Photo: Tom Martinez
November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s called. The premise based on the assumption that everyone has a novel “inside” them, and all people really need is a deadline. So they challenge aspiring authors to pen a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November. That’s 1,666 words per day, no small feat even if you’ve had the plot and characters in mind for a long time.
Lots of people aspire to be writers for a variety of reasons. Some have a seemingly endless well of creative ideas, stories, and characters bubbling inside, and the only outlet is to bring them to life on paper. Others view writing as an imaginary vacation from their real jobs – the beach career they will escape to when they can no longer bear the winter of their current job. Regardless of why people get into writing, the fact is that many do – and many don’t publish a novel, ever. And the ones that do are making far less than they used to.
So why do people become writers, either as a first career or as an escape/alternate career? The Economist derides the idea that everyone has a novel “inside” as uniquely (and peculiarly) American. In a country where 80% of the people think the United States has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” it’s not surprising to hear that most Americans think they have a unique story to tell. If that’s true, it makes sense that many people dream of immortalizing that story in a novel.
Another reason for the huge number of aspiring novelists (last year NaNoWriMo had 200,000 sign-ups, worldwide – so it’s not just American exceptionalism) is the increased ease with which authors can publish. Gone are the days when huge publishing houses decided what novels saw the light of day and which didn’t. Technology has created a much more egalitarian writing world, and wannabe novelists can self-publish and create an e-book whenever they want and for very little cost. Here’s how to get yours in the Amazon book store.
To expand on the point I made above, writing also offers an escape from the reality of your current career. Just the idea of writing a book can perpetuate hope (false or real) that there’s something greater beyond your current job. Sort of like believing we can do anything we want, we think we can write to ignore or fend off the reality that this might be as good as it gets. That might sound overly pessimistic or cynical about why people want to write, but it’s not meant to be. People get by in less-than-ideal situation through many different coping mechanisms. If fantasizing about writing the next great novel helps get you through your day, more power to you.
Personally, I’ve always thought about writing a novel, and I can’t really deny any of the motivations mentioned above. I’m sure I have the exceptionalism bent, I read some crap novels and think I have a better story “inside” me, and I definitely think of what a great life being a writer could produce.
For example, Clive Cussler writes pop fiction adventure novels, which I’d describe charitably as “mindless” or critically as “worthless dogshit”, and that guy KILLS it. He’s sold a go-zillion books and is depicted on the back cover of most of his books posing with a different one of his 100 rare cars. He divides his time between Golden, CO and Arizona. That’s just awesome.
I also think one of my reasons for wanting to write is the total lack of other artistic ability. I desperately wish I could draw. I think it’s the coolest artistic talent a person can possess. Many hours of my life have been wasted just watching other people draw or paint – I love it in a powerful way, but I suck at it. I can’t play an instrument, though admittedly I’ve never really given it the effort. I’m good at fixing things but I can’t sculpt or build very well. You’re lucky you don’t have to hear me sing. So writing remains the final bastion of hope for my having any sort of artistic ability.
So there are many reasons people want to or actually chose writing as a career. If you find yourself walking down this path, you should know that despite increased accessibility, it’s one riddled with challenges. Even as a hack blogger, I know that coming up with material is a unique and never ending struggle. Some handle this challenge better than others, but everyone faces it (or, as the post linked to above notes, “Dark nights of the soul plague all but geniuses or fools”).
I think NaNoWriMo is a good thing, if nothing else to force people into the deep, cold pool that is being a writer. If someone puts out 50,000 coherent words in November and flourishes while doing so, writing might be a career to consider. Either way, big props to them for getting that far. The rest of us will probably just keep dreaming about writing and congratulating ourselves for how good we’re probably going to be.