Culture Report: What San Diego Writers Really Think of NaNoWriMo - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Culture Report: What San Diego Writers Really Think of NaNoWriMo

Your wait to board your flight is about to get more philosophical, bicycle art and culture events are coasting into town and more in our weekly digest of the region’s arts and culture news.

Image via Shutterstock

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, has taken the nation (and world) (and yes, San Diego) by storm, again. Every November, for two decades. But does it work?

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

This November, the project’s 20th anniversary, NaNoWriMo expects 400,000 individuals to attempt to write a novel in of 30 days. Participants sign up, for free, tally their word count each day, and declare themselves “winners” at the end of the month if they meet their goals.

A “novel” is defined by NaNoWriMo as 50,000 words, and when divided by 30 days, that is 1,667 words written per day.

“I’m already a high-strung, neurotic hot mess,” said San Diego author Jennifer Coburn. “Imposing a one-month deadline on myself to write a book would only add to my anxiety.” Coburn is the author of eight books. “The fastest I’ve ever completed a draft was four months, and that was a miracle. Usually it takes me a year. And really, what’s the rush? Why one month? I feel like NaNoWriMo focuses on the wrong thing. Writing a book in a month is not the goal; producing a quality novel should be.”

Image courtesy of Jennifer Coburn

Anticipating a struggle, NaNoWriMo provides a built-in community: thousands of others attempting the same project share updates on message boards and Facebook groups, in “municipal” gatherings or at designated spaces in libraries and community centers.

But in 2017, of the 394,507 participants, just 58,000 met their goal. That’s around 14 percent. Or, in more sobering terms, that’s 336,507 individuals across the globe who failed.

Tammy Greenwood, who’s published a dozen books including this year’s “Rust & Stardust,” still sees a silver lining: “It’s the equivalent of traveling to a new country to learn the language,” Greenwood says. “By diving into the book and staying there, you have no choice but to learn to navigate this fictional landscape quickly. Word count quotas are a writer’s best friend. They force productivity, leaving little room for the paralysis of self-doubt.”

Tammy Greenwood reads from “Rust & Stardust.” / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

The problem with that, argues Keith McCleary — a lecturer of writing at UCSD and author of the new novel “Circus + The Skin” — is that a first draft doesn’t feel like the lure of NaNoWriMo.

Image courtesy of Kraken Press

“I think the problem with NaNoWriMo is that it sort of feeds into instant gratification culture,” McCleary said. “It also feeds into, like, going on social media and posting how many words you did per day and making it into like a collective experience. I get that a lot of people get things out of this collective experience, but I personally — in the long run — don’t think it makes for a good writing practice. I think it sort of just makes for an unhealthily competitive writing practice.”

Memoirist and KPBS Fronteras Desk reporter Jean Guerrero unflinchingly recommends NaNoWriMo to a beginning writer, but, she admits, the process of producing a book is the sum of its parts: inspiration and seeds, research, organization, drafting and — finally — copious editing.

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

The first seeds of Guerrero’s memoir, “Crux” were planted nearly eight years prior. “It took several years of imagining ‘Crux’ before I started writing what it eventually became,” said Guerrero. “I think I first envisioned it as a work of journalism in the winter of 2010, and I started playing around with drafts around that time.”

Teaching writing, then, seems as insurmountable as finding individual writing practice.

“One of the main things about composition pedagogy,” said McCleary, “is that there has to be a revision. If you’re not teaching revision then you’re not teaching composition.”

Revision isn’t so much a next step as it is a crucial component of drafting, and NaNoWriMo, he argues, leaves floundering writers with little support for editing. “I think it sort of just erases the editing process,” McCleary said. “Because there’s no way to show your sweet gains on editing. There’s no way to go online and be like, ‘Man, killed that paragraph today! It’s super smooth now.’”

Similarly, Jennifer Derilo, a professor of creative writing at Mesa College, draws attention to the pre-writing phrase as an important tool of addressing learning differences amongst students. “In my classes, I try to create conditions for a writing process since most students are unsure of what that looks like,” Derilo said. She utilizes scaffolding in her classrooms, structuring larger projects atop smaller pieces.

“NaNoWriMo is really good for fanning that initial spark of an idea into a fire,” Greenwood said. “But the clean-up is where the real work is. Drafting is fun, even easy. Revising is hard.”

“What I tell writers,” said Coburn, “is that this is hard work that takes time, thought and resilience. You will be rejected by agents, then publishers, and if you are lucky enough to get published, Amazon reviewers.”

Airport Art, Star Parties and More News for the Culture Crowd

  • Flying this week? Check out the Terminal 2 post-security performance art from the airport Arts Program’s current performing artist in residence, Kristina Wong Projects Tuesday through Thursday near the food court. The Standby Room is an interactive miniature waiting room project that invites us to ponder: What are we really waiting for?
Kristina Wong Projects / Photo courtesy of SAN Arts Program
  • I Love to Ride My Bicycle is a group exhibition at SDSU Downtown Gallery, featuring interactive and immersive video and more (and yes, you can even hop on a bike), opening this Thursday. (CityBeat)
  • And that bicycle-loving opening is also a participant in Downtown at Sundown, along with Museum of Contemporary Art (go knit on artist Michelle Montjoy’s giant loom), neighboring restaurants and more. There will be free museum entries, exhibition tours and dining specials.
  • I can’t decide whether to put this in the booze section or right here, but the San Diego Museum of Art’s next Culture & Cocktails event is this Thursday, focused yeah, sure, on their new (and frankly a bit mind-blowing) Tim Shaw exhibition, but it also involves three fantastic-sounding cocktails in partnership with Panama 66, Moxy Hotels and local sustainable distiller Misadventure Co.
  • If you haven’t had a chance to check out the newest addition to Mission Trails Regional Park, Sycamore West, why not do it in the pitch black of night? The San Diego Astronomy Association hosts a monthly “star party” there on Friday (check their calendar for other regular star parties at other locations, too). Take Pomerado Road from I-15, then turn east onto Stonebridge Parkway until it ends. Look for telescopes and like-minded nerds!
  • Level your classiness way up when Paris-based string quartet Quatuor Modigliani performs Mozart, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky at ArtPower at UCSD on Friday (Union-Tribune).

Video provided by ArtPower

  • Mother Courage and her Children,” a pivotal 20th century play by Bertolt Brecht opens this weekend at UCSD. The enterprising female lead character, Mother Courage, sells goods to soldiers to survive and provide for her children.
  • Opening Friday at The Ken (for one week), “Studio 54 is a new documentary featuring “unprecedented access” to one of the pair responsible for perhaps the most notorious spots in American nightlife history.
Image courtesy of Zeitgeist

Food, Cannabis, and Booze News

  • I live for CityBeat’s cocktail column, written by Ian Ward every other week. He’s vulnerable and funny and always makes me thirsty, including last week’s piece on Puesto’s Mezcalito cocktail (and the fact that his column is often not so much about the cocktail).
  • For those of you driving past North Park’s Louisiana Purchase construction every day and wondering how much longer we will have to wait to drink a sazerac, there’s an updated due date and some additional scoop at Eater.
  • The majority of the cannabis legalization and taxation measures on last week’s ballot passed. KPBS has the details.
  • San Diego Magazine has outlined a bunch of Thanksgiving-related food and drink events, mostly on Thanksgiving Day itself but with several other offerings throughout the coming weeks. Hot tip: Thanksgiving food is the best food and is worthy of weeks of devotion and advance planning.
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