November, Nanowrimo, and Movember

October transitioned to November this week, and Lorie and I spent our first Halloween abroad. It seems to be something of a non-holiday here in the Netherlands, or at least in Renkum, since we saw a few jack-o-lanterns at one restaurant, but little other evidence of the holiday. When we went to the grocery store, not a single customer or employee was in a goofy costume! Not even a witch’s hat! It must be difficult to be a kid in the Netherlands if there are no occasions to wear ridiculous costumes or get a bag full of candy, although it sounds like kids do go door to door for candy in November. During the Feast of St. Martin, kids will evidently go around neighborhoods singing songs in exchange for candy, so it sounds a little like a combination of Christmas caroling and Halloween. It’s good that we got a little bit of a heads-up about that from our hosts, so that way if singing kids show up on the doorstep next week, we’ll know what it’s about, and have candy on hand.

November is also, as you may have heard, National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo”. It’s a 30 day period in which thousands of ambitious folks endeavor to write a novel, which is far easier said than done. If you’ve ever had the inclination to write something, than you should really give it a try.

The concept of Nanowrimo (I’m going to drop all of the alternating capitol letters, if you don’t mind, just to make it a little easier on the eye) has its critics, and some of them have a point. Yes, encouraging people to type in the equivalent of a 50,000 word sprint is going to result in a lot of terrible, terrible novels that no one will read. Truman Capote’s famous “burn” on Jack Kerouac’s writing style could easily be applied to the whole endeavor: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Most people won’t be successful in writing a novel during the month. Of those that do finish, very few will go on to have the resulting book published, and of those that are published, it is highly unlikely that they’ll even be a blip in the bestseller list (UPDATE: It does happen, though). Pessimists and armchair critics could have a veritable field day with something like Nanowrimo, and I’m sure they do.

But I like it. I think everyone should do it, or at least try to do it. The “literary world” can be a pretty pessimistic place. Time and time again, we hear about the predicted death of the book, or the death of reading, or the death of literary education, or the death of something-something-kids-these-days. Even I’ve written a couple things here about my concerns regarding the future of the book-as-object and the changing landscape of the bookstore, but I at least still believe that there are people out there who are still interested in books, instead of sitting behind the laurels of a lofty literary journal with a glass of brandy lamenting that it’s all gone to hell since John Updike died. I have a theory that the literary, or artistic, or general cultural establishment will always think that things were better a couple of years ago, and that’s fine– human beings are kind of nostalgic by nature, and we’ll always find something that was better when we were kids, and some evil modernity to blame (and sometimes they’re right).

In the case of Nanowrimo, though, it’s something that fundamentally encourages people to write. And not only does it encourage writing, it encourages long-form writing. In a world where it seems increasingly like most people write little more than shopping lists and text messages, it seems like a good thing to encourage. And it encourages the writing of fiction– an inherently imaginative exercise, even if the author is writing about contemporary people in a real setting. It takes way more imagination, for example, to write about the actions of an imaginary president than an actual one.

Granted, I’m sure that literary critics will lament that everyone is writing the wrong fiction. At some point, it became seemingly mandatory that a “proper” book had to be realistic and a reflection of our times. Protagonists would be introspective and moody, they’d have substance abuse problems, they’d make poor decisions, and someone would die. Magic would be permitted only if the author was a representative of a non-white ethnic group. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, it seems like American literary fiction has (and often continues) to be realistic, mostly tragic, and, well, everything seems to try to be Ethan Frome.

There’s nothing wrong with these sorts of books, of course, but after a while, it just kind of gets exhausting. Yeah, Moby-Dick would be pretty different if Ahab made the rational decision, and took the Pequod back to Nantucket to buy the crew drinks, content to let the whale swim into history, but sometimes it’s nice to see protagonists make good decisions, especially if they make it to the brink, and then make a good decision. On the other hand, that’s also kind of boring, so maybe I should rescind my whole argument, and just argue that literary fiction should be tragic and sad: it should be the equivalent of reality television– an emotional trainwreck that can be safely observed from an anonymous distance. If you want to be a bestselling author, and maybe get a Nobel prize for literature out of the deal, just transplant the “plot” of Teen Mom to a fictional midwest town, maybe find a way to tragically kill off a couple characters, and then cut them adrift at the end without a sense of actual resolution. You’ll sell a million copies.

Oh wow– I wasn’t even sure I had the name of the show right (I’ve never seen it), so I looked it up, and reading the synopsis of season 1, it looks like I’m more right than I expected. It’s all here– the strain of life changes, rocky relationships with parents, poor decisions, possible crimes, a grand moralistic symbol of contemporary American life, and a semi-resolved ending– a literary jackpot! They’d even make a movie out of it for you in within three years! Now I kind of want to “write” that book just to find out if it would get published, and if so, how far it would get. Of course, maybe that in itself would be a bad decision… so maybe I should write about an author who makes the tragic decision to crib the plot of an esteemed literary creation from a reality television show, and then must deal with the consequences…

You know what I’m not doing right now? I’m not writing the 1,159 more words I need to write today to stay on track. That’s right– I’ve decided I’m going to participate in Nanowrimo again this year. I did it successfully in 2008, so I’m going to see if I can do it again. So, having made it do Day 4, what am I writing about? I’d rather not say, at least at this point. It’s not at all literary, and pretty rough, so I’m not going to elaborate. As for the 2008 effort, it’s, well, unfinished. I hit the 50,000 word mark at the same time that I hit writer’s block, and I haven’t gotten past it yet, so I’m hoping this years effort will come a little more smoothly, and conclude a little better. I’ll find out. In the meantime, those 1,159 words aren’t going to write themselves tonight!

Oh, and one other thing: November is also “Movember,” but I won’t be participating, since I shaved last night, and would now be four days “behind schedule”. I spent most of October scruffy, so I’m trying to look a little more presentable during our remaining weeks here in Holland. Maybe I can grow a mustache to raise money for prostate cancer research next year, though…

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