This month is NaNoWriMo, a month in which the question “What’s your word count?” separates Nanowrimoes from the rest of the world.
The word comes from fragments of the month’s title, National Novel Writing Month; the goal: write 50,000 words of a novel, forego more sleep than usual, win promotional prizes, and—well—have a novel draft you might not have had otherwise. Except for 1999, the inaugural year of NaNoWriMo, when the month was July, the month has been November.
To me, November has always seemed the perfect month for this—as fall sets in, as the garden dies in the frost, as the holidays and their attendant family drama loom, I am comforted by the prospect of sitting down in front of my laptop with my new novel idea and the straightforward task of writing 1,667 words each day (the word count one needs to maintain to achieve 50,000 words in the month of November). Note that the idea behind NaNoWriMo is not to publish a novel in a month, or to even write a good novel in a month. The idea is simply to write, and write, and write, until the word-count bar at the top of the NaNoWriMo.org account rises above 50,000 and a happy badge flashes onto the screen: “Winner!”
I’m a proud NaNoWriMo winner from 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2012, I wrote 29,538 words and realized the novel was a novella, and was finished. Last year, in 2016, I wasn’t in a novel-writing mood, and I only wrote 6,921 words. But this year, I intend to win again. My current word count as of this writing? 17,060. Only a few more to go.
There’s a beautiful camaraderie to NaNoWriMo that I need in this Trumpian world. At local write-ins, we strangers sit next to each other at coffee shops and just write. Sometimes, we compete in “word sprints,” in which a leader sets a timer for, say, twenty minutes, and we all try to write as much as possible (my average in twenty minutes is about 800 words), but mostly we just write. And write. During breaks, we share the story we’re attempting, or we discuss ideas of what to do to a main character. We trade tricks to increase the word count: have the character write a letter, suddenly decide to tell the backstory, write a side story that is only loosely related to the novel—or write a column about NaNoWriMo and include the column in your novel manuscript.
NaNoWriMo is a sort of escape from the real world that requires me to wake up and drive to my job and put in my hours and drive home to help my daughter with homework and make my family dinner. For just one month, I get to give in to the frenetic energy of writing. And yet—it is not really an escape. Every year, I craft a novel I need to write. One year, I wrote a series of letters (what would become The Beginning of Us, which Riptide published in 2014) between two women who discovered they loved each other in college, because I wanted to know what would have happened if I had met Ali, who had just died, at an earlier juncture in our lives. Another year, dismayed by the way my students were sinking farther and farther into their phones, I wrote a science fiction novel about a dystopia in which the government barely needs to control the people because they are already controlled by their own technology. This year, horrified by Trump and the immigration discussion, I’m writing about a lockdown in a diverse city high school in the near future—a lockdown the main character, a teacher, begins to realize has been instigated by the U.S. government, which has declared a military state until sanctuary cities like Denver turn over their undocumented residents.
At my real high school, I am one of the faculty sponsors of the school’s Writing Club, a group of students who meet on Thursdays at lunch to just write. In November each year, they all attempt NaNoWriMo, so each week, we discuss our word counts. They want to know how I’ve written so many words: I write, I tell them. Turn off the inner editor. Even if you hate what you’ve just written, leave it on the screen; let it be counted. After November, you’ll revise.
In the second week of November, our high school had a sudden lockdown at lunch—a real lockdown. At the time, I was meeting with the school’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Club (I am the faculty sponsor of the two coolest clubs at our high school), where we were discussing the 1958 film “The Fly.” Suddenly, an assistant principal announced over the intercom that we were in lockdown, and within minutes we had paused “The Fly,” locked the classroom door, and huddled in the darkness in the corner farthest from the windows. My heart was beating in my ears; one girl had begun to cry. Sudden, unplanned lockdowns conjure terrifying images: Columbine, Sandy Hook. A boy under the row of desks beside me dropped his book, and everyone in our room jumped. But then, softly, Jocelyn, a girl who is in both Writing Club and Science Fiction/Fantasy Club, whispered, “Ms. Campbell? Are you allowed to write during a lockdown? Because this is exactly what you are writing about! You could get more words.” Even under duress, NaNoWriMo possesses us.
The lockdown ended, the issue evidently resolved, and the bell rang. Strange. But my mind swirled with all the ideas I hadn’t considered for my novel. I hadn’t remembered, for example, that in a lockdown, we all have to cram into one corner of the classroom. I’d forgotten how the tension builds and builds with each minute. I’d forgotten the odd silence of the hallway outside. More words.
Every November, I meet other writers who want to get published and who wonder where they should send the novel they write for NaNoWriMo. There are many places to submit work, of course, but NaNoWriMo itself is not a publisher; it’s a kick in the pants; it’s a fire lit; it’s a reminder that no book will be published that does not get written.
I teach full-time; I’m a parent. I don’t actually have time or space to be a “real” writer right now. Or do I? At a writing retreat in New Mexico a couple of years ago, I attended a session led by a self-named “creativity consultant,” who specializes in working with women artists. One woman in the session complained, “I’ve got four kids and a full-time job. I do not have time to write.” The creativity consultant took a deep breath, looked the woman square in the eyes, and said, “Yes, you do. You have time if you make the time. Even just five minutes here, five minutes there.”
NaNoWriMo does not give me more time, but that word counter on my NaNoWriMo screen—and all the thousands of Nanowrimoes typing away across the country each day in November—remind me that I can make the time. And so I do, one word after another.
About Sarah Hahn Campbell
Sarah Hahn Campbell is a lesbian essayist and novelist who lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents a beautiful little girl with her wife, Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and writes a monthly column called “Subversions” for Brain Mill Press.