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Half time

line Half time

Every. Single. Day.

That’s the challenge of NaNoWriMo — writing every single day. I’m just past the midpoint of the month — and the month’s writing challenge — in both time and word count. This means I’d like to take a moment — and, hopefully, a quickly-building word count — to reflect on what’s happened this month.

My parenthetical aside — and I just love them — in the previous sentence highlighted one of the dilemmas of this project for me: the word count. I know it’s inapplicable for the project I’m doing, and maybe even silly, but I can’t get the word count out of my head. In a way that’s good, because it keeps me here writing every day. But it’s also bad, because it keeps me here writing, sometimes, almost all day. I’m getting little else done, as writing 1,667 words seems to take longer and longer as the month passes.

It feels as if it should be easier. If I type at, say, 50 words per minute, then just the typing of that many words should take not much more than half an hour. I’m no Jack Kerouac, of course — although, as the always-reliable Wikipedia just informed me, even Kerouac, although he typed the manuscript onto a continuous roll of paper in just three weeks, had already filled several notebooks with notes and stories that he used in the book. So even Kerouac would’ve had difficulty writing something without preparation within a month.

I woke up this morning thinking of what I’d write today. I admit that I have still left the most difficult of my planned letters to the nebulous “soon” — even the letter to Ted, for which I’ve been preparing for days — and I wonder if I will ever get to them, with Thanksgiving coming next week and much host-preparation to do. And I’d gone to bed without a firm idea of what I’d do today, and more of an idea of the (many) other things I should be doing, which is not I think a recipe for a focused, productive writing session (before moving on to those other shoulds).

Then I realized that, rather than feeling guilty at just how much non-letter writing I’m doing, I should instead revel in it. After all, it was part of my (exceptionally vague) initial plan that I should pause occasionally for a meta-session, to reflect upon how (or if) tackling this challenge this month has made a difference. And I realized that I had three objectives in starting, so it might be worth checking in on each.

What writers do

I’d originally called this section “Writing every day,” but that’s a description only of a method, not of a goal. What’s the advice every writer hears? Write every day. So clearly, I want to think of myself as a writer.

It’s not that I don’t write. For instance, what led to my two very early no-words days for NaNoWriMo was a newsletter, which I wrote: a 1,500+ word essay, a 1,000-word essay, a 1,000-word interview article (based on my transcript of an interview), and a 2,000-word edit of another interview (transcribed by me). Three of these were based on either some rough notes and phrases or from interviews. All of them, though, were writing, and were essentially essays, a form I obviously like.

What they lacked, however, was my name. I did squeeze in a “with contributions from” credit to the end of two of the articles, in 6 point type (the same as I used for the two credited photos), but the bylines were to others. I’ve been doing a fair amount of writing for this organization, but only one person really knows what I’ve written, since nothing has had my name. It’s basically commercial writing, but in some ways I suppose it’s also a bit of ghost writing because, rather than being from some vague corporate entity, it is bylined by a specific author who’s not me (that’s just a distinction I made up, by the way, although it does seem true).

What I’ve realized is that writing for me is such a personal endeavor that it actually becomes painful to see it attributed to somebody else. I have a voice of my own. I don’t try to call attention to my writing style — I think “comfortable” may be a pretty good description for what I want my style to feel like for the reader — but it is my voice. Even if I don’t need to have someone think, “That’s Dan Stewart saying that,” I still weary of having my words come out of someone else’s mouth.

I have written words every day, except for days 3 and 4, when I was pushing to finish the newsletter (and whose absent words still haunt my total two weeks later; I hadn’t thought that I was essentially using up most of the slack in the month at the very beginning). It’s been refreshing, liberating — and tiring, and sometimes oppressive. Sometimes it feels like a high toll at the gate to begin the day, and sometimes it feels like an unjustified self-indulgence.

At first I wrote “unjustifiable self-indulgence,” but I decided on the other adjective, much softer in meaning and limited in scope. Expressing a voice — being creative — is not optional. What is variable is the form — the project.

Is this project worthwhile?

