What I’ve learned from NaNoWriMo

AKA why willpower isn’t as important as desire

This year, for the first time as an adult, I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of a novel draft during the month of November. Many participants do not hit this goal–in fact, many do not even work on a novel in the first place–but nevertheless find the camaraderie and unified focus of taking part in the challenge to be worthwhile. I know a writer who is using NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to work on a draft of a new play. I know people who are working through backlogs of planned short stories, or chipping away at dissertations.

I’m writing a novel. The one I’ve had stewing away in my brain for two years: I came up with the idea in November 2019, nailed down the basic plot outline by February 2020, and was all set to start writing it in March. My original plan was to finish a draft in six months. Then COVID hit the States, and I lost my job, and shit just became generally a lot more difficult.

Instead of charging full steam ahead, I turned the heat on my novel down from a boil to a simmer. I hammered out 3,000 words of the first chapter, just to lock in the narrator’s voice, and then put the whole thing on pause. I told myself it needed more time to develop. I had other things to worry about. Like the election. Earlier this month I thought, why didn’t I do NaNoWriMo last year? And then I remembered it was because November 2020 felt like living in an anxiety dream that everyone around me was also having. Anyway. The novel languished, for like a year and a half.

I knew I would have to start writing it again once I moved back to Los Angeles. One of the main characters of the novel is Los Angeles, in the same way that Houston is one of the main characters of Memorial by Bryan Washington, or Oakland is one of the main characters of There There by Tommy Orange. It is fundamentally a book about being high and bored and in your twenties in Los Angeles, the city I know better than any other on earth. When I began writing it I was still living in Azusa, and so my physical distance from the setting of the novel was a convenient excuse for not working on it regularly–I told myself I needed to be where the action was, so to speak, in order to properly convey it. But then my lease was up in August 2021 and I found a new apartment in Hollywood and that excuse was no longer viable.

One day, soon after I moved, my new roommate (hi Juno if you’re reading this) and I were driving home from Trader Joe’s and we stopped at an intersection and I looked up and there right in front of us was the Hollywood sign. It was the middle of the day and we weren’t doing anything special, and yet here we were confronted with one of the most recognizable landmarks in America, looming over the city like a hallucination. This is the thing about living in Los Angeles that I never get used to: you’re essentially inhabiting a whole country’s collective imagination. There is an enormous city in the West that everyone can picture in their head even if they’ve never spent a moment of their lives there, that is the subject of an ever-increasing glut of movies and television shows and songs, and somehow you have made that city your home. It took me a few weeks of living in Los Angeles again to recognize this surreal feeling, and that’s when I knew the novel needed to be written.

I began to feel like the novel was chasing me down and hunting me. It would pop into my mind at inopportune moments. Something random would happen to me, a friend would say something strange or I would observe an interaction on the street or the train or I would just be sitting in my apartment alone listening to the garbage trucks drive by, and suddenly out of nowhere my heart rate would increase and I would find myself thinking NOVEL????

I also noticed that the novel was mutating. My original ideas for it had somehow shifted and become unrecognizable. I kept coming up with new ideas that weren’t in my original plan–a different job for the narrator, a different surname for a friend, a different setting for the climactic confrontation. I decided to cut one character out entirely, and then I thought maybe I should bring her back in. All novels change as they are written, but the rate of these changes felt frenzied, like I was generating them out of fear rather than curiosity or necessity. At some point I recognized that all of these changes were just unmade decisions that I was afraid of eventually making. As long as I continued to not work on the novel, any and every potential detail could exist in my mind at once. The novel could remain a safe, undifferentiated mass of possibilities, constantly flickering between multiple states of existence. This was another sign I had to start writing it again, to restart the painful process of turning infinite perfect ideas into a single flawed reality.

The final block I threw up for myself and then had to tear down before I could start writing again was actually a completely separate writing project. This was something I had started working on in the beginning of 2021, partly as a way of tiding myself over until I could move back to Los Angeles and get to the novel again. But then this second project took over more and more of my writing time, and commanded less and less of my enthusiasm, until it began to feel like something I was writing for school. I tried every trick I could think of to keep myself attached to this project. I made multiple outlines, iterating on each one with successive layers of detail in the hopes I would eventually trick myself into completing a draft. I went for long walks around my neighborhood and babbled away into my phone’s voice memos. I took my laptop to coffee shops on weekends, and I set my alarm early in the hopes of writing before work. None of it worked. I recoiled from the document every time I sat down to write it. I still liked the idea, but I avoided thinking about it when I wasn’t actively working on it. Whereas I thought about my novel every single day.

Eventually I leveled with myself. On October 30th I officially quit writing that other project. On November 1st I picked up the novel again. After two weeks of writing the novel I have generated the same amount of words that I’d written for the other project in six months. I write before work and I write after work and I write on weekends. I no longer really struggle to find the time or energy to write. It’s as if I’ve suddenly gained one to two extra hours per day. Before, I wanted to write, but then when I sat down to write I didn’t want to do it anymore. Now I just write. Wanting isn’t even part of the equation.

I don’t know if this novel is something I want to write. It’s certainly something I want to read. If this book already existed I would have read it and it would probably be one of my favorite books. But I don’t know if I want to write it. I just know it needs to exist, and if I don’t write it then no one else ever will. The novel now has its own momentum, its own desire to be real, and I feel as if I am merely sitting down each day and letting that momentum continue.

I think a lot of creative people are taught to believe that willpower is the most important factor in finishing original projects, and I think this is true to a certain extent. But what doing NaNoWriMo has shown me is that no amount of buckling down and forcing myself to work on something that I’m not enthusiastic about can match the relative ease with which I am adding words to a project I care more about than almost any other ongoing responsibility in my life.

Your will to work on a particular project will never have as great an effect as your desire to work on a project. If you are gritting your teeth and grinding out work on an unappealing or boring project based on willpower alone, it won’t feel as easy as it would if you were being driven by an inner sense of enthusiasm. It’s like the difference between paddling a kayak and steering a boat with an engine–in both cases you still experience resistance, but in the latter case you feel far less of it, and you don’t tire of the voyage as quickly.

The key, then, is to recognize the direction in which your desire points, and to arrange your life such that you can prioritize this desire as much as possible. Once you do that the work becomes way easier. It won’t be completely effortless–I don’t think writing is worth doing if it doesn’t involve some effort, at least for me. But you will at least no longer have to worry about forcing yourself to create. Force will cease to be a part of the equation. You’ll simply be doing what you already want to do.

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