Forget the novel; hack NaNoWriMo and salvage November



It’s November–that time of year. We finish our list of Halloween tasks, turn the page, and suddenly there are less than two months to plan and execute the two most elaborate holidays of the year. If you’re like me, you don’t remember to turn the calendar until the fifth or so every month, in which case you’re already behind. Tony Hoagland’s beautiful poem “Reasons to Survive November” begins with a bleak picture of this daunting time: 

November like a train wreck— 
as if a locomotive made of cold 
had hurtled out of Canada 
and crashed into a million trees,  
flaming the leaves, setting the woods on fire.  

If you’re one of those holiday purists, scandalized by the early arrival of seasonal flavors, you’re already sweating, too. I mean, you can refuse to participate in the holidays until December 1st, but the rest of the world has already jumped on the Polar Express, which runs nonstop until about January 3rd. We’re all feeling the pressure.  

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the month-long novel-writing sprint, always felt too daunting for me because of the timing—and it still does—but it’s also the perfect event to hack into for your own purposes. Despite its crowded nature, November is the perfect time to do NaNoWriMo—not for the purpose of writing a novel, but for the purpose of conjuring free time out of busy-ness, structure out of clutter, and a way to prioritize your writing rather than just triaging it.  

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be a novel.  

Okay, in order to officially “win” NaNoWriMo, it needs to be a 50,000+ word novel. 

But you don’t need to write a novel to piggyback on the energy and structure NaNoWriMo offers. It’s not the novel that makes NaNo fun—it’s everyone working simultaneously toward their goal, like a joyful, determination-fueled Olympic sport that lasts for exactly one month. Drawing on the idea of strength in numbers, NaNoWriMo gives amateur writers permission to unapologetically hoard time for writing, and it offers the holiest of writing motivations: a deadline. It’s an event worth tapping into, and can be used for anything you can imagine.  

We have the freedom to set whatever goals suit our needs; a NaNoWriMo enforcement squad isn’t going to come shut us down. The goal can be a certain amount of daily journaling, a set amount of time to write each day, or a certain number of new short stories. Maybe an outline for a novel. This year, my goal is to write one 200-word micro-memoir every day, and I’ve been mostly succeeding. At the end of the month, it will be fun to sit down and look at what I’ve created, but what I appreciate the most is the way the experience has pressed if not the pause button then at least the slow-motion button on what is otherwise a frantic month.  

The goal is the experience, and the experience every new NaNoWriMo offers is the opportunity to sit down and make a plan for a daily block of quiet time that will be devoted to writing. Life-planning and goal-setting has an overwhelmingly positive effect—we feel great when we reset, so why wait until January first?  

You’ve got this. It’s not too late to wrestle this month into submission, like Hoagland in the last stanza of his tribute to this struggle: 

and I force myself toward pleasure,  
and I love this November life 
where I run like a train 
deeper and deeper 
into the land of my enemies. 

Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. She graduated from UofL with an MA in English Literature and just completed an MFA in creative writing at Murray State University.

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