Reaching out

My original plan, vague in conception, was “to write letters” — an epistolary adventure, as I think I termed it early on. I’ve had certain letters long on my mind, and I thought this project might finally shake them into being. I also intended it to be a way of opening up some sclerotic avenues of communication, as a counter to what has become a life of unhealthy social isolation.

There is an irony, however, to writing letters within the framework of this “write 50,000 words in 30 days” project: the point of it is a way to force-generate a draft, rather than finished work. Michael Connors set up our Facebook group, “TC Wrimos!” (with the exclamation point), and he adopted a perfectly on-point slogan: “Fix it in December.” In other words, since so much of writing can be dammed by thinking too much about an editor or the intended audience, the main point of this overstuffed endeavor is to overwhelm the thinking/worrying with the doing. As Stalin reputedly said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”The press of time — let alone the sponge-squeezing effect of the writing — makes editing difficult as well as distracting from the main endeavor. Keep your eyes focused through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.

But … the point of writing letters is to send them, yes? They tend to be situated at a particular point in time the way that novels (or essays) are not, which means they — like news reports — can grow stale in a short period of time. I could just print and drop these letters into the mail, but that sort of negates the point of writing letters as a part of writing: if they’re writing, they require editing, and editing disrupts the rhythm and momentum of writing. The point of NaNoWriMo is to generate a draft not seen by the audience; the point of writing letters is to be read by the correspondent, the “audience.”

I can, of course, wait until I reach the finish line, then rewrite and edit the letters (including something about the delay, as an explanation) before putting them in the mail. Probably that’s the best approach, and one I’ll likely adopt.

The irony is that drafting letters is not actually communicating. Writing a letter is writing a monologue, the writer’s voice in his own ear. There is an intended audience, sure, but until the letter is opened and read that’s only a theoretical possibility. It’s like pushing a boulder to the edge of a cliff; until you push it over, all its energy — all that it might do, bad and good — is latent, as potential energy.

In fact, being a part of NaNoWriMo formally (well, as formally as this project gets, in the sense of joining the website and connecting with some local participants) might be a little counterproductive. There’s a lot of focus — for good reasons — on the word count, the shared 50,000 goal. But that goal is like a running a marathon: crossing the finish line can mean a really large number of things. But is focusing on the 26.2 miles always good? Would it be better to adopt a “half-marathon” approach?

For me, should I press on, trying to write close to 2,000 words each day? To do this — without making NaNoWriMo the only thing I do this month, which would be sort of bad — I need to get up a little earlier, and to get down to writing business a little earlier, which means I need to get to bed a little earlier, too (because, boy, these long nights do invite staying in bed). I’ll also need to pause for less time in the mornings for coffee. These changes would require, if not Amanda’s approval, then at least her non-disapproving acquiescence.

I remain focused on the 50,000 word goal, though, not because of peer pressure (updating my word count online is a way to affirm for myself, and if it has any effect in terms of peer pressure, it’s positive), but because the count gives me a sense of completion. That’s why people do odd things, unrelated to the other parts of their lives, like marathons (all sorts of extreme sports) and contests and such: reaching a finish line, however arbitrary, is an objective completion. The goal may be — probably should be — one that’s almost wholly internal, but that in some ways makes reaching the finish line even more significant: unless we reach our goal, we can’t fool ourselves that we’ve reached it. Sure, we can redefine it mid-race, but unless something unexpected has intervened (an emergency, whether a sprained ankle for a runner or something unforeseen with Dot), doing so feels like failure inside, where it counts.

I feel compelled, to satisfy myself inside, to try earnestly to reach that arbitrary goal. In doing so, perhaps I’ll actually make it less likely to reach my first goal. However, almost certainly that will be more than balanced by achieving my third goal.

Making the month different

I think my most immediate inspiration for joining NaNoWriMo was watching a TED Talk on my iPad: Matt Cutts, “Try something new for 30 days.”

It’s not that it’s a great presentation. It’s succinct, which is good, but something about the speaker reminds me of times I’ve gotten in front of people with something interesting to say and feeling a little giddy about it, and having the giddiness make me seem all too much what I am: an over-excited introvert. But, as with so many good ideas, what made it really good was that it caught me at the right moment. I had, you might say, a ready ear.

