Monday, January 17, 2011

New Address for The Big Thing

Hello! I've been doing that whole crazy platform thang. My new blog, also called "The Big Thing," no longer has "blogspot" or "wordpress" in the address, and wow, I feel so grown up. 

Please join me over at my new digital home.

I'm going to keep this blogspot address, though. Maybe when I tire of writing about big things, I will return and rechristen this "Little Things."

Anyway, thanks so much. I learned a lot in this think space.

--Cathy Day

Sunday, December 12, 2010


So Cathy, what happened? How did your students do?

I’m so sorry it’s taken me awhile to update you! The end of NaNo is also the end of the semester, a busy time, as I’m sure you know.


15 students

12 reached 50,000 words. Four of 12 started October 1. Everyone who started October 1 finished. Eight of 12 started November 1 and also finished. Most spent the month/s writing toward the novel they planned to write, but a few students started writing towards another project when one idea petered out.

Three did not reach 50,000 words. One came within 5,000 words. Another came within 12,000 words. Another stopped generating new words at the midway point and started revising.

So did the students who failed to reach 50,000 get a bad grade?


The 12 students who reached 50,000 words got full credit, 100 points. The students who did not reach 50,000 did not get full credit, but still received 90 points, an A-.

When I created the syllabus, I made “NaNoWriMo Completion” worth just 10% of their grade. I wanted their NaNo performance to be about something other than Writing for the Grade.

However, I did not reveal how many points they would receive out of 100 if they “lost” NaNo either.

Honestly, about midway through the month, I expected the students who were falling behind to pin me down on this. “Professor Day? If I don’t reach 50,000 words, how many points will I get? If I only get halfway, will you give me 50 points? Zero points?" But, to their credit, they never asked me, so I didn’t talk about it. I just kept saying, Keep trying. Keep going.

Did they write from scratch, as NaNo encourages?

Yes and no. It was up to each student. Some students started from absolute scratch, others wrote towards ideas and plots and characters that had been germinating for awhile. One student said, 
“I pulled out a stack of short stories I wrote in high school. Each was short, no more than five pages double-spaced and they concerned a high school student living in California with her lawyer mother and her socialite aunt. Since I was already familiar with each character, and since a novel concerning the three had been marinating in my head for years (I even based a half-finished screenplay on my stories once) I deemed this a feasible world to write about.”
What kind of novels did they write?

One wrote a novel of psychological and aesthetic realism, akin to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Outsiders. One wrote an epistolary novel akin to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which we read as a class) and Go Ask Alice (her favorite book). The rest wrote some form of genre fiction. There were many speculative, science fiction stories about time travel, the mind and identity, dystopian futures. There was some fantasy. There was mystery and suspense. Two students ended up writing toward nonfiction projects rather than fictional ones: one student worked on a memoir, an account of a trip he’d taken to another country, and the other wrote worked on an immersion memoir, an account of her November preparation for a very important qualification exam.   

So, how well did they write? Did they cheat?

On December 1, each student sent me the Word doc file that contained all their NaNo writing. I opened each file, scrolled around a bit to make sure that all the words were legitimately theirs—not cut and pasted text from Wikipedia. All of it was legit. The quality varied widely from somewhat unreadable, very rough (my own 50,000 words could be described as such) to very readable, very decent prose, which is incredible considering how fast they were going. This “readability” quality seemed to depend on how much thinking/planning/writing they’d already done toward the project, but ultimately, readability and writing quality were not the desired outcomes anyway.  

So, if you’re not grading the quality of their writing, what the heck are you grading?  

Here’s the breakdown:

Process Blog    20%
Book Report 1  20%
Book Report 2  20%
Participation     20%
NaNoWriMo Completion  10%      
Revision of NaNoWriMo piece 10%

What is a Process Blog?

Simply, it’s a class blog where students chart their progress transparently. They don’t just talk to me. They talk to each other. Over the last few years, I’ve been introducing emerging media technologies into many of my classes. This has been a significant ongoing project: integrating into my teaching practices the lessons I’m learning as a working writer in the 21st century. Blackboard allows me to create a closed social media environment that builds camaraderie and community, a fertile environment for risk taking among students. You might ask why not use Blogger or Wordpress so that you could “follow” our process discussion? Interesting in theory, but I think asking students to post to an open blog rather than a closed one might change what they say, what they write about, what they’d be willing to share.

