NaNoWriMo and its deleterious impact on my writing

As I mentioned recently, I’m strongly considering not participating in NaNoWriMo again, or at least not until their woke leadership in Berkeley is replaced by sensible people, or they hit peak woke and walk back their support of the lunacy they advocate now. But whatever my decision, I wouldn’t delete my profile. I’ve written over a million words since I began participating, and I want my records to remain.

Though my stats page shows my first project from 2010 (when I only started on Day 18 and thus didn’t make 50K), I only officially began participating in 2014. Thus, the earlier projects were honestly, retroactively added, without individual wordcounts for each day, just the final total of words I wrote in those Novembers.

I was so proud of my win in 2014, when I came within spitting distance of 75K. The next year, I set out to beat that total, and was really disappointed I only made 71K, particularly since I pulled an exhausting marathon session of 7K on the final day. I didn’t feel that were my best work. Then in 2016, I only got 65K, and felt even worse about myself for falling so far of what I know I’m capable of.

In 2017, I pulled 80K, though part of that was creative nonfiction, primarily my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90. Ever since, I’ve counted blog posts in my totals (while striving to have the fiction side as the majority of my words).

2018 was my best year ever, at almost 131K and a marathon final day of 8K. But even then, I felt like I could’ve done better. It was very disappointing to only do 101K in 2019, and then came lockdown and only 53K in 2020 and barely 50K in 2021.

Even if their leadership hadn’t cancelled all in-person events, I’ve still felt for some time that NaNo has had a deleterious effect on my daily wordcounts. After that glorious first official year, it’s felt more like a crazed contest to beat my former total, and I end up feeling disappointed and like I failed if I can’t do that. It now feels more like pressure to produce instead of a fun, carefree month. Indeed, in many non-NaNo months, I’ve easily written over 100K.

For the last few years, a lot of the material in my master wordcount file has been garbage, which I knew was garbage as I was writing it. E.g., I’ll write and rewrite a sentence multiple times instead of deleting the mistakes or rough draft and only keeping the final product. Or I’ll discontinue a paragraph or scene in progress, or realize the thousands of words I just spent days working on belong in another book instead.

It’s like my fingers and brain freeze the moment the clock strikes midnight on April, July, and November, and I suddenly have terrible writer’s block, or I struggle to produce decent words that naturally flow in the thick of so much garbage.

Who knows, maybe this is partly because I’m continuing WIPs instead of starting fresh with new projects, and that hampers my sense of freedom and creativity.

The banning of all in-person events for the last two years has also played a huge role in my struggles to keep my former usual daily wordcount output. I hate the “Permanent lockdown for the win!” cult. God forbid normal life resume ever!

Since joining the NaNo group in Albany, NY in 2014 (which I’m still happily a member of, despite no longer living there), I became used to doing much of my writing at our weekly write-ins at Denny’s, and the additional weekly write-ins at a local coffeehouse in Camp months. Then there were all the other write-ins at libraries during November, and virtual sprints to cover the rest.

Thus, I gradually lost my habit of doing all my writing independently, and began struggling more and more with finding motivation when I wasn’t with the group or doing virtual write-ins. Moving away from NY made the situation even worse.

I had finally gotten back into a good habit of writing for several hours six times a week at the library, and then lockdown hit. My cyclical depression was triggered, and my writing output became almost nonexistent.

Whereas I once felt excitement, challenge, and joy upon seeing my wordcount steadily rising hour by hour, day by day, week by week, now it feels more like unrelenting pressure to produce, and if I don’t top my records, I feel like I’m not living up to my full writing potential.

The “updated” website they rolled out a few years ago is also awful.

NaNo has no business espousing political positions, regardless of what side of the aisle they are or what the POV is. This isn’t like knowing the owners of a business like Hobby Lobby hold certain views in their private life. They’re publicly, inappropriately declaring their support for extremist groupthink and polarizing views like “Biological sex is a bigoted, colonialist invention!” and “It’s totally cool for Hamas to fire thousands of rockets on unarmed civilians!”

