NaNoWriMo 2017: books on writing to procrastinate writing
By: Sydney Kalnay, Training Specialist.
If you read my last post for the OverDrive blogs, you’re going to think I am contradicting myself but…I despise November. I know I am not the only one; the dread of this month creeps up on you and suddenly, instead of romping about in crisp leaf piles with pink cheeks and soft, lumpy, handmade scarves, you’re folded over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, bracing yourself against icy needles of wet wind that somehow travel sideways and underneath your coat collar. Where does that ugly shift from autumn to winter happen? Daylight Savings Time? Black Friday? For some folks, it’s the weather change that fills them with dismay; others despair the forced joviality of American Thanksgiving. Others still are bravely counter-attacking Seasonal Affective Disorder with Vitamin D and Happy Lamps.
For me? It’s the horror show of NaNoWriMo. Last year, I felt a lot braver and more positive about the experience. I gave myself permission to fail, the loosest of reins when attempting to face the blank page. This year, I can feel NaNo like a physical manifestation of my fear; we warily circle one another as October ticks away and the weight of those 50,000 unwritten words sit on my chest and press my ribcage flat. Tiger and elephant. Circle and press.
Luckily for me, there is one tactic I can employ to help keep away my wild animals of NaNoWriMo: reading. You see, if I am reading, I am not writing, but I am considering writing. I am writing by proxy. It’s one part prep and one part cheerleading and maybe one other part that’s sheer avoidance but, shhhh, let’s not focus on that last one just now.
My favorite type of book to read when I am avoiding writing? Books about writing, of course. Here are some of my favorites:
All of Anne Lamott’s books speak to the tiny, fear-riddled beast within. Lamott is your nutty, wonderful auntie doling out spot-on advice, wisecracks, and achingly vulnerable life lessons, and her outlook on the craft of writing in Bird by Bird is both encouraging and pragmatic.
“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. […] Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning—sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”
While there’s no internal tiebreaker between The Shining and It as my favorite Stephen King adult fiction novel, his acclaimed book On Writing might top the list as far as my overall favorite Stephen King work. His thoughts are delivered in his typical folksy, conversational tone but there’s a gentleness in this book – a sense of “we are in this together” – that makes you feel like you can do anything.
“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.”
I initially resisted The Artist’s Way (multiple times) because, to me, it felt too spiritual to be a practical creative guide. Upon a re-read, I realized I was layering my own preconceived notions about spirituality on top of Cameron’s words – she clearly states that inspiration can be called by any name that works for you, the individual; it just so happens that hers has a Divine name. As a day-to-day tool, this book has worked for many – to the point where I fear this might actually help me achieve my goals instead of acting as a proper avoidance tactic.
“We are caught in the virtue trap. There are powerful payoffs to be found in staying stuck and deferring nurturing your sense of self. For many creatives, the belief that they must be nice and worry about what will happen with their friends, family, mate if they dare do what they really want to constitute a powerful reason for nonaction.”
This is the first book I ever read about writing. It was also the first time I discovered the idea that the resistance I had that writing was coming from within, and that no one but me could work through that barrier. And that barrier was fear, certainly, but also my own inability to let myself suck at something really, really badly – even if I was the only one who would ever know.
“Ego can be very creative and make up remarkable resistive tactics. My friend who was beginning her first novel said that she would just sit at the typewriter for the first ten minutes and just write about what a terrible writer she was, what a jerk she was to even attempt a novel. Then she pulled out that sheet of paper, tore it up, and began on the task at hand–the next chapter of her novel.”
This book came to me as a recommendation from my favorite writing instructor, the inimitable Jennifer Crusie, without whom I never would have made the connection between using the tools available for other disciplined art forms and applying them to the art of writing. Tharp gives concept and context to the creative process, as well as pages of practical, drillable exercises, including those for memory, organization, and failure.
“To fully appreciate the authority of memory, you need to appreciate the more exotic forms of memory lurking on the fringes. You remember much more than you think may you do, in ways you haven’t considered.” And “Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files.”
One helpful guide through the feral forest of fear is The Courage to Write, a mighty primer on acknowledging the terrors of writing – all of them, and in their myriad forms – and doing it anyway. It’s the literary equivalent of strapping in for the tallest coaster at the amusement park and throwing your hands up as you crest the first hill. Keyes helps you with the act of exposing all of your darkest, ugliest, scariest, and most embarrassing habits, and treating them like the gems of inspiration they are.
“The best time of writing is before any words have been committed to paper; when all is prospect, clear in one’s mind, and clearly brilliant. The problems begin when one attempts to record that vision on paper. No matter how gifted and experienced the writer, this simply can’t be done.”
While reading these books hasn’t gotten me any closer to pen on paper today, I have high hopes that, come chilly, miserable November, I will find my rituals, sharpen my skills, screw up my courage, start each day at my writing desk, and finally, finally complete those 50,000 words by November 30. And if not, at least I will have caught up on some of my favorite books as an avoidance tactic!