Be Kind To Yourself: NaNoWrimo and Play 2.0

"Reflections" PLAY (NaNoWrMo): A spiraling staircase up, seen from below, reveals a the colourful silhouette of a person's head, with goals on its mind.

Last month saw the great time of NaNoWrimo, a time that most writers either ignore for it’s impossibility or dive into with the enthusiasm of New Year’s resolutions. I like goals and setting challenges. I like them so much that getting excited and assigning myself something unrealistic has become a step in the achievement process. Which then leads to that sought after end goal being unfortunately missed.

50,000 words in a month would have been one of these cases. So, Instead, I opted for a week of writing a new visual novel 45 minutes a day. This was an achievable, broken down goal that wouldn’t require a lot of commitment. As most New Years dieters can attest, the first week of a new challenge is exciting and easy. It’s the long term maintenance that becomes the tricky part, with waning enthusiasm and the thought of “wait, like, every day? Even when I would rather binge watch Black Mirror?” starts to set in. Cue the cyclical  disappointment of not achieving the unrealistically large goal I set for myself in the first place. This always makes it harder to continue; If I can’t achieve my goal perfectly, what is the point in continuing?

Which is why a week long, 45 minutes a day was perfect. A half hour felt too short, while an hour long commitment of anything makes me itchy with procrastination. And while I will start things off by stating that there were a couple of days that I didn’t manage my 45 minutes a day, I still stuck with my commitments, picking things up and writing longer the next day to make up the difference. As the week went on I became more aware of the habits that can make it difficult to write every day, along with a growing comfort in carving that time out for myself. It became easier to get back into where I had left off the day before. The 45 minutes ended up feeling short, and I allowed myself to write longer for days that I wanted to. By the end of my week, I realized I had enjoyed that time much more than I thought I would, and committed to doing another week of the challenge. While I once again failed to be perfect every day of those seven, I learned a lot in the process, most importantly to keep going. Below are some of the things I figured out in the process, which will hopefully help someone else in their own struggles with finding the time to tell their stories.

Give Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes

This is a two sided lesson for the self, both in discipline and compassion. Even when we have the praise and faith of the people around us, as creators we still remain our worst critics. And whether it be in committing to a NaNoWriMo inspired goal or something designed more for the long term, it’s inevitable that there will be days that you won’t accomplish what might, in theory, have been easy at the beginning of the process. You are going to fail. Sometimes horribly. There are going to be times when you are sick, when you overestimate your motivation, or underestimate how long it will take you to complete other tasks in your day. Very few people can manage to make a goal and achieve it, with 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time. And that is OK, be kind and honest with yourself. Figure out what exactly lead to that moment, and learn from it. And then be prepared to fail again, because you probably will. If missing your mark is a repeated habit, you may need to rethink your strategy. Aim for 500 words a day, or just one short story a month. Even if your pride says you should be able to do more, don’t listen to it. You’re not there yet, but if you keep working someday you will be. Giving up, deciding not to complete the journey, that is the only thing that isn’t allowed.

Because when you allow yourself to give up when things aren’t perfect, you indirectly give yourself a walkout clause to this commitment that you’ve made to yourself. Being perfect, and now allowing myself to be anything but, has been a way of self sabotage. A get out of jail free card for not completing what I set out to do, an easy way of avoiding the fear of “what if I can’t do it?” Which brings me to my second aspect of self discipline. During my first week of NanoWrimo I was sick, causing me to miss the second day of the first week. This was so disappointing, how had I already slipped up so early in the week? But things happen, and accepting that I made it the next day, and so on until slipping again on the fifth day when I was unexpectedly called into work. It’s always harder to start again after making mistakes, but I’m glad that I decided to.  There can be a lot of peace (and improvement) in pursuing the big picture.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Race

It can  be easy to become overwhelmed with the task at hand, even when you’re thoroughly enjoying it. Finishing a long short story aiming to write every day for a week, month or year can look daunting. That’s why we break it down into easier steps in the first place. But when the 21st century attention span is finding even that to be too much, don’t be afraid to mentally break it down even further. On the days when even 45 minutes felt long, I would make it smaller, thinking of just getting through the next 15 minutes. And then the next. By the third time of doing this I had usually found a rhythm and often went over until I felt like it.

Pay Attention To The Internet Impulse

I am incredibly, unfortunately, inexplicably, easily distracted. I’ve had to squash three Google and YouTube twitches since starting to write this article, and I can say that doing so is hard, even when I enjoy what I’m working on. It’s not you “Reflections”, I’m just antsy. Which is one of the reasons I began practicing Mindfulness Meditation three years ago. And while there is a lot more to it, I will try my best to summarize it with the concept of observing, rather than going with every thought or every impulse. Carrying this idea over to my writing, I began to try and really pay attention to those distracted, knee jerk moments. At first, this was difficult. Like most automatic behaviors, it didn’t even register that I was doing them until I was halfway through an article debating the best new Pokemon in the newly released Sun and Moon. Eventually though, it became a recognizable mental twitch, a moment just before my my fingers would open a new tab. Which could then be followed by a second moment to ask “why?” Why in the middle of the sentence, or at the end of this paragraph do I feel the need to mentally abandon ship?

Sometimes there wasn’t much to it. I had been writing for fifteen minutes and had reached the weaker point of my attention span. But the other, more instructive moments were in the uncomfortable parts of writing. Loss of character motivation, a difficult part in the plot, unnatural dialogue. Which became an opportunity for choice, as opposed to compulsive action. I could either push through the compulsion, “just five more minutes”, or take short and deliberate breaks. Some internal words of encouragement, a head scratch for my cats and maybe a new cup of tea was allowed, but I had to get right back into it. And I did, and it was usually much easier to continue.

My own take on NaNoWrimo was a great experience, teaching me about the power of daily habits and my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. At the end of it, I found myself thinking that I couldn’t wait for next year’s challenge and what I’ll accomplish then. Which was then followed by the realization that I don’t necessarily have to wait 11 months to commit to make writing an everyday part of my life. New Year’s and its list of potential resolutions is a few weeks away, but I would rather start with that now as opposed to later. So I’m planning on writing for 30 minutes a day, taking it week by deliberate week.

How has post NaNoWrimo been for you as writer? Did you participate? Wish that you had? What tricks do use to keep yourself motivated in the process? Also, bonus cat.

Who couldn’t give him head scratches?

1 thought on “Be Kind To Yourself: NaNoWrimo and Play 2.0”

  1. Thanks for the reflection, Madeline!

    Of particular interest to me is the “Give yourself permission to make mistakes” bit. I think that’s something we’ve all been working our way towards over the last year, and as you can tell by my most recent article (‘Freedom To Be Wrong’) I’ve adopted it into my writing itself.

    I guess that advice I’ve been hearing for—well, ever—is finally hitting home: ain’t nothing going to be perfect.

    Good luck on today’s writing session, and may you enjoy this cat-based video as your reward when done:

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