Unless you’ve been in cryo-stasis since 1979, you’ve heard one of the most famous lines from the Star Wars franchise: Do or do not, there is no try. These words of wisdom uttered by Master Yoda to Luke Skywalker are often lauded by teachers, bosses, and parents as an ideal mindset to have when going into any endeavour, be it school or work related. Well, as I sit here in my office on November 7th, exactly one week into National Novel Writing Month, having written exactly 0 words towards the target goal of 50 000, I would like to reclaim that which Yoda rejected. I’d like to encourage you to try.
For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo it is a month-long challenge to write 50 000 words between November 1st and 30th. The idea is to move your creative work from your head to paper, as unrefined as it may be, and to focus more on getting the idea out than in perfecting a manuscript. There is also a non-profit charity element involved that supports creativity and art through various other programs. You can find out more by visiting the NaNoWriMo website’s about page, as I have (http://nanowrimo.org/about).
Now, back to why you should do it, even if you haven’t started yet. Or, more importantly, why you shouldn’t give up even if you’re a week in and haven’t written anything yet, like I have.
We have this mindset, predicated by statements like Yoda’s, that if you’re going to take on a challenge like NaNoWriMo (or a job interview or writing an essay or giving a presentation or travelling to Europe) that you either start with the intent to finish or you don’t bother. We (in the societal sense) don’t have time for people who are going to “half-ass” something. Now, admittedly, there are a lot of things we want people to commit to and not just “give it a try”. Doctors, for example. The guy who installs your home internet. We want the certainty of someone who is going to do it right the first time.
But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about creative endeavours because too often creativity can be rendered stagnant by the notion that it’s a do or do not enterprise. And because we think of it in these terms we can often abandon our creative ideas right when we need them the most.
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) proposes that creative ideas can be thought of as living entities and that creative people enter into contracts with these ideas. When these ideas come along they exist outside of us but that we enter an agreement with them saying “yes, I will make you real”. This can apply to paintings, poems, novels, dioramas, etc. But, they won’t stay around forever. If you agree to take on an idea but never fulfill your end of the deal the idea will leave you to find someone else willing to take up the call. Gilbert goes into more detail on this, but for the moment lets examine this concept and what it has to do with NaNoWriMo.
Now, if you’re like me, a grad student with readings, marking, assignments, and a social life to maintain, however you prioritize those, you’re probably wondering why on earth you would take up the added task of writing 50 000 words this month. Especially when it’s not “for” anything. Plus, even if you did try, there’s no way you’d achieve the goal of 50 000 words. Not with all the aforementioned readings, marking, assignments, and socializing. It’s an exercise in failure, there’s no point. If you aren’t going to succeed, then there is no reason to even bother. Right?
I would like to reject the notion that participating in NaNoWriMo and not achieving the 50 000-word goal is a failure. Instead, I would like to propose that the only way to fail NaNoWriMo is to not even attempt it or give up on it because you haven’t made any significant progress.
Let’s return to Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory of ideas. If you’re like me, you’re holding on to that idea thinking to yourself, “Well, there will be time after this weeks reading. Or after I finish grading these midterms. Or after I finish this essay.” But then when those things are complete you look at the date and you’re already four days behind. According to math, that’s 6666.6 words behind. And that .6 is infinite. How can you come back from being infinity words behind!? There are two options: give up on NaNoWriMo and hold onto that idea for another day OR start writing. Sure, you may never catch up. You may write 2000 words today and then not get a chance to write again for another three, putting yourself even further behind. You may never catch up and when November 30th arrives you’ll have “failed” NaNoWriMo because you didn’t hit the 50 000 words. Whereas, if you don’t even try, you can hold onto that idea and avoid the failure of NaNoWriMo all together. Your little idea that means so much to you because it represents this precious, unrealized aspect of your creativity will be preserved, untarnished and untainted by the word “failure”. Except that it will still be nothing more than an unrealized idea. And, frankly, nobody is going to be interested in your unrealized idea.
Think about it. Have you ever described an idea you had for a novel to a friend, gone into all the details you’ve considered, and then had that friend say “Wow, that’s incredible, you should definitely avoid writing that until the perfect opportunity down the road, or maybe not at all.” No. Because that’s ridiculous. If they do say something like that its possible they aren’t a good friend or they are being sarcastic and didn’t think that your idea was good. What people usually say, at least in my experience, is something along the lines of “I can’t wait to read it”. While this might not always be sincere, it does say a lot about what we expect when someone has a creative idea. The expectation is that you’re going to make something of it.
But of course, we’re all afraid of taking that perfect unrealized idea and concluding that it isn’t going to work. Maybe the plot falls apart, maybe the ideas aren’t as well researched as we thought, or maybe the characters just don’t work. And then we’re afraid we’ll see that friend again and when they ask about our perfect unrealized idea we must tell them that we tried but it didn’t work out. And, of course, fear tells us that this friend will reply with “So, you’re a failure and you should have probably just waited until that perfect opportunity down the road or kept that idea safe and unrealized in your head forever.” But nobody is going to say this, unless you have bad friends in which case its still not your fault for trying. Again, in my experience, what you’re more likely to hear is “that’s too bad, but maybe you’ll try again” or “well, maybe the next idea will work out”.
What we should all be afraid of isn’t people considering us failed writers for doing the thing we say we’re going to do: write. (Trying to write, if you haven’t noticed, IS writing). What we should be afraid of is letting ideas slip away from us when we try to hold on for that “perfect writing opportunity”. For most of us, that perfect moment is never going to come and that idea is not going to stay with us forever. Not every body can go out into a cabin in the woods and dedicate hours a day to writing like Pierce Brown or David Thoreau. Personally, I like having a stable LTE connection too much. But more realistically, most of us are never going to get away from work, school, family, and friends. Nor would we want to. There are always going to be responsibilities that take up our time and leave us with very little opportunity to write, if we’re looking for an excuse.
So, I propose we all agree to stop using “I don’t have time to write 50 000 words, I’ll just fail” as an excuse. If you write 25 000 words this month, that’s success. If you write 10 000, or even 2000 words, that’s success! There’s no denying that sometimes life can get extremely busy and overwhelming. And I don’t mean to suggest that people just need to make time for writing. Sometimes there are very legitimate reasons why you don’t have time to write. What I’m suggesting is simply that we just need to change our definition of failure.
Imagine NaNoWriMo is a treasure hunt and your writing is gold. If you only find a small coin purse of gold after a week of searching, you aren’t going to scoff at it saying “Sorry, I’m not settling for anything less than a chest full to the brim with rubies, thank you very much.” No, you’re going to take what you can get because you know it makes you richer. Because at the end of the treasure hunt if one person has collected a few gold coins while another person gave up at the start because they knew they weren’t going to fill their bag by the end, which of them really “failed”? The one who tried, or the one who did not?