From my syllabus: 
“Imagine that each of you has requested to work with me on an independent study project, a Big Thing. I want you to write a description of your project, a faux independent study proposal, and the Process Blog is a virtual meeting place, a transparent journal, a think space where you’ll post, update, and maintain information related to your project. Every week or so, you will be required to check in with the process blog and take stock. ‘What did I do this week toward my project?’ The process blog is the place you go to talk to me (and everyone else) about your project and your process.”
What is a Book Report?

These reports were worth a combined 40% of their grade, and thus, much was expected. Each report involved a four-step process in which students create their own learning activity.  
  1. The first step: Identify the technique you want to study, something you struggle with and know you need to focus on. Creating emotionally complex characters. Transitioning between scenes and chapters. Structuring a plot over X number of days/weeks/months/years. Creating suspense which leads to a “surprise ending” that actually works. Grounding dialogue so that it’s organically integrated into the scenes.
  2. The next step I call “Taking Note” in which you don’t just passively read the book, but also take notes as you read—in the book or on your own. It helps you notice things you don’t always notice while “just reading” and helps you identify and mark patterns, rhythms, recurring motifs, echoes, chronology, the passage of time, the introduction of characters and ongoing subplots, themes, conflicts, characters.
  3. Next, they write what I call a craft analysis (3-6 pages) that responds to these prompts: What did I learn about X from reading this book? How can I apply it to my own writing or to my reading of the work of others? Why did the author approach X this way and not another way? How would different narrative decisions produce different effects?
  4. The last step is to produce a visual aid, an artifact that represents your physical interaction with the book. An outline, storyboard, collage. A transcription to get the “feel” for the style or voice. You should do whatever you think will be useful. This is shared with the class—because what you find might help someone else, because what you find might help us read your work better

What books did your students read?

Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy
Haven Kimmel, Something Rising (Light and Swift)
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
+ one book of their choice

Haven Kimmel is a native Hoosier and a Ball State alum, and so it was really amazing to have her visit campus right before NaNo. A Girl Named Zippy provided a good model of a non-linear narrative, a way to write a novel as a collage rather than as a straight line. I chose the Chbosky book because the subject matter is ‘relatable,’ it’s got a discrete timeline (one school year), and it’s got what my colleague Matt Mullins calls “Two Plots,” the suspense plot (the scenes that dramatize Charlie’s life and build tension) and the emotional plot (the internal character arc, the change Charlie undergoes). I’ve already talked about using Kerouac here

Also: each student was allowed to pick a book that most directly matched their particular needs for their NaNo project. 

What did your classroom look like day to day, week to week, month to month?

We spent most of September and October discussing the assigned books. If you had walked past my classroom on most days, you would have thought it was a typical English class. But I set aside a few class periods as “Studio Days,” time devoted to students working individually or in small groups on their Book Report or NaNo Prep. On some Studio Days, I provided focused prompts and we typed, generating character profiles and short scenes. Some days, we simply “sprinted” just to gauge how fast or how slow we tended to write, depending on the circumstances. Studio Days helped us acclimate to writing in that room with each other.

During November, the class became a writeshop. Students signed the attendance sheet, checked in with me to update their word count, listened to my announcements, and then spent the hour typing furiously. Once, I surprised them and asked to see the words they’d generated that day, which they sent in an email. But for the most part, I removed myself from their writing process. I wanted them to turn off their Internal Editor, that pesky voice in your head that leads to writer’s block. I wanted them to write for their own pleasure and edification. I did not want to be a voice in their head until December. 

On December 1, they turned what remained of their energy toward producing a good first chapter or excerpt of 10-25 pages. They gave this excerpt, along with a novel synopsis, to their peer group (three people) and spent time “workshopping” each other’s novels and talking about what to do next. I read over all these excerpts very quickly—two days with about 150 pages—and provided one or two suggestions about how to polish the excerpt further.

Now what happens? 

Tomorrow, December 13, 2010 at 4:30 is their scheduled final exam. They will post these synopses and excerpts to the Process Blog. The process isn’t over. They haven’t written novels yet, and they understand that. But those polished pages do represent a milestone, and as anyone who has ever written a novel or run a marathon can tell you, milestones are pretty powerful things.

