It may not be obvious from this blog yet, because I don’t post nearly as often as I would like, but I really truly love writing. I just keep trying to restrain myself from doing it, especially recreationally, because I know I should be writing my thesis instead. Somehow, however, the smiley-happy feeling I get when writing doesn’t seem to apply to my thesis, where it takes so long to write anything that I get frustrated.
This month, I’m trying something that might sound counterintuitive, but as soon as I thought of the advantages, there was no talking me out of it. Ever hear of NaNoWriMo, the internationally-acclaimed National Novel Writing Month? I had heard of it last year, probably from people talking about it on twitter, and thought it sounded like a great idea to do after my thesis was done. If I love writing so much, I would probably really enjoy the practice in letting a story flow from my mind to fingers to page, right?
I put the idea aside for almost a year, but then near the end of October of this year I was reminded of it again. This time, I couldn’t get out of my head the fact that there were SO many advantages to be had from a time-limited, word-count-driven writing project. NaNoWriMo encourages intense output, ignoring the inner editor until the month is over. Since it seemed that part of my problem with my thesis is all the second-guessing I go through in order to get a single sentence written, let alone a paragraph, it seemed that turning off the inner editor might really help the ideas flow out of my head with less resistance. All it would take, I figured, was practice. So, Awesome Advantage #1 to doing NaNoWriMo right now is that I will get a lot of practice in turning ideas into words on a page.
In order to succeed in NaNoWriMo, one must be diligent in writing about 1700 words a day, every day. Diligence is something that I’ve struggled to cultivate in myself, especially when it comes to making regular progress on my thesis. In October, I started keeping track of the days that I actually did an hour or more of thesis work, trying to make a chain of accomplishment that could be the start of a beautiful habit (since research seems to indicate that it takes 21 days to form a habit). My longest chain was 4 days in a row, but in my defense, the weekends were pretty busy… but that was really just an excuse. There wasn’t any real incentive to keep working, except the vague promise that I would be done faster if I worked more often. On the other hand, in NaNoWriMo, if I skip a day I might sacrifice the entire project. So, the diligence here is crucial to success, and that’s a great lesson that I’d love to carry into the rest of my life, especially my thesis work. Thus, Awesome Advantage #2 is that practicing diligence will help me, right now.
Of course, I realized that if I were to write some crazy-fun fiction story, I might distract myself from my thesis so much that this exercise hinders instead of helps. The last thing I need right now is yet another thing to take up my time, and I know I have the tendency to jump into other projects and forget about my thesis. However, for NaNoWriMo, I was struck by the idea that perhaps I could write a story about a girl who is writing her thesis, and that the girl could be me! To further the plot, I would have to work on my thesis! So this is Awesome Advantage #3: the story can’t progress unless the thesis does.
Now, this idea sort of goes against what NaNoWriMo encourages, because it’s meant to be more of a creative endeavour than a journaling one. I even found evidence that other people frowned upon the idea of writing an autobiography, because it’s not technically a novel, which is defined as a lengthy work of fiction. In order to get around this, to make it at least feel a little bit like it’s a story that could be featured in a work of fiction, I decided to write about myself in third person. My main character may be me, but I call her “she”, and I’m observing her actions and thoughts instead of merely experiencing them for myself. Somehow, this makes me less likely to spend the time wallowing in the guilt about things that haven’t been done, although that still does happen. Mostly, though, I can see my main character consciously turning her attention to the things that actually did get done, and when she acknowledges her successes, her mood improves and she feels less resistance to moving forward in everything else that needs to be done. So, Awesome Advantage #4 is that I can look at myself more objectively, and write away the negative feelings, instead turning my main character’s attention (as well as my own) to feelings of accomplishment that encourage her (and me) to do more.
Not only does writing about my accomplishments help prevent me from discounting how useful they are, but I also get to remember where I left off on something when I need to continue it later. I can also use the writing to prepare myself mentally for what I need to do next, whether I need encouragement to believe that I can do what needs to be done, or just motivation to get started because the only way to finish something is to start it. I know a lot of productivity tips, but they don’t do me any good when I’m feeling discouraged or unmotivated, and even acknowledging this doesn’t seem to help very much… except in writing. Somehow, though, writing makes it real, perhaps because of the feedback loop of both writing about and being the main character. Or maybe it’s because my main character’s intentions are more set in stone than my own, and I wouldn’t want her actions to not follow her intentions. Or maybe she is stronger than I am; or maybe she is just more naive and willing to do whatever her author writes that she is supposed to do next. Whatever the reason is, Awesome Advantage #5 is that I can motivate my own next steps a lot more easily by writing them as part of the plot.
What has amazed me the most so far is the insights I’m getting into myself. I mean, I knew this would happen, because I’ve seen this before with journaling, but I’m still in awe every time my main character figures out something new. Apparently, this is something that NaNoWriMo authors find happens a lot with their main characters, since the word count goal encourages the words to sometimes flow of their own accord. In my case, sometimes my main character comes up with an analogy for something that brings out a memory from the past that I didn’t even realize I held onto with any amount of fondness. One time, she was drawn to analyze a dream that I was perfectly willing to let pass in order to focus on what needed to be done for the day, but she ended up realizing something about herself that completely amazed me. So, Awesome Advantage #6 (the bonus one!) is that I get to understand myself better, even though I thought I understood myself rather well already.
These six great advantages have been keeping me going strong with NaNoWriMo for eleven days so far, and I have a good feeling about the rest of the month as well. In fact, I’ve managed to write every single day this month, and just yesterday I got to the point where I am a tiny little bit ahead of the target number of words I should have by now in order to assure completion of 50,000 words by the end of the month! Yes, I have also been making decent thesis progress, despite all the marking that had piled up in October when I was struggling to focus heavily on my thesis. My poor main character has a lot to deal with in addition to the thesis, but she seems to be taking everything in stride—and therefore, so am I. :)