Tuesday, November 27, 2012

NaNoWriMo and Having Fun

Words are a little hard to come by right now, since I spent the last 27 days participating in National Novel Writing Month, the objective of which is to write fifty thousand words in a single month.

Let's break that down really quickly.  According to Wikipedia (as of this writing), the average words per minute for copying things via keyboard is thirty three words per minute, and the average for composition is nineteen.  For simplicity's sake, we'll call it twenty, and divide fifty thousand by twenty, which makes for two thousand five hundred minutes of continuous writing.  In turn, that's an average of eighty three minutes and twenty seconds of writing per day.  Close to an hour and a half of work every day for a full month, which doesn't take into account the time you spend trying to figure out what the hell you're going to write about.

So it's a lot of effort to maintain over the course of a month, particularly when you're trying to work around a schedule of living that may involve jobs, errands, family, and so on.  If you're a hermit--and I kind of am one, right now--it's a lot easier.

But the thing is, people DO have the time to write.  We have the time to do a lot of things.  You can wake up just twenty minutes earlier and write before breakfast.  You can pop open the laptop and write during lunch.  Instead of watching TV, you can jot a few more words and continue your epic while you're waiting for water to boil so you can make pasta.

Why is it so hard then?  I'll speak from experience--and judging by personal testimonials, the experience isn't an uncommon one--that it can take a lot of time to persuade yourself to write.  To convince yourself that it will be worth it to put in the time, to get the running start, to NOT stop halfway through and say "it's terrible!" and hit ctrl+a, then delete.  So you need to spend time brewing your coffee and taking your running start, jump into the word processor and make as much headway as you can before your brain lapses into a self-protective coma.

This is kind of how people approach a lot of things, and the reason is simple: as we get older, most people start adopting a results-oriented mindset, rather than a process-oriented mindset.

Which makes a lot of sense, for adults.  Your time is limited, and you need to spend it doing things that will make continued living possible.  You have children to look after or you have a job to do, so your primary thought process is going to be "am I spending my energy on things that further this?"  The only time you're willing to do things that DON'T further it is if it doesn't really cost you energy.  So yeah, checking your e-mail and Facebook and finding hilarious images and watching TV are okay.  They're low energy investment, and you can pretty much stop them any time.  Which is part of the reason why, ironically enough, you continue to spend more and more time on them, when you could have spent a fifth of that time practicing a musical instrument you've been longing to learn for years.

Compare that to kids.  Kids usually just jump right into doing something and don't really care about how it's going to turn out.  They just get invested in doing things.  Because they aren't as interested in the value of their results as it relates to their whole life, they just wanna do stuff.  The primary question they ask is, "am I having fun doing this?"  If the answer is "No," they try and stop doing the thing.  If the answer is "Yes," they either say "awesome" or ask, "how can I have more?"

There is some value in both approaches.  The biggest indicator of likely success in adults is the ability to delay gratification, to work tirelessly in the face of delayed pleasure and success.  To be focused less on the process and keep the eye on the ultimate prize.  They don't spend much time worrying if they are having fun, because they have a goal.

But the results oriented mindset has a specific place, and that is for getting the unpleasant completed.  It is for helping you demonstrate willpower, for remembering what you ULTIMATELY want rather than what you temporarily want.  It's really not that helpful for things that are... well, supposed to be fun.

Back to children.  A child who grows up drawing is not really going to mind that their drawings pretty much suck (because they probably do).  There is no storm to weather, because drawing is what they do to have fun.  Until they get a bit older they won't ask whether this practice is getting somewhere, they won't make a crummy drawing and say "ugh this is not worth it" and give up forever.  The tolerance for failure is high, because getting to do the thing at all is what matters, not the result.

A few paths are available here: a child might get good at what they do over time and develop sufficient skill and confidence in their abilities.  Failure will come from trying to overextend their skills, not from an inability to perform basics; whether as a hobby or as a professional, they'll continue drawing.  On the other hand, they might eventually abandon it as a hobby, deciding it's not worth it (as they pursue a process oriented attitude) because they aren't good enough, or they just have too many other responsibilities.  The desire to draw doesn't outweigh the desire or need to pursue other things.

The other thing that might happen is they still want to draw, they would really like to, but something inside them is constantly measuring the endeavor to the result.  They don't focus on whether they enjoy drawing, whether it gives them meaning; they always treat it as an indicator of how good they are, they question each drawing for its value, and end up scrapping their ideas and not pursuing them.  But they still want to do something with it.  A brutal combination of perfectionism and the need to get desired results leads to impossible targets which are quickly abandoned.

This happens to writers, I think.  It happens to me.  I hit a slump in the middle of the month and realized that I was being perfectionist about something I may never publish, finish, or show to anybody.  I wasn't enjoying or finding fulfilling something I started entirely for my own self-fulfillment and enjoyment.  The whole POINT of NaNoWriMo is, in fact, to abandon the results oriented mindset and embrace the process.  By obsessing over the result, I was missing the point.  How goofy.

Now came the question: why did I want to participate to begin with?  Why do I like writing at all?

Simple: writing, to me, is thinking.  Thinking is the process of asking questions and then answering them.  When I write, I force myself to make these questions and these answers concrete.  I get ideas and I explore them and make them more real to myself.  I love to learn and I learn through writing.  I also love clever dialogue, epic cinematic scenes, unusual similes, metaphors, and descriptions.  Putting them into words is a way to make them more real as well.  Sometimes there isn't even a point beyond just having fun.

I'm actually pretty bad at having fun.  Getting into things without caring about the outcome is tough for somebody who is competitive; even that old adage "I'm competing with myself" isn't one hundred percent healthy, because it means you measure EVERYTHING you do against your old self, and if you aren't constantly improving, you're being frustrated.

I tried to break through that this month and actually have some fun.  While I was trying to convince myself to write, I stopped thinking about how I NEEDED to get it done, and I started spending time thinking about all the cool ideas I had and how much I liked thinking about them.  I made sure to be sitting at my computer when I did it, to create as little a barrier between the idea and the fun as possible.  And because I finally did start having fun, I found more willpower present to stick it out when I was tired and wanted to quit.  There's a happy medium where your joy and enthusiasm gets you started, and discipline sustains you.  Sometimes the discipline lies in reminding yourself how much fun you should be having.

So this month I didn't just write a crap ton of words that may, on possible re-reads and edits, turn out to be very terribly written.  I kind of relearned how to have fun.

Thanks for reading.  Go have some fun.

(In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I am not editing this post at all.  Also I'm tired :P )


  1. "Writers write" ~My college writing professor.
    People like us must write. That why we write.