Next post: “No More NaNo.” Why I won't be "doing NaNo" again. Not officially, at least. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finding Time for a Big Thing

The last two questions on the midterm Survey Monkey survey I gave to my students: 

What has been the hardest part of this process? What has been the easiest part of this process?

Far and away, they said the hardest part was finding the time to write:

“Making time within the day to write. I have so many things going on.”

“Sitting down and actually writing... I get distracted by online quizzes and video games easily.”
“Actually finding the time day to day in order to write.”

“making myself sit down and do it”

“Writing without distractions has proven difficult.”

“Exhaustion. Approach-avoid conflict.”

“Keeping up with the writing.”           

“Scheduling time to make up missed days.”

“Forcing myself to write.”

“Finding the time to write.”

You might be surprised by what they said was easiest. (Here's a sampling.)

“Writing it. I just find it enjoyable and I love taking time off from homework to do it. In fact, I stopped calling the writing process homework. I just find it too much fun to consider it in that category.”

“When I get going, I usually don't stop unless I have to go do something. Also, writing directly after amputating the words 'distraction' and 'road-block' from my vocabulary. Sitting down and writing 2,000 or so words an hour every class period has helped immensely.”

Many students said they would have liked “more guidance on how to find the time to write.” 

I laughed. Well, duh. Limit or eliminate television, gaming, and Facebook, and you’re golden. The request made me cranky. It’s not my job to teach you time management skills! But then I realized that, yeah, it sort of is—given the unique nature of the course. 

A former student of mine who lives and works in San Francisco just started participating in #Reverb10. It’s kind of like 750words + New Year’s Resolutions. Each day during December, Reverb10 sends you a writing prompt, which my student is using to reflect on her life generally and her writing in particular. She’s sharing these reflections on her blog--->sharing your journey is part of the point--->you send out “reverberations.”

Her prompt for December 2 was “Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?She outlined a typical day and took a good hard look at how she spends her time. Next time, as part of our preparation for this course, I will require my students to outline their own days and take a good hard look at how they spend their time. 

(Actually, why not do this in all my creative writing classes?) 

Even if you don’t become a writer in the long term, even if you don't finish the novel you drafted, you learn a lot from participating in NaNo. It reveals with startling (sometimes painful) clarity the reality of how you spend your days. 

How do you find the time to write 50,000 words in a relatively short period of time? Well, how do you incorporate any big thing into your life? Said “big thing” being novel writing, having a baby, caring for a dying parent, taking a second job, studying for the bar exam, taking 1,000,000 pictures, training for a marathon, traveling to every country in the world, eating a healthy, well-prepared meal every single night, etc. You find time, make time, create time. Or you don’t.

Recently, The Fiction Writers Review asked the incredibly productive writer Benjamin Percy this question:

“You’ve got this novel coming out. Stories keep popping up in magazines. You teach at Iowa State University and in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University. You contribute to Esquire and other publications. How do you balance it all and still find new material and time to work on your fiction? How do you stay in the ring, to reference another of your P&W articles?”

Ben said:
“You’re forgetting the hardest job of all: I’m father to two young children. I don’t sleep: that’s the answer. Five hours a night sometimes. My blood type is caffeine. I never take it easy—I’m always working, always writing or editing or grading. Even when I’m supposedly relaxing, I’m not. If I’m at the gym, I’m listening to an audiobook. If I’m watching a movie, I’ve got my notebook out and I’m jotting down ideas. If I’m out in the yard with my kids, I’m pushing around sentences in my head. People often seem to view writing as an indulgence, but I operate under the belief that you must give up all indulgences if you want to write seriously. I used to think this was a calling—that’s too romantic of a term. I’m fairly certain that I’m driven by obsession.”
For some, the answer isn’t how to do more with less time, but to alter one’s life, to make it more outwardly simple in order to live more richly.

In her novel, The Maytrees, Annie Dillard writes:
She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration.  An Athenian marketplace amazed Diogenes with, “How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!”  Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox.  In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in the town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care.  She ignored whatever did not interest her.  With these blows she opened her days like a piƱata.  A hundred freedoms fell on her.  She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite’s tail.  Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.
A few months ago, the New York Times ran this piece, “But Will It Make You Happy?” which seemed to strike a cultural chord. I know it certainly did with me.

