Recently, in a previous NaNoWriMo-themed newsletter, I suggested, “Whenever you ‘mess up,’ whenever you have a less than perfect writing day, it’s because you were taking a risk.” I’ve been thinking about that off and on ever since, and it came to mind this weekend when I read an interview with Benny Lewis at Five Books. The interview’s ostensibly about recommended reading for people who want to learn Spanish, but Lewis’s advice can be applied to learning any language—and one bit in particular struck me as useful for anyone who wants to develop a writing practice.
“When we think of speaking a language,” Lewis observes, “we use our native language as a basis of comparison. So we think of success as when we’re able to have a certain level of complexity—like, you can talk about your deepest philosophical beliefs.” But it’s important to recognize the small victories as well, like “a five-minute conversation about what you do on Monday mornings.”
“This is why I say I have a goal of making mistakes. I aim to make 200 mistakes a day—that’s kind of part of my philosophy. Then it’s a lot easier to get into your flow, because you’re ticking that box of making mistakes rather than ticking the box of, ‘I’m going to have a debate on the meaning of existence in Spanish.’ That’s not something you really want to be worried about in your first months.”
Learning to tell a story through writing, even in your first language, takes a lot of work, a lot of practice. But every “mistake” you make along the way, every attempt to tell a story that doesn’t come out quite right, is evidence of your efforts, and though they may not map out a perfectly straight line to a finished manuscript, they will set you, generally speaking, in the right direction, as long as you’re willing to keep trying.
If you’ve actually been participating in National Novel Writing Month these last three weeks, you’ve probably felt like you’ve screwed up on more than one occasion. Maybe it’s something you were able to fix right away. Maybe you had to think about it overnight before you came up with a better way to express what you were trying to say. Maybe you’re still trying to get back on course before Thanksgiving comes along and totally derails your NaNoWriMo routine.
Whatever the circumstances are, you’re okay. You know more about your story, and about yourself, than when you started writing. You can build upon that knowledge and continue to move forward—and, over time, you will become more fluent in the language of you and your stories.
That fluency is, I think, the ultimate goal of NaNoWriMo. Don’t get me wrong: If you have a coherent, finished manuscript on November 30, that’s awesome. If it’s within striking distance of publishability, that’s amazingly awesome. But everyone who started writing on November 1 and is still writing on November 30, even if they missed some days in between, has proven to themselves that they don’t just want to write, they can commit to writing, and can reap the benefits of that commitment.
So don’t worry about getting everything perfect in today’s writing session. Just write, and see where it leads you.