In the write
National Novel Writing Month with author Gayle Brandeis
Local author Gayle Brandeis contains multitudes. The proof is emblazoned right on her teal turtleneck, the famous Walt Whitman line hand-embroidered in white thread where a name tag or a brand logo might otherwise sit: I contain multitudes.
Those three words remind the other writers in the room why we are here. We contain multitudes, too, and we're gathered together on a chilly November evening in the middle of National Novel Writing Month to write those stories down.
But multiplicity is not just part of Brandeis' writing ethos. It is also central to NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month, a yearly event held during the month of November that challenges veteran writers and aspiring novelists alike to churn out 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days. Do the math, and that works out to an average 1,666 words per day—no small feat even for professional writers.
Seven of us are tucked around a table laden with popcorn and wine and salted almonds at the back of Word After Word Books—10118 Donner Pass Road, Truckee—an independent bookstore that hosts a variety of readings and author events.
We're here for the Writing Series, held every other Wednesday in the store's cozy back space, nestled among the colorful picture books lining the shelves the children's section. This time, the event is focused on supporting writers who have committed to NaNoWriMo, offering prompts to help us reach our daily word count in addition to the opportunity for writerly solidarity and camaraderie.
“I like to think of it as a writing marathon where you just run and run and run,” Brandeis said. “It feels a little breathless, which is exhausting but also exhilarating.”
We wait with our notebooks open and our pens poised. Brandeis, who is leading this week's event, sits at the head of the table and tells us about her own experience with the challenge.
It arrived at a fortuitous time in her life, after her first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize (now known as the PEN/Bellwether prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) and she experienced serious writer's block for the first time.
The prize, judged by literary legends Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston in addition to Kingsolver, left Brandeis feeling like her next project might not live up to the expectations set by her last book. NaNoWriMo became a way to outrun her inner critic.
Since that first year, the challenge has continued to be a generative force in Brandeis's creative life.
“I love feeling all that writerly energy buzzing around this month,” Brandeis said.
Brandeis, who teaches both at Tahoe's Sierra Nevada College and in Antioch University's low-residency MFA program, has written eight books in just about every genre, from memoir and poetry to fiction and even a writing guide for women. She has participated in the challenge three times, which produced an e-book, an as-yet-unpublished YA novel, and the book that became her second published novel.
That novel, Self-Storage, was drafted during NaNoWriMo, and though Brandeis crossed the 50,000 word finish line, she said that only between five and 10 thousand words of that initial draft made it into the final manuscript. Despite the fact that most of those words ended up on the cutting room floor, Brandeis said they were necessary.
“They helped me get where I needed to go,” she said. “And I doubt I would've written this book any other way.”
National Novel Writing Month was founded in 1999 by Chris Baty, a Bay Area writer who launched the challenge on a whim and roped his friends into trying it too. That first year, 21 people participated.
Two decades later, hundreds of thousands of writers across the country take on the challenge each year, and NaNoWriMo has grown into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that offers community-building tools, online support for writers, and even a Young Writers Program that provides K-12 curriculum for teachers who want to promote writing fluency and education in their classrooms.
“I can safely say that everyone does not have a novel in them,” Baty writes in the revised and expanded edition of his book No Plot? No Problem!, a guide for writers who want to participate in the challenge. “Everyone has dozens of novels in them. And getting one of those stories written is even more fun and life-changing than I had originally realized.”
For many writers, creative constraints like NaNoWriMo can boost creativity, pushing them into territory they might not have explored on their own.
“Constraint can be, maybe paradoxically, very freeing,” Brandeis said. “We can be pretty wild within whatever constraint we give ourselves, and it creates a frame for us to play within.”
Mikaela Prestowitz, a Word After Word employee who is also participating in the challenge, agreed.
“It's really good at completely shutting down your inner editor,” Prestowitz said. “You don't have time or mental resources to write and edit at the same time. I think that changes your creative process.”
But despite the creative advantages the challenge can provide, the daunting daily word count means it's easy to fall behind and give up altogether.
“It's really hard to maintain the momentum,” said Shelby Kassel, another employee. “You miss a couple days, and you feel overwhelmed.”
“And then you're 4,000 words behind,” Prestowitz added, “and you're like, nevermind.”
To beat the clock, veterans of the process know to follow one rule above all: no editing.
“I have found myself going back and reading,” Prestowitz said, “but I always tell myself, if I go back to edit, it has to be to add stuff. If I delete stuff, then I'm just going to delete a whole bunch, and then I can't stop.”
But for Brandeis and so many other writers who participate in NaNoWriMo, the event is not just a fun creative challenge. It is also a celebration of the power of stories to enrich our lives.
“Novels really are empathy bombs,” Brandeis said. “They allow us to look deeply into the life of someone other than ourselves, and that can open our hearts and minds and help us feel more connected to humanity.”
Her forthcoming book, Many Restless Concerns, a novel in poems told from the collective voice of the more than 600 women and girls killed by the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, is an exercise in this kind of sustained empathy.
“Something about this story lodged in me, and I was thinking, ‘Who were all these girls and women she killed?'” Brandeis said. “There's been a lot written about her but nothing that really centered her victims, and they just started talking to me in this choral, weird voice.”
Brandeis hopes readers will walk away from this new book understanding “that justice is possible if we tell our stories.”
The room is quiet as we write, and at the end of the night, we celebrate all the words we added to the pile: 900 for one person, 1,100 for another.
On my way out the door, I snag a bookmark with the bookstore's namesake quote printed across it, a line from Margaret Atwood that reminds me what I already know is true: “A word after a word after a word is power.”