Reading & Literacy

Write Away

By Laura Donnelly — December 22, 2006 3 min read
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—Matt Collins

BRIC ARCHIVE

Chris Cheshire has been a stay-at-home mother, an artist, and a Web site editor. Now she’s a 7th grade language arts teacher in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. But what she’s always wanted to do is write a novel—specifically, a cross between history and horror that she calls “vampire fiction.”

A full teaching load at Shelburne Middle School, though, made it difficult to find time to write. That’s why National Novel Writing Month appealed to her. Sure, she would have to work furiously to finish a 50,000-word novel in only 30 days. But without that looming deadline some other priority might push her writing to the proverbial back burner.

“It’s really inspiring just to have [a novel] and know that you’ve done it,” Cheshire says.

National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo by enthusiasts) takes place each November. It’s become something of an Internet phenomenon in the eight years since 21 San Francisco Bay-area writers got together to see if they could each complete a 50,000-word book in a month. It turned out that they could—if they focused on quantity over quality. “I had seen time and again the miracles that deadlines work on writers,” says Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo’s program director and one of its originators. “The impossible became possible as long as you had a deadline.”

By 2000, the event had its own Web site and 140 wannabe novelists. Five years later, the number of participating writers had grown to 59,000. Nearly 10,000 of them “won” by producing a verified 50,000 words in 30 days. An active online community sprung up around the event, with forums covering everything from the authenticity of particular plot details to a “NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul” message board for novelists feeling distressed.

Limited-time novel writing has especially appealed to many teachers, who, like Cheshire, face time constraints that make sustained scribbling difficult.

“I’ve always been a believer that if you love to do it, you find a way to make the time,” says Amy Brodbeck, an elementary and middle school music teacher in Ripley, Ohio. Still, progress on her 30-day novel about a boy who wants to be a pirate was slow initially. “On the first day, I only had 693 words, and I couldn’t find more than an hour to sit down and write. The kids told me they didn’t think I was going to make it,” she recalls. Brodbeck posted a paper thermometer outside her classroom so her students could follow her writing progress, and she promised to read them excerpts from the novel when she finished it—or even if she didn’t.

Some teachers use the occasion to jump-start their students’ interest in fiction writing. Susan Midlarsky, who teaches an integrated English/language arts and history class, has worked on a novel the past three Novembers alongside her 5th graders. This year, she decided to edit the 67,000-word manuscript she completed last year while her students at Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, Massachusetts, worked on their own. With Midlarsky’s help, each student set an individual word goal—high enough to be a challenge, but low enough not to overwhelm. She reserved at least 15 minutes of class time each day for novel writing, and many students also joined her for writing time on Tuesday nights at More Than Words, a bookstore in Waltham, Massachusetts, run by and for teenagers.

“It’s a great process—falling in love with writing, finding that you can do more than you thought you could do, finding a fluency in writing without making yourself write ‘well,’” Midlarsky says. And novel writing helps her students get excited about writing in general, she adds. “They want to know: ‘How do you write dialogue?’ ‘How do you spell this?’ When I do grammar lessons, they have something to immediately apply it to. They want their stories to be good!”

That excitement and internal motivation affects the adult writers too. “We hear all the time that our culture is becoming more TV-oriented and we’re passive consumers of culture,” Baty explains. “But here’s this writing contest where the prizes are horrible. You get a certificate that you have to fill out with your own hand, and your name on a Web site. Yet thousands of people want to do it.”

Neither Brodbeck nor Cheshire hit the 50,000-word goal by midnight on November 30th. But it’s not always finishing something that matters most. “It’s important just to do it and get words down,” Cheshire says. Midlarsky, who hopes to eventually publish her novel, says the social aspect of NaNoWriMo keeps bringing her back. “Writing can be a really solitary activity. NaNo provides a community.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher Magazine as Write Away

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