Textually Active

by Alison Braid

illustration by Dana Kearley
illustration by Dana Kearley

Listen closely. Do you hear that? It’s the collective sighing of half a million writers worldwide slumping into basement couches, collapsing in backyard hammocks, and fainting in coffee shops. To some of us, December marks the start of advent calendar chocolate consumption. But for those dedicated, driven writers, it’s the end of National Novel Writing Month.

Abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, the event takes place all November-long, during which an estimated 500,000 writers attempt to write 50,000 words. Let’s do some quick number crunching. If you wrote every day without fail, that’s 1,667 words a day. You want to take Sundays off? Make it 1,923. And let’s say you’re an average typist, doing around 40 words per minute. At that rate — without taking time to tap the drumbeat to your music or contemplate the correct spelling of saccharine — you’d have an astounding 2,400 words in your first hour. If only it was that easy.

Now, the fastest recorded typist in the Guinness Book of World Records is author Barbara Blackburn, who can maintain 150 w.p.m. for 50 minutes. Aim to be Blackburn, and you’ll be finished before the morning coffee has finished dripping. At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a young R.L. Stine and type with only one index finger, well, I wish you luck.

No matter how you approach the word count, the experience is what three-time NaNoWriMo participant Laura Cuthbert terms an “exceptional exercise.” Cuthbert is a 22-year-old lyricist and short story writer whose approach to NaNoWriMo is “to just be stuck with [herself].” However, NaNoWriMo can also be about community. The project organizes local events for writers to communicate with each other, as well as online forums, communal write-ins, and pep talks.

At the time of our interview on November 19, Cuthbert was nearing the finish with an amazing 37,562 words and 11 days to go. In November, her main goal is to “practice, and dedicate more time to [her] craft.” The target of reaching 50,000 words allows Cuthbert to “more effectively write the absurd, abnormal, and definitely unconventional storylines [her] inner-editor prevents” when there’s more time to spare. If you’re someone who too-often overthinks something, the pressure will force you to get the material on the page and ready for editing December through October.

Cuthbert finds herself shaking her head during read-throughs in the months after NaNoWriMo, but says those moments are combined “with moments of shock, and beauty” that surface because of the inability to overthink.

But here’s the downside: don’t delude yourself at the end of the month, because as Cuthbert warns, “you’re still not a pro.” But it’s at least a start, and if you have any stamina left, many writers argue the fun is in the rewrites — something even Hemingway would agree with, after he himself rewrote the final words of Farewell To Arms a total of 39 times. Are you up for it? Good, because National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, starts on March 1.

If you want my suggestion: find your own writing groove, and settle into it for when November comes. For Cuthbert, that’s “waking up to chilly mornings, having a tea, [and] hopping in a sleeping bag.” Whatever it is, mildly eccentric or not, we all have a story to tell, and NaNoWriMo bullies you like a boot camp leader to get it out there. So whip out that blue pen, or that R.L. Stine index finger, and get practicing.