Here is the interview I did for The Thing Is.co.uk, it has been three weeks and is still not up on their site so I think it’s okay to post it here in its entirety.
TTI: The numbers of NaNoWriMo participants have increased massively from 21 in 1999 to 101,510 in 2007. Why do you think this is?
DrW: When the internet is at its best it is focused on community. This is exactly what NaNoWriMo provides. Ask just about anyone who is participating about their favorite aspect of NaNoWriMo and they will say the community, the people that they meet through the forums and the write-ins (participants gather to sit and write and talk about their novels). That is what accounts for its spread, it’s hard to find kindred spirits in the world but if you can get into a community of people pursuing the same goal and having fun doing it, it is more than likely that you’ll find someone with whom you can mesh.
TTI: Do you think writers have to be self-obsessed in order to write? To elaborate, the idea of someone thinking that the general public would like to, or perhaps even should, read 100,000 of their words is perhaps childish in some respects. Does it therefore take, in some respects, a selfish, stubborn, child-like mentality to be able to write?
DrW: One could claim that it is hubris to open our mouths, we are assuming that everyone around us wants to hear what we have to say. Yet we consider a person shy if they don’t think they have anything important to say and therefore remain silent. The writers who are self-obsessed have a pleasant tendency of weeding themselves out of the literary gene pool simply because they lack balance, they either write for everyone and produce watered-down works or they write selfishly and become so disgusted when the world does not beat a path to their door that they rarely try a second time.
TTI: What is the point in churning out 50,000 words without any kind of editing process?
Your Write or Die tool, like NaNoWriMo, promotes writing without procrastination. Do you think this really has any merit? All of the world’s greatest novels took years to write, so what’s the point in trying to churn out writing as fast as possible, just for writing’s sake?
DrW: If you had the apparatus to look inside the head of any creative person you would find twin beasts; we will call these the Creator and the Critic. In the well-organized mind they grow together: the more one creates the sharper one’s eye becomes to the details in the creation of others, the more one looks critically at the works of others the more one is driven to create something better. The problem occurs when the Creator sits down to create; the Critic cannot differentiate between the process and the product and therefore begins to make loud comments about how horrible this creation is and how it could be so much better.
The goal of Write or Die is to get the Critic to shut up during the process and wait for the product. A lot of people criticise NaNoWriMo, saying that it’s about nothing more than churning out reams of bilge. These people have the same problem as the Critic, they do not see that NaNoWriMo (and Write or Die) is about the process, not the product.
So, these things must be separate: Creator and Critic, Process and Product.
It’s true that most novels take years to go from inception to publication, it is foolish to argue that point. I simply posit that the answer for the writers toiling in obscurity is to first take away the toil and then tackle the obscurity. Writing Does Not Have To Be Hard. The creature inside you that makes it hard is not the Creator, it is the Critic, holding you back and telling you it’s not good enough. Make the Critic wait for the product when it can be used for things like editing, and by the time you’re ready to edit it will have plenty of things to say.
TTI: On the NaNoWriMo site, it states that one of the reasons to participate is “to be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.” What makes a “real novelist”? Do we simply have to write a novel, or does it need to be read by others, or perhaps even published?
DrW: If you read Chris Baty’s book (No Plot, No Problem, Chris is the creator of NaNoWriMo) or, indeed, more of the site, you’ll get a feeling for his sense of humour and the tone of the whole endeavour. It’s a literary freefall and it revels in irreverence. I think that “novelist” is defined, in this case, as “one who has written a novel.” Much like “writer” can simply mean “one who writes.” I think the word that is held aloft is “Author,” which connotes publication and, to some extent, renown.
TTI: Why are people so obsessed with becoming writers? Shirley Dent of The Institute of Ideas said in a recent article for the UK Guardian that: “literature is about standing on the shoulders of giants, enabling us to see beyond, and understand more, than our own little slice of time and space”. Do you think people want to write simply as a way to become “giants” and that NaNoWriMo offers a quick fix towards this end? As the NaNoWriMo website says, one of its reasons to participate is “to be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties”.
DrW: I think everyone dreams of becoming an Author because it is the one thing that every literate person is capable of doing. Nearly everyone writes almost every day, be it a grocery list or an inter-office memo. We know how to read, we know how to write and the telling of stories is wired into us at a primordial level. It is almost unique among creative pursuits in that there are no tangible obstacles between the aspirant and success. To be a famous actor you must be beautiful (or talented, I suppose). To be a famous musician you must have not only the gift of musicianship but also equipment and connections. But to be an Author it takes only words, paper and practice, with the added benefit that you can safely work in the proverbial closet without any danger of embarrassing yourself.
I don’t think that Chris Baty or any of the 101,000 participants are under the illusion that on December 1st they will emerge from their dimly-lit hovels with their lengthened fingernails scritching at the binding of the Great American Novel. It’s true that the best-seller Water for Elephants began as a NaNo novel but I can assure you it is longer than 50,000 words and went through many revisions before publication. But I rather think that that book would not have been started if it weren’t for the impetus of National Novel Writing Month.
I am also not suggesting that Write or Die will, by itself, produce great works of fiction. It is a very purposefully a simple application. You can’t format your text, you can’t spellcheck your document, in its current incarnation you are forced to copy to a word processor to even save your work. As I said, it might not produce greatness, but it might induce the seed of something great. At the very least, what it can do is grab your inner Critic by the neck, shut him up and hold him at arm’s length so that your Creator can get some actual work done.
TTI: In the same article, Shirley Dent also wrote that “contrary to the popular myth, we don’t all have a book in us and pretending otherwise devalues great writing”. To what extent do you agree or disagree with her?
Everyone might not have a book but every single person is a reservoir of Story. I knew a man named Bob Williams, he is rather old and now too sick after dealing with several bouts of pneumonia to come to the coffee shop where I used to meet him every Sunday. That man is a towering giant of story, he can take any topic and tell you about a fascinating life experience he has had. He’s lived everywhere, done so many things from working for the Secret Service to designing rollercoasters. But he’s never written a book. If I had publishers beating down my door to publish my writing I would turn them away just to have the book he would have wrote.
The next time you’re disappointed with the year’s crop of fiction, think about what would happen if everyone planted a story, not all of them will grow into books, but the crop would be wide and bountiful and ripe for harvest.