A Seat at the Table
“Are you a novelist?” the woman asks. I've finished my 2000 words for the day and am reading the Sunday paper in a cafe. I am a novelist, I guess, at least this month. I've always said writers are people who write, as opposed to people who talk about it or read books about writing. But this is different. This is NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month began eight years ago in Northern California with 21 writers. This year more than 99,000 NaNos are madly typing around the world, with forums in Estonia and Pakistan and Tanzania.
I first heard about NaNo from friends who'd done the unthinkable: written 50,000 words in the month of November. BluePrintReview editor Doro Lang wrote a NaNo novel about dreams. Lori finished a painful memoir. Michael, who was working full time and has kids, envisioned a post-apocalyptic internet set in Mongolia.
Besides, I love deadlines. I thought it would be good for me, like training for a marathon. I had no doubt I could write something. The question was whether simply by forcing myself to sit down every day, I could I produce anything worth reading.
In 7th grade, I composed a science fiction novella about Anne Boleyn's executioner with a plot borrowed from “The Twilight Zone.” Since then I've published travel and political essays in well-regarded newspapers and magazines. But I almost never write fiction. And while I love reading novels, especially juicy 1000-page stories that keep you up all night, four nights in a row, canceling all appointments with awkward excuses, I'd never had the fortitude to wake up each day to the same characters where I left them and pick up the thread.
I signed up for NaNoWriMo because I wanted to prove once and for all that I was not merely a self-absorbed writer of narrative non-fiction, a narcissist with a fine command of phrases, capable of scenes and character sketches but no real imagination to carry through.
Also my cat had just died of kidney failure, so I needed a distraction. November is a month for making soup. It's the one time of year I like to stay in and turn up the heat and watch TV and cook. I would be home, night after night, simmering and sautéing, periodically remembering Dusty wasn't just in the other room, hiding under the chair. The stained glass dragon hanging in my window glowers in the darkness.
Before NaNo, I was working on another novel, an ironic tale of six San Franciscans set at a popular internet café, and it was amusing but I'd grown bored of it. And the rules of NaNoWriMo are clear: all 50,000 words must be written in November. The goal is to produce profusely, indiscriminately, even badly. Save editing for December.
I set a schedule and a target. 2000 words a day, first thing in the morning, which would give me a little padding if I slowed down toward the end. It's like savings. Pay the rent first, then you know how much you have left for fun. Only I was saving paid work for the afternoons and evenings, because making money was enough motivation to finish it.
The NaNoWriMo website has forums filled with handy tips like don't write dialogue, because it doesn't use enough words. Hmm. They don't actually read any of the novels, just verify word count. If you're paranoid they're going to steal your story, there's even a scrambler.
When you're obsessed with word count, you stop now and then and wonder: “cellphone” or “cell phone”? and always choose the version with more words. I doubt Michael Chabon does about this.
Famous writers send pep talks by e-mail. Sue Grafton writes:
The important point is to keep up your momentum regardless of the fact that you might stumble now and then. Most people you know have never written a novel at all, let alone pounded one out in a jam-packed thirty days.
If you're in need of flesh and blood support, you can attend Write Ins where you bring your laptop to a café and hang out with other NaNos, typing in concert. The other writers have handles like Fingercramp and Zenfu and display their word count in a thermometer next to their profiles.
Past NaNo “winners” list the titles of their novels and years in their signatures, like competitive athletes:
Ironman Triathalon 2003 – mainstream fiction
Climbed Mt. Everest 2004 - chick lit
Climbed without oxygen 2005 – literary fiction
And there's definitely a race aspect to this. When I hit 10,000 words, I was so proud. I found a forum where people who are doing well share their progress. A few had reached 10,000 words the first day! Braggers.
By November 11, MosheZ had written 100,000 words (roughly 400 typeset pages). Or so he claims. For all I know Moshez could be a woman or a dog, typing pages and pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
The book itself is a mess. I keep wanting to step back and structure it. But it's a great subject, one close to my heart: Thanksgiving, set over 25 years with the same family. My family. (I said I wasn't a fiction writer.)
A few years ago, I was at Heather's wedding with several other members of my writing group. We were talking to Sam, who we'd just met. “How do you know Heather?” he asked.
”Oh, we're from the writers' group,” Phyllis said. Thanks to years of freewrites and manuscript reviews, we knew each other's secrets: crazed siblings, unplanned pregnancies, unrequited crushes, deathbed wishes. We'd heard it all.
Sam worked with Heather and had introduced her to Eric. He and his girlfriend were arguing about Thanksgiving, which was in a few weeks, and whose family they would go to.
Phyllis started talking about food, and we all agreed you don't want anything experimental for Thanksgiving, no pomegranate gravy or truffled stuffing or curried pumpkin pie with chocolate foam, just whatever your mom made when you were growing up. I mentioned I'd spent 19 of the past 20 Thanksgivings with my cousins in LA, and how it was the only predictable event in my life. “This should be a book,” Sam said, a dangerous comment at a table of writers. And thus “Turkey” was born.
Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday, being neither commercial nor religious. As Mary said when I described my novel in progress at the cafe, it's the crossroads of American culture. Four days off in a row. And I spent it with family but not my immediate family, so I was welcome but also just enough a guest to be appreciated. On the long drive down to LA, Missy and I would play the Indigo Girls and talk about the death penalty. Laurel would assemble a fruit basket with a jumbo chocolate chip muffin and a miniature jar of Skippy and leave it on my pillow. Joyce made mix tapes and threatened me with Whitney Houston. It was something I could count on.
Mind you, I'm under no illusion that what I'm writing is publishable. First I'd have to wait for all the characters in it to die. It's more like psychotherapy by turkey.
But writing “Turkey” has made me wonder how I even know my mother's recipe for giblet gravy and cornbread stuffing, when I haven't had Thanksgiving dinner with her in more than 20 years. It's made me appreciate Aunt Barbara, who always had a place at the table for me and shares my deep appreciation for good food, as love.
But mostly it's brought me closer to Cousin Shelly, whose death in 2000 from emphysema and lung cancer threatened to disrupt years of long standing tradition. I missed Shelly's last Thanksgiving when my mother suggested he was so ill that my presence would be more of a burden. And rather than asking Laurel, I decided to go to NY. My cat had end stage kidney failure, and it just didn't feel right to go to LA where Shelly was dying and cry about a cat.
I spent the whole time in NY thinking about what we'd be doing if I were in LA. Heating the dinner rolls. Going to pick up Grandma Millie. Carving the turkey and breaking the wishbone. Seeing a holiday blockbuster in Westwood or Century City. Waking up Friday to go shopping at Santa Monica Place. Cooking scrambled eggs for brunch for Laurel and Shelly's anniversary and toasting with Martinelli's. There was a routine, carefully established over the years, and I'd broken it.
In NY, the food was delicious, but no one understood what it meant that I was there. Liz sat next to me and made a toast to everyone who'd come so far to be together: to Alexis who'd come all the way from California and Terri from Rochester and Marilyn had just been in Thailand for work. But she lost steam and never got to me. And all I could think, sitting there in a new orange silk dress, was that I'd somehow stumbled into the wrong story, someone else's Thanksgiving.
The great thing about Thanksgiving as a subject is it's literally a touchstone for anything. You can write about vegetarians, Christmas trips to New Zealand, Charlie Brown, ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, and other guests who came only for pie but were still marked with personal place cards drawn by Joyce.
I've tried to fictionalize “Turkey” with a variety of literary techniques like shifting genre. One chapter all in verse. Another from the point of view of the turkey. Like the episode in “The Prisoner” that's set as a Western instead of on the Island. But so far I'm still more interested in real dramas than made up ones. Not much imagination, I suppose. 37,621 words and counting, everything I know about turkey.
Gmail reads my NaNo messages and offers contextual ads it thinks I will like. “What's your Thanksgiving IQ?” one asks. Another quotes George Burns: "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."
I walk by the knitting store on 24 th Street, and they've proclaimed November KniSweaMo (knit a sweater in a month). I head to L's Caffe for another write in and look around for other NaNos. There are two guys with laptops on either side of me, but I don't think either of them is writing a novel. At least not a NaNo novel—they're not typing fast enough. There is a laptop-less guy intently scribbling in a notebook, and I give him a few sidelong glances. But when I ask if his name is Yazar, he looks at me like I'm hitting on him. I go back to resurrecting family trauma amid memories of apple cranberry cream cheese pie.
I'm cooking the turkey again this year, and we've adjusted the schedule so I can hit my daily NaNo quota while the giblet gravy simmers, before I'm due at Alexis' house to stuff the bird. Making a turkey isn't hard. You just have to baste it regularly and not overcook it so it doesn't dry out.
I'm still skeptical about the outcome if not about the process. But it's been a deeply satisfying experience, one tangled up in food and family and love.
In product design, I often write about the stress of having too many options, and NaNoWriMo confirms what I know to be true: that human beings are habitual. We thrive within ordered systems with limited choices. I love knowing that when I wake up tomorrow morning I'll write 2000 words not because I'm inspired or I have to but because I've blocked out time for “Turkey,” my NaNo novel. And even more, I love the certainty that no matter where else I go, no matter where I'm working or who I'm with or what I'm doing for Christmas, on Thanksgiving day I'll be sitting down to roasted turkey and cornbread stuffing and candied sweet potatoes with my cousins where I belong.
words: Diana J. Wynne, California (Nano & Turkey)
image: Christine Stoddard, Virginia (about the dragon)
Diana J. Wynne only agreed to write about NaNo after Doro promised she could include it in her word count.