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I took a breather for the last two weeks from the frenetic pace of NaNoWriMo writing. The second week was a break, at any rate. I spent the first week tackling my somewhat-neglected final project for my Seminar in Literature and Writing. The project was a translation thesis on Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert: we had to read at least two translated versions, select a passage, and put together a composite translation that we felt was best. I spent more hours than I thought a 350-word excerpt would require poring over editions, looking up the French using two dictionaries, and agonizing over word choice. This project was the anti-NaNo–quality is the only thing that matters, and a day’s work might be a paragraph.
Flaubert apparently wrote Madame Bovary much the same way. He talked about “composing” the book, rather than writing it, and lavished months of attention on individual scenes to balance the tone he wanted with the plot points he needed to convey. The result was that everything in the book connects. There isn’t a wasted sentence. When I think that, after 12 drafts, an editor still pointed out a fairly glaring factual error in one of the stories I’d been considering my best, the effect is discouraging, but also a kick in the pants.
Both NaNo and my Lit seminar are about being consumed, in different ways. NaNo is famous for its cavalier attitude toward the shitty first draft. “No plot? No problem!” is the unofficial motto. In order to hit 50,000 words in a month, you need to get consumed by writing, in its most gritty, basic, physical form. Butt in seat, fingers on keys. And for those who find 50,000 in a month too easy, I’ve seen anywhere from 75,000 to half a million posted as individual alternate goals. If there is a spare moment in your day, it should be spent writing, and all the rest should be spent thinking about what you will write next, so that when the next spare moment comes, the only limitation to how many words get down is how fast you can type.
The problem is the obvious one: in a 5,000-word story I write during NaNo, I am lucky to find 1,000 words’ worth of good or even usable text.
On the last night of class, we talked about how inhumanly good the writers we’ve been reading are. Faulkner, Flaubert, Coetzee, Peter Handke, Ingeborg Bachmann. They do things with words that are unapproachable. It’s not even talent anymore, it is actual genius, and it is both brilliant and frightening to think about a person who buys groceries and gets a stiff neck after sleeping wrong and pays bills making books like theirs. It’s impossible. The mastery of language, depth of thought, and fresh approaches in their writing is the kind of perfection that has to come from consuming yourself in how language and story works. That means reading books that challenge and inspire you instead of reading Hogfather for the ninth time, and being patient enough sometimes to understand why you’re struggling with a difficult scene and fix it, instead of using the NaNo trick of skipping ahead to the scene you’d rather be writing and leaving a messy hole behind.
I can do the speed-writing thing. I finished NaNo fairly easily this year, skipping a day here or there and making up with extra later. I can push myself into the 500-words-per-day routine, pound out a few blog articles a week, whatever. But I’ve been complaining for months about how the daily 500 elude me, and the blog’s been dry for weeks. I’m missing the other half of being consumed, the kind that makes it a worthwhile endeavor to hit whatever arbitrary quota I’ve set. It’s really scary to imagine letting myself get consumed with quality. With word count, I know how fast I type, and I know how long it takes to come up with the minimum creative threshold to fill seven pages with roughly coherent text. And I know how much time it eats. In November I barely exercised, I didn’t cook, I spent the minimum time I could on work and school without getting myself into trouble. It’s scary to think about what I would have to give up in order to give energy and concentration to quality. Would I stop caring about exercise and my appearance, like I did in college, and gain 20 pounds? Would I get cranky about doing wedding planning, since my creative energy is blown by the time I finish writing? Would I put less effort into the quality time I spend with Andrew? What if I put my energy in only to discover that even if I try my hardest for years, I’ll never turn out anything really good?
It’s sobering stuff. But it’s also smoke and mirrors. Of course I am going to spend time with my fiance. If I stop taking care of my body, eventually the people who love me will tactfully remind me that I feel better when I exercise, and I will find some way to work it back in. I can sacrifice an hour of sleep twice a week if I need to and hit the gym early, to leave my evenings free. The only thing on my list of fears that is a real possibility is that I’ll find out I’m not any good, but if I’m not putting energy into writing, that’s going to be a certainty anyway. So I’m reconsidering my fallback resolution of “Revise 15 stories for my MFA thesis,” which would necessitate my churning out a completely revised story every 3.4 weeks for the whole year. I might need more time than that. The new plan is to allow myself in 2012 to get consumed by quality in my writing (while still making time for wedding planning, of course!). I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, but I’m interested to find out.