Monday, November 28, 2011

Thousands of Words, Hundreds of Miles, and Seven Pounds Later

Several of my friends have been using this month as a chance to reflect on the things they're thankful for. My mom and I conducted an e-mail exchange along those lines each November for a few years. But this year I spent the month winning NaNoWriMo (see badge at left). And when I finished that challenge, I realized the things I'm thankful for are things I made happen: I wrote a novel (no, it's not done and not even ready for revision), I became a runner, and I lost the seven pounds I gained after my dad died of cancer last year.

I celebrated these feats last night by drinking a couple glasses of wine and going to bed early. Hey, I know how party!

So let's start with NaNoWriMo: November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Anyone who wants to can sign up for an account at the website. Writers can then use a variety of resources to help them write 50,000 words by November 30: pep talks, a word count tracker, and merchandise like Chris Baty's book No Plot, No Problem! Writers who make it to the 50,000 word minimum "win" the contest. For their troubles, they receive a certificate and special internet badges that indicate they've won (see badge above). Yeah, that's pretty much it.

So now you may be wondering how I came to participate in the contest.

As with most meaningful things that have happened to me in my life, this one happened quite by accident. I woke up on November 1st, thought to myself, "Oh, NaNoWriMo starts today. Let's see if I can get 1667 words." And I did. Then I did it the next day and the next day and the next day until last night when I hit the 50,000 word mark and validated my word count on the NaNoWriMo site. Technically, I was supposed to have spent the month of October prepping, but since I wasn't planning to participate, I did no research whatsoever (which I'll come back to later on.) I had tried the contest a couple times before (never got past 6000 words), and then completely ignored it last year thinking that it just wasn't for me. So what was different this year?

First of all, I had a plot that included a beginning, middle, and end. Second, as I started writing, I either fell in love or in hate, as appropriate, with my characters. Third, the work is ultimately a discussion of some of my favorite subjects: art history, the Marquis de Sade, the link between pleasure and pain, the place of morality in the world, and what it means for something to be "beautiful." It also doesn't hurt that it takes place in Paris, the streets of which I can walk from the comfort of my home in Conwag.

And here's what I learned about life, writing, and teaching writing:

1) You have more time than you think. On Day Three, I had to respond to 35 student drafts while helping supervise the writing center where I am assistant director and attend two meetings. I figured I'd still have that night to write and was then that I had volunteered to act in a short film for my friend CEP. All the shooting was complete except for the green screen scenes, and he had reserved the screen room for that night and that night only. I asked if he didn't mind shooting everyone else's parts and then calling me when he needed me. No, he didn't mind (thanks, CEP!). So in the few hours between getting home and getting in costume, I managed my 1667 words. When I got to 35,000 words, my pace started slowing. I woke one morning at 3:30 and started feeling guilty. Then it dawned on me: "I'm just going to lie here tossing and turning feeling guilty. I'm never going to fall back asleep. Why not just get up and write?" So that's what I did. You've got five idle minutes? You gonna spend it on Facebook? Or you gonna write? Which will mean more to you in the end? Question answered.

2) This relates directly to number one: find people who support you because they'll make sure you've got the time. Leave behind those who don't support you because they'll only see your work as a frivolous excuse for turning down invitations and begging off extra work they've contrived for you to do. Facebook was instrumental in building a network of support. Posting my word count to strangers on NaNoWriMo didn't really mean anything to me. But posting the milestones on FB and receiving "Likes" and congratulations was a tremendous boost to my motivation. Which led me to another conclusion: psychologists say that if you tell someone you're going to do something, you're more likely to do it. That may be true, but if the people you tell start nagging you, you're going to dig in your heels and say, "Na, na, na, na, na, you can't make me." The reinforcement has to be positive. Also, The Hubs finally understands what I mean when I say, quoting Stevie Nicks, "I wanna be a star! I don't wanna be a cleaning lady."

3) Drafting and revising are separate activities. When you have a looming deadline for a rough, rough draft, just write the draft. It used to be that I had the leisure of writing from the beginning until I got stuck, at which point I'd go back to the top and start revising until I got unstuck. Then I'd begin drafting again until I got stuck and end up back at the beginning revising to "unstuck" again. I'm not sure that's the most efficient way to go about writing. I'm now convinced that just getting something down and often working on bits and pieces as the muse for that section calls is more efficient. Now that I've got a huge chunk of novel finished, I feel like I can continue moving forward without ever getting stuck again. And what's the point of going back to revise something that might end up cut from the original because of a plot problem? And this especially translates to teaching: why should a student revise a section of her research paper that may actually contradict her thesis or be completely irrelevant to her focus?

4) Sometimes you just need to write and fill in the gaps that need to be researched later. I could have spent the entire month reading about the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, translating stories I wanted to use from Le Monde, etc. But I didn't have time for that. Better to get down the story line and develop the characters and worry about the details later. I used asterisks, blanks, and highlighting to indicate places I needed to develop through research, names I hadn't decided on, and fact and spelling checking I needed to do. I can now worry about those things during the December break. Le Monde is archived like any other newspaper; I can go back to the news that fits my story line and translate those articles later. And I get to keep Airaksinen's Philosophy of the Marquis de Sade until March, at which time I can certainly renew it from the library.

So that's what NaNoWriMo did for me.

I've written before about what running has meant in my life. I started the day my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor (see post dated August 9). I had to put it aside when school started, but now that I've come to realize that I have more time than I thought I had, I've taken it back up again. Also, sitting in front of a computer for nearly a month has made me want to feel my whole body move again, not just my fingers as they glide over a keyboard. Funnily enough, it got a little cold yesterday, so I spent some time this morning doing research on technical gear for runners (that's backpacker/hiker/runner speak for clothes that keep you warm and dry) and discovered a new accidental challenge: the day I started running again (Thanksgiving), Runner's World started the first annual Holiday Running Streak: run one mile a day from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. Pfft. That's nothing. If you're friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, you can be sure I'll be posting my triumphs daily, assuming this initial soreness doesn't put me in a wheelchair.

And as for the seven pounds...well, that came off without a hitch. I owe it all to single-serving bags of popcorn and Granny Smith apples for breakfast (because I don't like sweet stuff). If I lost a couple more pounds, I could easily rock a size two, but you know what...I'm pretty damn happy with what I've accomplished so far.

It's been a good year.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ladies and Gents, We Have a Winner!

Yes, folks, I won NaNoWriMo, and here's my badge to prove it. More on what I learned later. Right now, I'm CELEBRATING!!!