IWSG—My eighth official NaNo

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for this year’s final meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

This year marked the eighth time I officially participated in NaNoWriMo, the eleventh overall, and the tenth time I won. The only year I failed to make 50K was the first year I unofficially participated, 2010, and I didn’t begin that project until 18 November. Had I started on the first of the month, I most definitely would’ve overachieved.

But I don’t feel good about this win, since I barely eked out 50K, and then only about ten minutes to midnight on the final day. My best years ever were 2018, when I got to almost 131K, and 2019, when I got 101K. Now I’ve been reduced to the bare minimum, which is so unrepresentative of what I know I’m capable of. Once upon a time, I easily wrote several thousand words every day, and 5K days were hardly rare.

By the end, I was just writing garbage I knew was garbage, just to have enough words in my NaNo 2021 file. For the past few years, I’ve been well aware more than a few of my NaNo words are garbage and filler. E.g., I’ll write and rewrite the same sentence, stop in the middle of a sentence, write lines and even entire paragraphs or short scenes I realize are bad or don’t belong in the book. So I’ll keep them in the master wordcount file but immediately delete them when I C&P them into a chapter file. It’s like NaNo has in some ways had a deleterious effect on my writing, since I can write stuff I know is garbage but that it’ll still count towards the minimum goal.

And had I not counted my creative nonfiction (mostly blog posts) in this wordcount, I wouldn’t have made it to 50K.

Although to be fair to myself, writing a research-heavy book during NaNo is difficult. When I did 20th century hist-fic, particularly with characters I’ve known for years, the words just flowed effortlessly. Even my 19th century story came really quickly and easily, after some necessary refamiliarizing with the era.

The alternative history I’m currently working on also needs much more careful, thoughtful writing, since it involves real people and an era I’ve never written about before. While Medieval Italy is nowhere near as out of my wheelhouse as, say, fifth century China or 1890s Brazil, it’s still not as intimately, back of my hand familiar as the 19th and 20th centuries.

I was so stalled, I stopped in the middle of Chapter VI, which is set during the Christmas season of 1274, and jumped ahead to Part III, which opens in late 1287. That did help me with starting to pull up significantly, but I still ultimately found this book needs overall careful writing, even with parts that come faster than others.

Maybe I needed that wakeup call and humbling of my pride, this very humiliating demonstration of how far I’ve fallen, so I could finally start fighting to regain my former writing habits and prolific daily wordcounts. The impact of lockdown on my mental health can’t be underestimated, but I also had free will. I chose to passively accept almost two years of poor writing output. This NaNo, I also chose to prioritize other things, like watching the Grand Prix circuit of figure skating, instead of spending those few hours writing on all those nights.

And speaking of skating, I was like a skater who realizes she’s off-kilter in the air and just gives up, resulting in an ugly fall. Even if you know you messed up, you can still fight for a sloppy landing or popped jump, or even fall properly instead of splaying all over the ice like a limp ragdoll.

Some years just aren’t our years, and NaNo 2021 wasn’t one of mine. I’ll now turn my full attentions to researching and writing my WIP with the thought and care it deserves. This isn’t the kind of book that can be fast-drafted and come out well.

Did you do NaNo this year? If you ever had a year where you barely won or didn’t win, was that a learning experience for you? What did you do differently next time?

How not to translate Dante

I first heard of Mary Jo Bang while researching my post on translations of The Divine Comedy, but didn’t include her among my list of best-known editions since I’d never run across her name before. While I’ve not read or dipped in and out of most of the translations I listed, I at least was familiar with their existence.

And as I mentioned in that post, I personally prefer a translation done by someone with a scholarly background in a field like Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature, not a mere English professor or poet. Ms. Bang falls into the latter category. Of course I’ve nothing against such people, but there’s an inevitable, very noticeable difference in how they approach translation and supplemental material.

