#NaNoWriMo 2019: Writing Your Way Out of the Woods

Over the weekend, I revisited a book that I first read twenty years ago, Lewis Richmond’s Work as a Spiritual Practice. I’d originally stumbled onto it at a time when my professional life was starting to destabilize; I’d been doing work that I really liked, but the nature of the company was changing, as was my attitude toward that nature, and Richmond confirmed for me that it was possible to integrate your “work” with your “soul,” to find a way to do things that spoke to your sense of purpose and receive financial compensation for it. Or, if you couldn’t achieve that lofty ideal, to perform your work in accordance with your inner values that it wouldn’t just be something you were doing to bring in money so you could afford to live in our capitalist society.

I’ve been fortunate over the last two decades that the work I’ve done has, for the most part, been connected to my passions. Even when other aspects of my professional environment have been less than satisfying, or didn’t pan out the way I hoped, the work itself has either been immediately meaningful to me or has been a useful learning opportunity. That doesn’t always happen—and in my case, it definitely wouldn’t have happened without the support of my wife—so I’m extremely grateful.

So, what does this have to do with National Novel Writing Month?

I think it’s a question of integration.

I imagine some NaNoWriMo participants see this month as an escape, a way to temporarily break free of the monotony of their daily routines and allow themselves a creative indulgence. It’s fun, but come December they plan to resume their normal schedules—oh, maybe open the manuscript document once in a while, if they can squeeze the time in, but they’re not in any rush to get it published, necessarily. It’s enough to know they could write a story in a month, and knowing that about themselves makes the other eleven months a little easier in ways that they might not even be able to talk about consciously.

As a professional writer and editor, I suppose I’m supposed to believe that “nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for money,” but, honestly, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of writing as an edifying hobby, the same way we might treat other creative pursuits, like woodworking or learning to play a guitar. It’s okay if your writing isn’t “professional,” and it’s okay if it never becomes “professional.” What matters isn’t how much money writing makes you, but how it transforms your life.

As I was rereading Work as a Spiritual Practice this weekend, I had last Friday’s newsletter about writing as “an adventure into an unknown world” fresh in my mind, and about halfway through the book, Lewis Richmond wrote this:

“The spiritual path is not like the interstate, with friendly green signs to tell us which exit is which… It is more like being dropped into the wilderness. We have to figure out which way to go by moving along, by being curious, by experimenting. Most of all, we need to trust our instincts and our innate sense of direction.”

That felt like a perfect way to extend the metaphor of how a writing practice can work, and perhaps in particular how writing a novel can work. As I mentioned before, if you’re actually doing NaNoWriMo, you may have begun with a detailed outline, or you might have only had a fragment of a story idea—a character or two, a dilemma, some stray thoughts about where things ought to be headed. Either way, once you commit yourself to telling that story, you will be forced to rely on yourself. You may well get lost, maybe more than once.

If you do get lost, though, stay calm. The solution to the story is inside you. (Even if it’s non-fiction—the facts may be immutable, but the perspective you bring to them is what makes them a story, and what compels people to pay attention.) Instead of panicking about writing yourself into a corner, take a mental step back and look for an alternative path. It may show you a new way to get to where you want to be; it might even point in a direction you hadn’t anticipated.

Don’t worry. You have plenty of time to explore. (It’s even okay if you don’t have a finished story on November 30, but now that I’ve said that, try not to think about it again until at least the 25th.)

Ultimately, though, try not to look at NaNoWriMo as a vacation from your ordinary life. What if you saw this as an opportunity to rebuild your life, starting with one small section? What if you took the attitudes that you cultivate during your writing practice—the pursuit of what truly matters to you, the effort to look at what you’re doing honestly and mindfully, the commitment to ongoing development—and began to recognize how you can apply them to other aspects of your life as well?

Even if that doesn’t lead to a life where your writing practice is able to generate a sustaining livelihood, that level of integration is still a goal worth pursuing.

One quick additional note, for those who may be new to this newsletter, on taking Lewis Richmond’s metaphor for “the spiritual path” and applying it to a writing practice. As folks who’ve been reading “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” for a while can tell you, I do see a steady writing practice as a means of… well, you could call it spiritual development, or personal improvement, or philosophical training. The overall theme is that, as we write, we learn more about who we want to be and the values by which we want to live our lives, and ideally we find that we can’t confine that process of discovery to the page.

As I talk about this, I use philosophical and spiritual touchstones with which I’m familiar, gleaned from my own pursuits, but I’ve generally striven to avoid evangelizing for any particular spiritual tradition, partly because I know that’s not what you signed up for and partly because I’m still sorting out many things myself. But the realms of philosophy and spirituality do provide a useful framework for talking about what a writing practice can do for our lives, and so I’ll continue drawing upon sources like Lewis Richmond (a Buddhist) or Thomas Merton (a Catholic monk) in ways that I hope will be inviting to anyone who might be reading. If you have any thoughts, go ahead and email me, or leave a comment on the website if you can!