material to work with, and, most importantly, you have proven to yourself that you can write a good deal of material in just one month, so what’s stopping you from continuing throughout the year? November 30 does not signal the end of that creativity. On the contrary, NaNoWriMo is only the beginning.

The idea of a new beginning is central to Jewish thought, since every Rosh Hashanah we have the ability to start afresh. Instead of dwelling on past mistakes, we’re encouraged to make the most out of the present. You make a commitment to do better this year, and, even if you sometimes fail, you can always get back on the wagon and try again – which is exactly what NaNoWriMo encourages with writing.

So when Camp NaNoWriMo, another writing project, gave me a chance to set my own writing goal and work towards it this April, I went for it. I made a commitment to write every day. It didn’t matter if I was writing fiction, articles, or simply keeping a more thorough journal. NaNoWriMo had left me with the desire to make writing a daily part of my life. When you establish a habit of writing regularly, you end up doing more of it but when you get out of the habit, it’s difficult to get back into the flow.

Now, months after the end of Camp NaNoWriMo and a month away from NaNoWriMo 2016, I can honestly say that my writing output has increased. While I could have done better and written more, I acknowledge the progress I’ve made. But most importantly, I look forward to continuing to write, and I’m excited to see what this November has in store for me. And maybe one year, I will even finish that 50,000-word novel.

Hannah Rozenblat is a graduate student at CUNY-Hunter College.

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