Finding time to write wasn't something I thought about until I was no longer in school. Suddenly, the external structure that had guided my writing life up to that time was gone. NaNoWriMo teaches valuable lessons about personal development and life planning, knowledge that students can keep for life, the ultimate transferable skills.  

Next time, I’ll talk about why I’m NOT going to formally engage with the National Novel Writing Month headquarters next year. 

Yes, this probably surprises you. It surprises me, too.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Back to the Survey Monkey survey I gave my students on November 16. This is a fairly long post, but that's because it's about one of the most important decisions my students had to make. 

Question 3: How would you describe the extent to which you prepared for NaNoWriMo?

Many hours, lots of concrete planning    5
A few hours, some concrete planning    6
Hardly any time, hardly any planning     2
No time, no planning                             0

Are you happy with the amount of time you spent planning?

Everyone was either glad they’d planned or wished that they had planned more. Except for one person who planned a lot and hadn’t gotten very far at that point. S/he skipped the question.

Writer, Know Thyself: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

NaNo says there are two types of novelists: plotters (those who plan) and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). I strongly encouraged my students to be plotters, but that's because when it comes to writing a book as opposed to writing a short story, I'm definitely a plotter. But I didn't demand that they plot just because that's what makes sense to me. Like Richard Hugo said in The Triggering Town, "Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don't teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write."

This topic—how much to prepare—was a big topic of discussion in our class in the months leading up to NaNo. Many of my students were afraid to do too much planning. They didn’t want to take all the fun and joy out of actually writing their novels. Some believed that “writing with a plan” was cheating somehow. 

On the Road as NaNo Novel

To that end, we read On the Road and a wonderful essay on its composition history by Howard Cunnell, “Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road,” which refutes the perception that Kerouac “pantsed” that novel. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the product of a semi-magical, drug-induced twenty-one day binge writing session, but rather a fourth draft; three “proto novels” exist. And Kerouac didn’t compose the “scroll version” in 1951 off the top of his head. As he typed, he was surrounded by notebooks, journals, correspondence, and previous typescripts.

No matter what you think of On the Road, teaching this novel (or just an excerpt) along with the Cunnell essay are great pedagogical tools to dispel commonly held myths about the writing process.

I would not, however, recommend teaching “The Scroll Version” in addition to or in place of the published version of On the Road. There’s not a big enough difference between the scroll and the published book to generate much discussion. In fact, I think I unwittingly reinforced the idea that a novel written in one month can be and should be published almost as is, which is definitely not what I wanted to do.  


Photo by Rachel Norman
I encouraged my students to storyboard their novels, to concretize their plot in broad strokes. We looked at lots of examples. 

Even Faulkner storyboarded, as you can see in the photo above. 

I pointed them to lots of resources: old-fashioned index cards or post-it notes or storyboard sheets, and new-fangled programs for their computer.

For the Plotters

I provided them a formula. Yes, a formula. When attempting something this large, it helps to have a blueprint, a map, some kind of guide so you know what you’re writing toward. Syd Field’s “Paradigm Worksheet” worked great for this purpose.

I asked my students to consider:
  • What’s the basic story? Roughly, what do you think is going to happen? Beginning, middle, end.
  • How much time will your novel cover? One week? One month? One year? Five years? Fifty years?

Students came in for conferences. They were required to fill out a paradigm worksheet, inserting their own plot points. 

However, if they needed to adapt the worksheet for their own purposes, that was fine. If they needed to write a narrative synopsis instead, that was fine. If they decided NOT to fill this out, they needed to talk about why. Did they firmly believe that pantsing was the way to go, or were they "default pantsing" because they hadn't given themselves time to plot?   

This month, I saw many of them begin our in-class writeshops with something sitting next to the keyboard. An outline. An index card. A chart.

For the Pantsers

Some of them, however, didn’t have anything next to the keyboard.

The editors of Wired magazine suggest that, at the very least, you end each day’s writing session with a note to yourself about what to write the next day. “Having the scenes for tomorrow in your head today will give your brain time to work on it even when you aren't thinking about it directly. In fact, you may well find yourself dreaming about your novel, working out ideas in your sleep.”

