Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and he wanted to pop in to talk about those New Year’s Resolutions you might have — especially the ones that might be waning at this point in the new year.
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One day a year or so ago, I was going through some old papers, and I discovered a notecard with my 2003 New Year’s resolutions on it. The depressing thing was that I hadn’t carried out any of the resolutions in the last 15 years: I hadn’t developed a regular meditation practice, I didn’t exercise regularly, and I’d not only failed to lose 5 pounds, I’d gained 5 pounds.
I’m not alone in living a life of good intentions and unfilled resolutions. Approximately 80% of those who join a gym in January with the aim of getting fit stop going by February. My guess is that a similar stat might apply to those who resolve to develop a year-round writing habit.
I have a theory: I think most people give up on their resolutions because they focus too much on the uncomfortableness of the what they aspire to do—whether it’s sweating on a stationary bike or over their laptop—instead of focusing on the why they want to do it. Think about it. Why should you wake up and write when you could immerse yourself in endless entertainments literally available at your fingertips? Why not just binge watch shows on Netflix and eat handfuls of gummie bears?
A few years ago, I met a famous novelist at a conference. He’d sold millions of books. It seemed like he published a new book every time the wind changed direction. As we talked about NaNoWriMo, though, he asked me, “How many novels does the world need, anyway? Why should so many people write?”
I sometimes twitch with churlishness when I hear questions like this. Somewhere within the question, I hear a gate crashing down on people’s creativity. I see a sign, “Don’t presume to call yourself a writer.” I feel a judgment: Why write a novel unless it’s going to get published and made into a product to be purchased and consumed? Why write a novel if you’re not going to make money from it?
The question disregards the spirit that has guided every writer since the beginning of time: the need to create just for the sake of creating. The need to shape the world, see through others’ eyes, tame reality, find oneself, lose oneself—to touch what is magical, astonishing, and wondrous; to exult the possible, to make the strange obvious and the obvious strange. And much more. This need is what we need to remember every day in order to show up at our writing gym and write the story that is demanding to be told.
Such questions dog every writer, though, and they too often smother their creative impulse and prevent them from showing up. In fact, each year I talk to hundreds of people who have perfected a peculiar and disturbing art: the art of telling themselves why they can’t jump in and write the novel of their dreams.
“I’ve never taken any classes. I don’t have an MFA.”
“I’m not a real writer. Other people are real writers.”
Or, worst of all, they say, “I’m not a creative type.”
I call this the “other syndrome” — as in “other people do this, but not me.”
We’ve all been there, right? We open up the pages of a magazine, and we read a profile of a magnificently cloaked and coiffed artistic being—a twirling scarf, moody eyes, locks of hair falling over a pensive brow (an artistic version of that super fit creature with the rippling abs at the gym who makes us feel inadequate). We read the witticisms and wisdom the celebrated artistic being dispenses while drinking a bottle of wine with a reporter one afternoon in a hamlet in Italy. The artistic being tells of creative challenges and victories achieved. There’s a joke about a movie deal that fell through, and then the one that won an Oscar. There’s talk about a recently published book, the one that called to them and gave them artistic fulfillment like no other book ever had.
And, as we sit in our house that is so very far from Italy, and we look across the kitchen, over the dishes on the counter, to the cheap bottle of wine from Safeway, and the phone rings with a call from a telemarketer, just as a bill slides off the stack of bills, we tell ourselves, “Other people are writers. Other people get the good fortune to have been born with a twirling scarf around their neck. Other people get to traipse through Italy to find a fantastic novel calling them. Other people get to be who they want to be—whether it’s through family connections, blessed luck, or natural talent. But that’s not me. That’s other people.”
And you know what, we’re right. The life of an artist is for others — because we just said so, and in saying so, we make it true.
But here’s the rub. Even after negating our creative potential, we’re bound to wake up the next day to a tickle of an idea dancing in a far corner of our mind, a memory that is trying to push a door open, a strange other world that is calling us. We wash those dishes, we pay that stack of bills, we drink that cheap bottle of wine, but we know there’s something else—we know there’s something more.
And there is something more. There’s the creative life. You don’t need a certificate for it, you don’t need to apply to do it, you don’t even need to ask permission to do it. You just have to claim it—and claim it every day by showing up to do it.
It’s not easy, of course. There will be naysayers, those people who think it’s silly or trivial to be a “creative type”, those who think it’s audacious and pretentious for you to write a novel, those who think you can’t do it because you lack the qualifications and the training. Unfortunately, because humans are social beings by design, we tend to measure our worth according to the opinions of others. Opinions that come from who knows where, but most likely others’ own insecurities, their need for you not to fulfill yourself—because if you fulfill yourself, you might make them feel small.
The arts don’t belong to a chosen few, though. Quite the opposite: every one of us is chosen to be a creator by virtue of being human. If you’re not convinced of this, just step into any preschool and observe the unbridled creative energy of kids as they immerse themselves in fingerpainting, telling wild stories, banging on drums, and dancing just to dance. They’re creative types because they breathe.
So, when I’m asked what happens to all of those novels—as if they only matter if something happens to them beyond the wonderfulness of their creation—I always see a world of writers with an unquenchable thirst for storytelling. Nearly 500,000 people, including 150,000 kids and teens, participate in National Novel Writing Month each year. They write because humans are wired to make meaning of the world through stories. They write because stories are the vehicles that we navigate the world with.
You’re a writer because you write. There’s no other definition. Your task as a human being is to find that maker within, to decide that you’re not “other,” you’re a creator. That impetus is what makes life meaningful. After food, shelter, and love, I believe it’s what we need most in life.
So, please, if one of your resolutions is to develop a writing habit this year — to be a writer! — think about your why. Your why will help you wake up early or stay up late to put words on the page. It will help you slay naysayers and elbow aside negativity coming from your Inner Editor. It will push you forward to “the end,” and then onward to your next story. Those mythical “other people” aren’t writers. You are. It all starts with that simple belief.
Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and co-founder of 100 Word Story. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, where portions of this essay originally appeared.