Why I'm proud I failed NaNoWriMo 2021
I had high hopes for this year's NaNoWriMo. My first official win was the year I drafted book one of the Resonance Saga, and the previous two years I sailed smoothly to 50k on each of the sequels. I had convinced myself that what made a successful NaNoWriMo was the project. Those corpses of old projects that littered my NaNo history were evidence that I hadn't found my niche yet. I hadn't figured out what I wanted to write, and so I couldn't sustain the effort for 30 whole days.
And this year's project? Oh it was good. It was one of those projects that hits like a lightning strike. It came alive in my head all at once, although the details are still moving around, finding their perfect places. I had an outline, I had a clear theme. I had more than enough motivation.
This year was going to be easy.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. But I've always placed a lot of pride in my ability to set goals for myself and then achieve them. I can't escape my midwestern upbringing, my nose-to-the-grindstone attitude. So I made those plans anyway.
My dad once told me that if you want something done well and on time, you give it to a busy person. Well, I'm a busy person. So when I want something done well and on time, guess who does it?
But the last few years have made me re-evaluate some of my attitudes towards work and in particular over-work. I know I'm not the only one going through this -- we're approaching two years with the background panic of a pandemic that we can't quite get under control, of the constant uncertainty and the continued grinding of the capitalist gears. In academia, the posts early on were rampant: we should all be grateful for the pandemic--it's how Isaac Newton came up with calculus, after all! I won't get into the criticisms of these various posts, of how they both encourage extremely unhealthy behavior and manage to drip privilege at the same time, of how they utterly miscalculate the uneven burdens of this pandemic. That's already been done, and extremely well, by others. But even though those critiques have been made, the attitude still lurks under the surface (and in some places, it doesn't even bother to hide): that we should be able to just put our heads down and get our work done. That we shouldn't let anything slow us down.
Even before the pandemic, I was already starting to reassess my priorities. Graduate school burned me out. I limped to the finish, gasping through my zoom dissertation defense right around the time everyone was saying the lockdowns would end in about two weeks. Maybe four. I already knew, even before I understood that we were in for a long, slow struggle, that I didn't want to live as I had in graduate school.
I wanted to actually live.
I shifted my job searches, focusing on small liberal arts colleges where I could actually be more fully myself, where the people I talked to had values that aligned with my own. I got one of those jobs, and I started it this fall, and I have been deliriously happy ever since.
But I apparently didn't get the memo about overwork. As happy as I am, the first semester as faculty is no joke. I've worked more hours per week this fall than I have since my first year of graduate school. I've done this intentionally, because it matters to me that my students--who are all bearing the burden of returning to campus after a year and a half away, to expectations that have really not adjusted to take into account the burnout of the last year, to constant fear of outbreaks, and to a pre-existing culture of stress and overwork that has led to a mental health crisis at colleges across the nation--know that I am here for them. That I'm in this fight with them. That if they give me their best effort, I will meet them where they are and help them get through to the end.
I don't regret this at all.
But maybe I should have considered my own energy levels when I signed up to write 50,000 words in November, the busiest part of the semester.
I made it, in the end, to just over 15,000 words. The first 15,000 words in my new project, a gothic horror that shares absolutely nothing with the trilogy I've spent the last decade of my life on, aside from the inevitable thematic questions that have sunk themselves into me and won't let go. I'm building a new world, birthing new characters, exploring new ideas. It's a heck of a lot of work.
If you hold my 15,000 words up to the goal of 50k--if you hold it up to the 60k, 70k, even 100k that some people cranked out this month--it looks bad. It looks like a failure. And it is, in a way. I set a goal, and I failed to achieve it. But as I tell my students repeatedly: failure is an opportunity. I've learned the most important lessons from failure. I've grown the most as a person as a result of failures. And I've found my joy because I've failed at things and been forced to re-evaluate.
My gothic novel still lives. I sat down this morning and wrote some ideas down that came to me last night. I just need some time to rest, to refill the well. I've got some pleasure reading lined up for the weeks after the semester ends, and I'm going to actually enjoy it. And I will keep drafting, even if it's just a slow drip of words, because this story wants to see the light of day. And if I can't meet an arbitrary deadline, so be it. It's not all-or-nothing. This book won't join the corpses of other failed NaNoWriMo projects just because I didn't get 50k in November. I'm allowed to choose the pace at which I work. I'm allowed to rest.
So I'm damn proud of that 35,000 words worth of failure. I'm proud because I can look at it and be okay. I used to be bad at failing. I used to take it really personally. I used to tell myself that failure meant there was something fundamentally wrong with me. But failure is just a message that something needs to change. And I'm finally learning to read that writing on the wall instead of scrawl mean words to myself over top of it.
I'm proud because I'm finally learning to listen to myself. To see failure as an opportunity for growth, as a message from my body and my heart to that little pocket of my brain that's always screaming at me to work harder. It's a message that says life is far more complicated than we like to pretend it is, and that success isn't about getting everything right. It's about choosing to live according to what matters, even when that choice looks an awful lot like failure.
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Casey E. Berger
Author of the Resonance Saga. Code in my head, words in my heart, music in my soul. Wanderer of the woods and the world.