Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

White Tennis Shoes vs. NaNoWriMo
by Nature Leseul

From Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction:

Years ago I read an article in The New Yorker by a writer who described what she does in the morning before writing. What she describes is universal. When she sits down she knows she does not want to write. Here is what her subconscious does to “save” her from that difficulty. She thinks of everything she has to do. She needs to call a friend on business, and does so. She thinks of an aunt she has not called for months, and calls her. She thinks of what she has to order from the store, and places the order. She remembers she has not finished yesterday's paper, so she does. She continues in this way until she runs out of excuses and has to start writing. But suddenly she remembers that last summer (it is now winter) she never cleaned her white tennis shoes. So she cleans them. That is why I refer to this syndrome as the “white tennis shoes.”

Getting into the writing state is difficult, and so you might procrastinate in this way. This is the pseudo-squirms: the normal reluctance to face an abnormal difficulty. This is not a moral, but a psycho-epistemological, issue. A mental switch is hard to make, yet it occurs every time you try to write, until you get used to writing and become severe with yourself. It is difficult to to do so because of the enormous concentration required. Every person has more than one value, and there are many legitimate things you could do which are easier than writing—maybe not cleaning tennis shoes, but going shopping or cleaning your apartment, for instance. Contrast these kinds of activity with a complete withdrawal from your total context and an intense concentration. The temptation to do something else is always there before you start writing.

In steelmaking, a blast furnace must be heated for weeks before it is hot enough to forge steel. A writing getting himself into the writing mood is like that furnace. Nobody likes to get into that state, though once you are in it you want no other, and would probably snap at anyone who interrupted you.... [I]n the case of the “white tennis shoes,” you must force yourself by sheer will power immediately to stop procrastinating and begin writing.

If there has been any rigorous psychological research to support Rand's premise of the “white tennis shoes,” I am unaware of it. From my own subjective experience, however, I can attest that the phenomenon is real, and hardly confined to writers. I follow similar patterns of thought in other pursuits such as programming and pursuing study: it is very difficult to get started on something new (or to take up something that I have had put aside for a while), but once I start, I become fairly fixated upon it for several days, until I need to think about something else and fall out of that mental state.

In a more generalized form, this is the essence of the theory of “white tennis shoes”: the mind can operate in various states (creative states, introspective states, “rest” states, for example), and transitioning between them requires effort. The fact that most people do not think of their mental processes in this manner, then, leads them to the impression that trying to do something terribly new—write a novel, start a business, present to a crowd, attend (for an introvert) a party of loud music and strangers—will require a disproportionately huge amount of mental exertion. Maybe later, they decide, when they have more time to commit to something so unimaginably difficult. And thus we have a culture permeated by procrastination and complacency.

Clearly, anyone who wants to avoid the trap of a routine job and an uninspiring future needs to be aware that significant new endeavors or changes to thinking are not necessarily so insurmountable as they may appear. People need to be aware of this aspect of the mind, and need to find ways to keep themselves convinced that they can bring themselves over that peak, and that beyond it is an unobstructed and limitless plain. For the aspiring writer, at least, I have seen no better means to confront the specter of “white tennis shoes” than a “National Novel Writing Month,” or NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is a challenge issued to writers: “Write a novel in a month.” It sounds impossible. It sounds crazy. It sounds like the kind of summons only a ghost-writer for a mass-produced pulp fiction series would choose to answer. Didn't Ayn Rand spend a decade writing Atlas Shrugged? How can anyone do anything like that in only a month? But a NaNoWriMo novel is not expected to be Atlas Shrugged. It is not expected to be profound, or gripping. or moving, or a bestseller. It is only expected to be 50,000 words.

This standard for success seems to turn off a lot of writers. Writing is about more than churning out words quickly, they say. Why should they join the “quantity over quality” mindset of the popular writers of today's consumerist masses, when they are capable of so much more than that? Why not take the time to worry about the quality of their novel, instead of trying to meet some arbitrary word count and time limit? These are the same people who, more likely than not, you will see twenty years from now with hard drives filled with first chapters and character concepts, working at McDonald's and claiming that the rat race of our capitalist society doesn't allow artists the time they need to dedicate themselves to their true calling.

In the FAQ, the NaNoWriMo organizers justify themselves as follows:

NaNoWriMo is all about the magical power of deadlines. Give someone a goal and a goal-minded community and miracles are bound to happen. Pies will be eaten at amazing rates. Alfalfa will be harvested like never before. And novels will be written in a month.

And a few questions later:

There are three reasons.

1) If you don't do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come. And you'll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And you'll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never expected, taking the story places you'd never imagined. There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

3) Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants. Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

Where a beginning writer working alone may have only a vague idea that he wants to write a novel, but never quite feels ready to start, a NaNoWriMo writer knows exactly when the time comes to stop procrastinating and planning and to start generating something concrete: November 1, 12:00 AM. More likely than not, he has stayed up late in order to begin at exactly that magical time, and he has had his story boiling inside him for much of the month of October. It is no longer an effort to force himself into the novelling state of mind; it is a release. And then, if he ever starts to lose the passion for the story during November, he has only to look at the website and compare the 16,958 words of the current leaders to his own 1,781. We as capitalists surely know how empowering competition can be.

And there is another side-effect of the NaNoWriMo method that doesn't really get mentioned on the website, but that a lot of NaNoers seem to encounter. Many young writers, when they finally make themselves start writing their novel, will go directly into producing prose, only to realize after a few chapters that none of the story is making sense and they have no idea where anything is supposed to be going. But since NaNoers are not permitted to begin actually writing until November 1, they have only one outlet for the anticipation: planning. And for authors to become accustomed not only to starting at a certain time, but to actually planning before they start gives them a significant advantage.

When I did NaNoWriMo last year, I started off trying to maintain the magical rate of 1,667 words per day and keep pace with the word count leaders. For the first few days, I managed it, but then I started falling behind. Even though I spent all of November carrying around an ancient Mac PowerBook and adding to my novel at every opportunity that arose, even spending most of my courses for that semester focusing more on writing than on following the lecture, I still wasn't able to make the day's goal. I watched as the leaders steadily advanced and started submitting their novels for verification, while I struggled onward, hovering at around 30,000 words on November 28. And it might have ended there, and joined the hundreds of other NaNo not-so-success stories. But I decided not to let it. I turned my computer off, stayed in my bedroom, and spent two days sequestered with that laptop. And in the wee hours of the morning on November 30, I was submitting my 50,000 words to be counted. And somehow, when you know you can write 20,000 words in two days, 50,000 in a month doesn't seem so daunting anymore.

That is the message of NaNoWriMo: just do it. Accept no excuses from yourself. Your novel and all your creative pursuits are more important than your dirty tennis shoes. They are not something to be started whenever you find the time. They are something to be started on November 1, no matter what. They may not turn out as good as you would like, but a work of 50,000 inelegant words is better than a brilliant work of no words and an infinity of vague ideas. You have the power to make your dreams a reality, but you have to start the work sooner than “someday.” You may have more than a month for some of them, but your time is still limited, and far, far too valuable to be wasted on white tennis shoes.
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