Thursday, October 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo in the Classroom

Before I was the Advanced Fiction TA, I was an Advanced Fiction student.  I walked into my first class with Cathy Day last fall and was as stunned as this year’s students when I was told one of the requirements would be completing a 50,000 word novel over the course of the semester.  On the first day, that knowledge isn’t just overwhelming, it’s insane.  50,000 words for one class—and that’s just the novel; there were other assignments—on top of the workload for all the other subjects?

I whined in the privacy of my dorm room.  I complained.  I rolled my eyes and flopped on my bed and wailed that there was no way any of us, let alone me, could complete this assignment.  And then the initial few weeks of class passed and, in a process similar to what I imagine this year’s students went through, I sucked it up, started planning, and by the end of the semester, had my first completed novel preserved in a Word document on my laptop.  Granted, it’s one of those “first novels” that authors lock up in a drawer somewhere and never expose to the light of day, but it’s an achievement nonetheless.

There is one difference, however, between my writing process and the one that this year’s students are using.  The 2011 Advanced Fiction class has been writing 3333 words a week since the semester began.  My class participated in National Writing Month of November, pounding out 1667 words a day and wiping out the total required word count in 30 days.

As thirty days slip by, so do the writers' minds.

 Some of us, anyway.  Cathy acknowledged that her students may have schedules that conflicted with writing a novel in a month, so the class was given the option of starting in October or November.  Because I’m a stickler for the rules, a former NaNoWriMo participant—won once, and my other attempts are not up for discussion—and the sort who works best with a deadline looming over my head like the Sword of Damocles, I opted to begin in November.  I succeeded, along with all of the October participants and some of the November starters.  But not all of the students who followed the official NaNoWriMo schedule completed their novels, and they didn’t feel it was fair that their classmates weren’t held to the same schedule.  So this year, Cathy dropped NaNoWriMo in the classroom and replaced it with 3333 words a week.

I can’t say the one method is objectively better than the other.  Certainly, a weekly word count through the semester allows students more time to think about the progression of their plots and help them decide what they want to happen next.  It gives them more freedom to explore their characters and settings as they write, and if they find that the novel they had in mind turns out to be as interesting to them as watching road tar set, then they have more time to come up with another storyline.

But I can’t help but miss the frantic energy of the NaNoWriMo class.  I’d sit down in the classroom, throw on my headphones, turn on the Inception soundtrack—there is no song in the world that makes me write faster than “Mombasa”—and hammer on my keyboard for an hour and fifteen minutes.  Any pause in my typing or music would alert me to the sound of a dozen others around me writing as feverishly as I was, and that, combined with my fiercely competitive nature, gave me the inspiration I needed to go on.  The highlight of my days that November was logging onto the NaNoWriMo site and plugging in my word count, watching my progress bar inch closer and closer to 50,000.

This year’s writing sessions don’t have that intensity.  It’s not that the students are lacking in creativity and drive.  And it isn’t that they’re failing to reach their required goals.  But the word count is so spread out in comparison to last year that of course the classroom writings won’t have the same sense of urgency.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just not the flavor I’m accustomed to.

And as for me, it turns out the more time I have to think and plan beyond the initial character and plotting sessions, the more time I have to become bored with my ideas.  In a sort of college horror story that only the English majors would find frightening, at the end of September I realized I no longer had any interest in the original novel and had to start from scratch. But even with a new storyline and characters planned out, I’m still stuck in neutral.  I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year, once more banging out my novel over the course of a month.

Every year at the end of October, the debates about NaNoWriMo start.  Is it a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  Does it provide badly needed structure or does it give participants unrealistic expectations?  After going through NaNoWriMo with last year’s class and experiencing the entirely different structure of this year’s, I don’t think these questions are so black and white.  I can’t work without a countdown hovering behind me, smacking me in the head with a calendar.  But if some other students had to follow my schedule, they’d crash and burn before Thanksgiving Break.

That, I believe, is the real lesson I’ve learned from experiencing NaNoWriMo in the classroom.  No two writers run on the same internal clock, or have the exact same amount of time to set aside.  It’s not a question of whether a method is good or bad, just how well it works for the participants.  Some people can write a novel in a month; others require a full semester.  As long it produces a story, what does it matter how the story was created?

Though in an entirely subjective sense, I must admit I prefer the NaNo method.  We get progress bars, after all.  How cool is that?

-Lauren Burch

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