Writer Timothy Hallinan describes his process as a few months of what he calls “noodling around.”
Long before I begin to write a book, I begin to write about the book. I just open up and let it flow – no censorship, no self-criticism, no pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the first person. I do a lot of work on what's at stake – what it is, why it matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even diagram that.) What's the worst that can happen, and to whom? What's the best possible outcome? I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the book, and then revised as necessary.) I give myself permission to make mistakes. 
This is the kind of writing that isn’t always encouraged in creative writing classrooms. 

Because how do you grade it? Who does this kind of writing mean anything to--except the writer herself? Is it “real” writing? When you’re writing about your book, does that count the same as actually writing your book? At what point does one become the other? 

Hallinan says that usually after pantsing around for 100 or 200 pages, he realizes he’s writing the opening scene of the book, and that’s the moment he knows that’s he "really" writing a book, although he still may not know what’s going to happen.

Hmmmm....NaNoWriMo asks participants to write 50,000 words or about 175 pages. 

In a few days, my students will send me the file that contains all the writing they did during November, and I really don’t care whether it was plotted or whether it was pantsed. Whether it's the end result of scrupulous planning or determined noodling. I don’t care if that document is a Supreme Fiction or merely Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. It can be abstract. It can change. And as long as it gives pleasure, the effort, it seems to me, was worthwhile.

Friday, November 26, 2010

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.

Here’s Michael Nye at The Missouri Review blog, where even Peter Turchi weighed in with a comment.

Here’s another response.

HTMLGiant noticed.

And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” 

Novelist and n+1 editor Chad Harbach says:
The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one's instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It's not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it's that the entire culture is steeped in the form.  
I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without "MFA program culture" to offset "NYC publishing culture," the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it's a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.

As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been? 

Harbach wonders this, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

And now, back to my novel...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Changing Habits During NaNo

Survey Question 2: Did you start writing on Nov. 1 or before? 

9 students started on Nov. 1
4 students started before Nov. 1 (sometime around Oct. 1)

Are you happy with that decision?

All the students who started on Oct. 1 are happy with that decision. And they are all cruising right along, almost done.

Of the 9 students who started on Nov. 1, five are happy with that decision and four are not. Not surprisingly, the four who are not happy with their decision had the lowest word counts.

In an earlier post, I talked about why I encouraged my students to start NaNoWriMo on October 1 instead of November 1, so I won't rehash that here, except to say that next time I do this project (and I will do this again) I am going to mandate that everyone starts on Oct. 1. It's just more reasonable to ask students to write about 850 words a day than it is to ask them to write 1667 words a day while taking classes, working, etc. 

Besides, writing 50,000 over the course of two months rather than one instills a far more practical lesson in young writers: that it's better and easier and healthier to do a little writing every day.

I'm serious people: doing this NaNo thing as a class activity is very, very enlightening. It forces students to confront their writing process--or lack thereof--in ways that would never happen otherwise. My god, it’s forced ME to confront my writing process—or lack thereof—in ways that should have happened years and years ago. 

I've been teaching craft for years, but I've never really talked with students about time. How much freaking time it takes to write a book. Probably because until recently, I was just like my students, writing without a regimen of any kind. 
In The Writing Habit, David Huddle says:
“The major difficulty a writer must face has nothing to do with language; it is finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible. The first project for a writer is that of constructing a writing life.”
Later on the Survey Monkey survey, I asked my students, “What has been the hardest thing about this process?” The responses were almost unanimous: finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible.

Before NaNo, one of my students said she planned to create that circumstance by finishing all her homework so she could focus solely on her writing. I told her, "I used to think that way, too. But that's a sure way to never write. Because the desk will never be clear. You'll never get all your work done, and besides, even if you do get it all done, you'll be so tired and brain dead, you won't have any energy left to write. Write during your good hours."

Write during your good hours. That’s advice from Huddle, too.
If you’re a would-be writer, what you need to find out is not how someone else works but how you are inclined to work. You have to determine your good hours, the writing tools and the writing environment that best suits you, the limitations you can overcome and the best methods for dealing with the limitation you can’t overcome. You also have to become aware of your inclination toward laziness, dishonesty, glibness, and other personal foibles. You have to become skillful at outwitting those negative aspects of your character.”
Turning my class from a workshop into a writeshop has created the circumstance that makes writing possible for 16 people, myself included. And that's a good thing.