To use another comparison, wouldn’t you more trust a Bible translation by a Biblical historian or religious scholar instead of someone with only surface interest in Hebrew, Greek, or the ancient world? Or a translation of The Iliad by someone who’s been immersed in all things Ancient Greece for 20+ years over a poet who studied the language for a few years and nothing more?

I’m not a pedantic nitpicker who demands a translation be one million percent true to the absolute letter of the original. While I prefer it be as accurate and literal as possible, I have nothing against gentle creative liberties within reason. After all, that’s often necessitated if the translator is using a style like blank verse in iambic pentameter or a certain kind of rhyme scheme. And oftentimes, it can enhance the beauty or emotional impact of a passage, or just make the meaning clearer than a literal word-by-word rendering.

But what I’m absolutely NOT okay with? Inserting words, phrases, and entire passages not even indirectly suggested by anything in the original, esp. when you do that over and over again.

I was beyond gobsmacked to learn Ms. Bang’s translations of Inferno and Purgatorio (the latter of which was just recently released) are full of anachronistic references and allusions to modern politics, pop culture, artists, and writers. Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Warhol, Usain Bolt, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Gertrude Stein, South Park, Pink Floyd, Star Trek, Tootsie Fruit Chews, MGM’s Leo the Lion, Shakespeare, Freud, you name it.

Oh, and she describes something as a lemon meringue mountain, says the winds of Hell are like “a massive crimson camera flash,” and takes extreme liberties with many other lines. The famous first tercet alone is rendered as:

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

WHAT?!

The bulk of that tercet is entirely her own imagination! Find me one other translation that strays THAT far from the original Italian!

I also read a really weird 2011 op-ed by Ms. Bang claiming if you only read Inferno, you’ll falsely think of Beatrice as a damsel in distress from the story Virgil tells in Canto II. Because she’s tearfully pleading with him to save her friend, despite the fact that Beatrice is the one who rescues Dante. She also sets out to summon Virgil after a conference with two other women, the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

You haven’t read the text thoughtfully at all, nor done any real outside study, if you truly believe Beatrice only wants Virgil to rescue Dante from the three beasts impeding him. Are you so jaded after years of English teachers’ overanalysis that you now refuse to consider any deeper meanings for anything?

I’d have zero problems with her approach if she were doing a 21st century retelling. That would give her the perfect opportunity to play around with the general concept while keeping core elements of the original material. But she presents this as merely a fresh translation, not a reimagining.

And to make it even more shocking, the Dante Society of America, which I’m a member of, endorses this nonsense!

IWSG—September odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

This month’s question is:

How do you define success as a writer? Is it holding your book in your hand? Having a short story published? Making a certain amount of income from your writing?

As I’ve said many a time, though my dream is to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and my secondary dream is to win the Sydney Taylor Book Award, what I want most of all is immortality through my writing. I want to be remembered as a writer for all time, like Dante and Shakespeare, not someone who’s only praised and known about for a little while before being consigned to the bargain bin.

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I really, really struggled with the story I wrote for the IWSG contest. My first idea was quickly abandoned, a story entitled “Illuminated Summer.” It was to be set in Fiesole, Italy, during the summer of 1478, one of the deadliest outbreaks of the Black Death’s second wind. My problem was that I only had some general ideas about what to fill the story with, as much as I pulled together mentally.

Since I liked the characters I crafted in my head so much, though, I decided to save them for a full-length book. Maybe it was a mistake to abandon this story before I even finished one page, but it’s too late now to change that decision.

Then I moved to the idea I’d had originally, using my secondary characters Virgil Rein and Liliána Buchsbaum from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and showing the genesis of their romantic relationship in Sweden after the war. It was called “Traces of an Ancient Flame” (a line from The Aeneid and later used in The Divine Comedy in homage). But almost the entire time I was working on it, it just wasn’t clicking.

