In my post last Wednesday, I talked about my reasons for doing a modified NaNoWriMo this year, but the reasons I gave were only part of the story. 
One of the biggest reasons came from a realization I had the first week after we got an exercise bike. 
Exercise is a really big deal for me. When I was a kid, exercise was right up there with school in importance. When I was in third grade my mother took me out of school once a week because swimming was the only form of exercise I could do that didn’t hurt, and my doctors thought exercise was the difference between having knees that dislocated and not.

Then I grew up and went to college, and my school had an amazing gym a few doors down from my dorm with treadmills in front of giant windows on the second floor looking down on the street. Exercising looked so sexy (like cage dancing and running on a treadmill at the same time), and this was before that OK Go video where they dance on the treadmills, but I spent most of that year on crutches, and as far as I know they still haven’t come out with a treadmill that wouldn’t be a death trap for someone on crutches. (But I still have hope!)

Then I moved to California where snow is a once in a century event, and my knees began to heal. (I hope. It’s still too soon to tell if the healing is permanent.) Three years after moving to California I realized that I could walk over a mile without feeling like I was going to die. If you heard a really high pitched squee a few weeks ago, it was probably me realizing that I was no longer banned from exercise equipment.

So, we bought a bike, and at the first opportunity I biked six miles. After not doing anything more strenuous than walking. Ever.

I think you can see where this is going.

And if you can’t, let me give you some advice. Don’t. Just. Don’t.

You can’t sprint a marathon.

This experience with the exercise bike made some thing click for me that I’ve been on the edge of understanding for a long time. When I finished grad school and walked out of Goddard with a piece of paper that said I was a Master in Fine Arts, I thought that I was ready to be a full-time writer. I would get up every morning and sit down at my desk and punch out novels like a printing machine.

But it didn’t happen. I was tired from finishing the degree, which was pretty much a marathon writing session. I’d heard people talk about finishing graduate degrees in writing and wondering if they would ever write again, and I suddenly found myself bitterly wondering if I was going to become one of those people. Part of me wanted to never look at another printed word again.

Then in May, John Irving did an interview on KQED, and he told a story about his experience of becoming a full-time writer. For years, he was a coach and wrote novels in his spare time. When he finally retired and had the opportunity to do what he’d always wanted to do and write all day, he learned that he didn’t have the stamina to do it, and he was devastated. Eventually, he worked up to being able to write what he considered to be a full day, but it took him years to get there.

Writing is like exercise.

There’s a writing muscle. (I can’t tell you where it is, but I know it exists.) And if you’ve never written a thing in your life, and you sit down in front of the computer and say, “I’m going to write a novel, and I’m not going to get up from this chair until I’ve written a novel,” something is going to break. It might be you, or it might be your computer monitor (accidents happen), or it might be that daydream you’ve been having about giving a TED talk and winning the Nobel Prize at the same time.

Of course, there are stories about people like Jack Kerouac and Philip K. Dick who took a lot of drugs and banged out a novel in three days, but, at least in the case of Kerouac, those stories are a myth. The novel that came to be know as On the Road was written on a roll of paper in a very short time, but that was only one draft. There were drafts that came before, and there were drafts that came after, and Kerouac himself said that the book wouldn’t have happened at all, if he hadn’t lived like a monk between road trips.

Except when it isn’t.

This could easily turn into a pep talk urging the writing team to make like John Irving and write a little more every day, but it’s not. This is where the exercise analogy breaks down. 
There is a danger in going too far in the other direction and treating the creative process as one more exercise. Ryan Boudinot, one of the faculty members at Goddard, said recently:

There’s a certain fascism to a lot of writing advice that makes me bristle. There’s an almost athletic insistence that one must stick your butt in that chair and write for six hours every day, loser and to keep that pen moving even if you have nothing to say. A lot of books read like they were written like this, under duress, with daily productivity goals posted above computer monitors, in some sort of vast writing factory.

There are parts of the writing process that are mechanical and boring, and if you’re less than perfectly motivated, there are times when you have to find little ways to trick yourself into doing what needs to be done. The goal I’ve set for myself during NaNoWriMo is my attempt to turn the part of writing something that’s readable to other people that I hate doing into a game. The fact that it is necessary for us to play these games with ourselves is evidence, I think, that there is something about being human that resists regimentation, and it is from the human place that resists measurement that good stories come from.
And it is from this place that I can return to the exercise analogy. If I had listened to my body the day I biked six miles, I would have known when to stop. Instead, I let myself get carried away with the numbers, pushing myself just a little bit more to reach that nice round number. 
So, if you’re been doing NaNoWriMo, and you’re having a difficult time reaching your word count, and writing is starting to feel like a chore, and you’re starting to wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you can’t seem to reach a goal the people around you (claim) to be reaching in only a few hours. Stop. Step away from the keyboard. Take a nap. Drink a cup of coffee and look out the window, and if writing still feels like a chore, take a few days off and remember why you cared enough to embarked on the crazy adventure of writing a book in the first place.
Advertisements