Aspiring writers might once have imagined long days stuck inside with minimal social distractions as a recipe for productivity. But the anxiety of a pandemic can plunge even the most diligent wordsmith into a creative stall.
Vancouver author Curtis C. Chen recommends NaNoWriMo’s April online writing challenge to writers looking for a little outside motivation during the current stay-at-home order.
“Feeling like you’re a part of a bunch of people who are all doing the same work and trying to create and add something to the world — I think that’s a really important part of what NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo is offering to people,” Chen said.
National Novel Writing Month, affectionately abbreviated as “NaNoWriMo,” challenges participants to start a 50,000 word novel (or memoir, or story collection, or blog post) on Nov. 1 and finish it by Nov. 30. That’s 1,667 words– or about seven pages — a day.
In April and July, the same organizers offer a spinoff program called Camp NaNoWriMo. It’s the same premise as the original, with a crucial twist: You get to set whatever word count goal you want, whether it’s 10,000 words or 100,000.
Chen, author of the science fiction novel “Waypoint Kangaroo,” is a NaNoWriMo veteran. He had attempted it two or three times before finally meeting the 50,000-word goal for the first time in 2005.
“At that point I was still having trouble getting to that word count at all,” Chen said of his early attempts.
To get started, sign up on nanowrimo.org, fill in the details of your project, and then get writing. The site includes a number of tools, such as a daily word tracker. But the most helpful aspect of NaNoWriMo might be your fellow writers.
“A big part of it was the community,” Chen said. “Camp NaNoWriMo has the same idea to bring people together, to give people a virtual space where they can connect.”
For published authors and newbie writers alike, Camp NaNoWriMo can be an excellent opportunity to practice the discipline of writing daily. For those writers struggling to keep up their creativity in the face of a global crisis, getting involved with the writing community can make a huge difference.
“A lot of people are talking about self-care. You’re stuck at home, things are scary, you need to find ways to help yourself cope. And as a creator, I think some people are going to want to steer into this, write down their worst nightmares, and get it out of their systems. Other people want to get away from it, to write really light and fluffy low-stakes and character-heavy things that are fun for them to think about right now,” Chen said. “And I think whichever one it is for you, just accept … that’s the best way for you to get through this time.”
NaNoWriMo has always been hosted online, but in recent years, dozens of in-person write-ins have sprung up in bars, coffee shops and homes all around the Portland-Vancouver area. The COVID-19 outbreak has made such gatherings impossible.
Chen himself was the host of a popular Monday night write-in at the McMenamins Chapel Pub, a location closed for the foreseeable future.
To compensate, Chen has moved his weekly write-ins online. But the online write-ins can only go so far.
“My day-to-day routine hasn’t really changed apart from not going out as much. In theory, I could still sit at my desk and write all day, but I think the level of distraction has certainly increased,” Chen said. “There’s always the temptation to check the news. … It’s one of those things where it’s scary, so maybe you don’t want to look at it, but it could potentially affect your life, so you feel like you have to.”
The rapidly evolving global situation can make many people re-evaluate their lives, projects and goals. But the key, Chen said, is in the work itself.
“The fantasy novel I’m working on right now is relatively low-stakes. No one is trying to save the world,” Chen said.
Even at the best of times, life is a minefield of distractions. Picking out a path towards a creative goal is a process that all writers and artists must face. A global pandemic is less a distraction and more of a total derailment. But with the help of a creative community, writers might find it easier to get back on track.
“Things might get a lot worse,” Chen said, “but we are going to get through this.”