It was a huge struggle to get over the minimum 5K mark, and that contained a lot of garbage I would’ve edited out in the final draft. At no time besides the opening pages, set in an antiquarian bookstore, did I feel excited about this project; on the contrary, I didn’t want to work on it, and getting as many words as I did was like pulling hens’ teeth.

I had more and more of a sinking feeling that this wasn’t my strongest effort, and that romance didn’t feature prominently enough. The story didn’t want to be primarily a romance, despite those elements being there. It also felt too unfocused and not paced well, with more of an episodic structure instead of a real plot.

I also feel like, should I write a full book about these characters, their romance ought to have started soon after liberation, not only in early December 1947.

I finally decided to scratch that hot mess a day before the deadline, and went back to my material of Cinnimin meeting Levon in 1942 and reworked it into a standalone story exclusively in Cinni’s POV. Yes, I cut it really close, but my heart was only in the final of the three stories. Had I continued forcing the second story that didn’t want to be written, and felt all wrong most of the time, I wouldn’t have been submitting my best work or something I was proud of.

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In other news, I finally renamed my YouTube channel so people can more easily pronounce and remember it. I plan to start adding regular content, including vlogs about writing. It might help with improving my confidence, though I’m afraid I’ll always have the nasal twang of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Have you ever abandoned a project partway through because it just wasn’t working or didn’t represent what you’re capable of?

IWSG—June odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

The books I wrote on MacWriteII, ClarisWorks, and AppleWorks were inaccessible to me for up to a decade, due to being either stuck on obsolete file formats on disks or on an older desktop I didn’t bring over all the files from. Obviously, I finally learnt how to convert and open all those file types.

The ones created or saved in MacWriteII have/had a lot of bizarre formatting issues caused by data migration; e.g., floating chunks of text that belong elsewhere in the document and need to be C&Ped back together in their proper order (often breaking off in the middle of words or sentences!), gibberish at the beginning, words I taught the ’93 Mac’s spellcheck, text from files on other disks, symbols in the middle of words, repeated letters, huge indents. That needed addressed before I could even begin editing and assigning them places in my long queue.


As I’ve said many times, it was a blessing in disguise that the original files of Little Ragdoll were held hostage for so many years. There was no way I could’ve salvaged even a halfway decent story by writing around this Grimms’ fairytale on acid. I needed a complete rewrite from scratch and memory, though I kept the same general outline.

Being away from a story for 5–10 years provides one with a whole new set of eyes. Now, I like to wait at least a few months before diving back in. When we begin editing and revising too soon, we’re often blind to mistakes both big and small.

I learnt a big lesson from my mad dash to the finish with And Aleksey Lived in 2018. Since there was almost no time between the day I wrote the last word in the final appendix and the release date, I had to fly through with proofreading. A lot of little errors also turned up in the first printed edition, which I thankfully was able to correct for free.

I’m doing JuNoWriMo for I believe the sixth year, though I’m not hopeful of reaching 50K. All part of the joy of being stuck in a home not my own, with the local libraries still not open to more than brief browsing, and in an open concept house that makes privacy all but impossible. </extreme sarcasm>

I’ll be using June to work on my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, start my new alternative history, and do my final proof-check of the third edition of Little Ragdoll. I also count blog posts as creative non-fiction.

After daydreaming about this for at least 20 years, I’ve finally begun the process of applying to make aliyah (move to Israel). I came up with a lot of stupid excuses and reasons to postpone it, and even let my now-ex talk me out of it. Unfortunately, I’ve aged out of a lot of great opportunities, like work-study programs and volunteering on most kibbutzim.

I’ll be discussing this much more in future posts. If all goes well and I’m approved, I should be there by next summer. Though I used to want to live in Haifa, my dream city now is Tiberias in the Lower Galilee.

In response to the awful events of May, I’ve changed my Twitter display name to my Hebrew name, Chana Esther Dafna.

What are your summer writing plans?