In The Writing Habit, David Huddle describes his “Lake St. Clair Experience,” a few productive months he spent writing in solitude, which “demonstrated to me what it felt like to have a real writing life…I have never been able to duplicate that experience, but because I had it that once, it gave me something to aspire to again.”

Will my students continue writing a little each day even after NaNoWriMo and the semester are over? I don’t know. I hope so. But even if they don’t, I’m glad they’ve had a version of their own Lake St. Clair experience.

Next time: Plotting a novel vs. “pantsing” it

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Gamification of Novel Writing

Question 1: What is your current word count? (on Day 15)

The results varied. At this point, my students should have been at about 25,000 words. (I wasn’t quite there myself, alas.) Three students hadn’t broken 20,000 yet. One student was already at 58,000 and was sprinting toward 70,000 words. Seven students were at 25,000 or above. Six students hadn't reached the half-way milestone yet. 

Are Word Counts like "Points"?

For twenty years, my writing practice had no structure. I wrote when inspired and I would keep writing until I wasn’t inspired. If I didn’t have a big block of time, I wouldn’t write. I waited until I did have a big block of time—which happened…oh…never. 

I was 25 years old, two years into an MFA program, and I still acted (without really realizing it) as if writing was something I did “for school.” And then one fall, the buzz among all students in my program was that Inman Majors had returned from summer break with a 200-page manuscript, a rough draft of a novel. Of course, we all hated him immediately.

I ran into him at a back-to-school party, and I asked him how he did it. He took a swig of beer and spoke the words I have been quoting ever since: “Well, I’ll tell you, Cathy. Every day, I’d write two pages. And then I’d play golf.” [Inman has since informed me that he was playing BASKETBALL that summer, not golf. My apologies.] I felt like Moses at the Burning Bush, hearing the voice of God. Really? It was that simple? Well, of course it’s that simple.

It only occurs to me now (because I am incredibly slow sometimes) that Inman turned lots of things into games. It's in his blood, so to speak. He liked to make things interesting. He was the guy who always organized the NCAA Bracket Pool (before the internet started doing it for us). He liked to place a bet or two, as I remember. 

You can’t just sit down and draft a book. You can’t just sit down and write 50,000 words. A marathon is run mile by mile. A football game is played one down at a time. Like Anne Lamott says, you have to take it bird by bird. NaNoWriMo forces students to turn an abstract big thing into a series of small concrete things. Words. Pages. Accumulating incrementally over time.   

Like gold stars.

Like X’s on the calendar.

Like hash marks on the wall.

Like Weight Watchers points

Like frequent flyer miles

Like earning your stripes

Like racking up points in a video game.


This is why NaNoWriMo is so popular with Generation Y: because it turns writing a novel into a game. A huge, dynamic multi-player game in which you accumulate words and pages instead of points. 

Here’s an interesting article from The Chronicle on the trend of  “Gamifying Homework.”

Here's an interesting talk (30 minutes long) by Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell on the Gamification of...well...Everything. 

Are you appalled by what I'm suggesting? Are you thinking, "But Cathy, novel writing isn’t a game! How dare you suggest such a crazy ass thing!"

But anyone who has written a novel knows that, indeed, it is a game—one you play against yourself, mostly. The only way to win is to get a first draft, and you do it bird by bird, page by page, racking up words until you hit 50,000.

Game over?

No. There are many more levels, but you can’t get to those levels until you hit 50,000. 

[Here, my video game metaphor breaks down a bit because I know nothing about them. Sal Pane, where are you?]

For a very long time, what separated "real writers" from "wanna-be writers" was that real writers figured out some way to get the writing done. More than likely, this involved creating some kind of internal rewards system or "gamification" to tap into the motivational part of their brains. And then they crafted, yes, and they used their talents and intellects, yes, but first, they had to write a freaking draft. 

Now we have have lots and lots of external rewards systems. Like NaNoWriMo. Like 750words, whose creator, Buster Benson, is a big believer in "gamification." And--oh my god--what are creative writing classes and programs but another form of external rewards? 

More and more people writing more and more words. The word count keeps climbing. 

You either find this up-ticking counter frightening, or you find it thrilling. 

I'm the latter.