I remember reading about a recent psych experiment attempting to discover the reality behind the subjective observation that time seems to pass more quickly as wet older. I’d always assumed that it had something to do with the percentage of total remaining life represented by each passing day — the greater the relative size, the greater the apparent velocity of the days.

This may be a common explanation, because when I was talking about this experiment, he proposed the same reasons. It is an odd one, though, if we look more closely, because the same reason would support the opposite conclusion: that time should pass more slowly as we grow older. The days, because they represent ever growing slices of our remaining time, should in some way be growing larger in our consciousness, too. We should at least notice them more.

It turns out that noticing is indeed key, but it has nothing to do with any objective sense of relative time remaining, because — as we all know at some level — if time isn’t subjective (relativistic considerations aside), our experience of time most definitely is.

The researchers discovered that what we remember of passing time are the novelty — the newness — of events. We remember what’s different about our daily happenings. Our youths are filled with things that we’ve simply never done before, all the “firsts”: walking, talking, potty training, school, dates, ad infinitum. As we grow older, however, we experience less newness in our daily lives. Arriving at our seventh job for the 1,317th time — that’s just not memorable. Time seems to be going subjectively faster because there are fewer notable events for our memories to fix upon. It all does, as they say, just become a blur.

The remedy — if this is indeed an ill — is to make novelty continue to be a part of our lives. Our lives are our memories, after all — in some ways we experience life only in reverse, in hindsight — so by making more distinct memories, we make our lives pass more slowly. Because it isn’t a race, is it? We know the end, and the point is not to get there too quickly.

That’s the third purpose this project serves for me. Probably I’ll remember some of the writing itself, at least the machine I’m using (I’ve written mostly using an IBM ThinkPad X40 laptop, an “ultraportable” notebook I purchased on eBay as an alternative to a netbook when looking for a very travel-able machine). I’ll probably remember the places, too (at the drop-leaf writing desk and one day at my regular desk, but most of the time in the blue lounge chair we recently moved into the living room). I’ll likely also remember that for at least part of the time I was wearing a Snuggie, a hideous-in-thought but surprisingly nice-in-practice blanket with arms that, despite its thinness, its cheapness, and its chilling light-blue cover, is astonishingly warm — so warm, in fact, that having the room temperature over about 55 degrees makes me begin to sweat in it. Otherwise, though, writing is a pretty routine affair physically; I won’t remember each day.

What I’ll remember is probably similar to what I remember from my first 50,000-word project: the bound manuscript, Evening All Afternoon. I wrote it. I didn’t finish it (in fact, some recent events inspired non-letter essays that I intend to add to it), but I was able to give it to several people to read and received encouragement. (And this new, actual-NaNoWriMo makes me want to return to that earlier project, not least because I feel I now can give that project what it lacks, an ending.)

What I’m writing now won’t lend itself to binding up and sharing as that did. After all, I’m writing many of these letters as real letters, with an intended audience of just one. I’ll keep this whole project in one place, though, because I do see it as a single entity, the result not of one thought, but of one impulse.

Half time

I’m glad I began this NaNoWriMo, and what I’ve written today has actually been sort of refreshing, as I’d hoped it would be (and not just a filler, as I’d feared it might be). Writing about being midway has, ironically, taken me until midday, so I haven’t yet solved the sprawling-writing dilemma.

I do, though, have a greater appreciation for what I’ve been doing, and what I’ve done. I’m writing not just to hear my voice, but to reach out to others and, I hope, be more a part of their lives. And I think this project will help in that just fine.


  • JK Burke

    Very interesting! I have a few unwritten letters in my head, letters I've been meaning to write for years. Are you writing letters to specific people? do they get more than one?

    And heck yeah you should write an ending to your book! I'm excited for you! :)

    • Daniel Stewart

      Yes, I'm writing the letters to specific people, but there is something about writing them as part of a larger bloc of writing that does make them more. I've found that they tend to become essays – and, I admit, this means they can sort of lose focus on the intended recipient. I will mail them – although perhaps not all of them, since the possibility of NOT sending can be liberating – but probably with an explanatory/apologetic added note, for the self-indulgence of it all.

      Now, write those letters!