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The Fad Diet Mentality of NaNoWriMo October 31, 2021

Starting in October of every year, the question pops up on every online space related to writing: "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" Public libraries schedule NaNo events. AuthorTubers make videos with tips for how to succeed in NaNo. There's a universal understanding that NaNoWriMo is a good thing, and criticizing it makes you a jerk who enjoys "pissing in other people's cornflakes," as I once saw proclaimed in the comments of a blog post about the wonders of NaNo.

So why do I persist in ruining a fun program that helps people follow their dreams? Because it's not actually a fun program. NaNoWriMo is a toxic program that teaches people to hate writing and themselves.

I grew up in the days when the standard of beauty was size zero. Journalists gleefully chronicled the "weight problems" of svelte celebrities like Kate Winslet, Liv Tyler, and Hilary Duff. Cruel reality shows like The Biggest Loser dressed large people in skin-tight underwear for millions to gawk at, then tortured them with extreme diet and exercise regimens overseen by celebrity trainers who screamed in their lazy, disgusting faces until they broke down sobbing for the cameras.

Every year a new fad diet was all the rage. Grapefruit, Atkins, South Beach, "cleanses" of lemon juice with cayenne pepper. These types of diets promised that if you could endure the pain of starvation for a short while, you'd be thin and pretty forever.

Of course, dieting doesn't work and is ultimately damaging to your health. The only way to change your body long-term is to form permanent habits that don't make you miserable. Regular moderate exercise, fruits and veggies, plenty of water and sleep...healthy habits are quite simple and boring. They're not alluring like the programs that promise instant success and accolades.

NaNoWriMo encourages the fad diet mentality towards writing. People join because they've always wanted to write a novel, and they believe if they can just endure the pain of writing 1,500 to 2,000 words a day for one month, they'll become Sara Gruen. As the About NaNoWriMo page enthuses, "hundreds of thousands of people around the world...enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists."

But just like the Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days fads, the NaNo Diet doesn't work. Statistics from 1999 to the present show only 10-20% of participants complete the "challenge" each year. I'm willing to bet most of those "winners" are novelists already, who are accustomed to plotting out books and writing a chapter a day. They're not the school teachers and mechanics lured by the promise that if they cut themselves off from their families and friends for the month of November, glue their butts to a chair, and keep typing whether they want to or not, a great book will magically appear.

When I worked in a college library a couple of years ago, I spoke to a student who was doing NaNoWriMo. They were excited about reaching 20,000 words. I said, "Cool! What's your book about?" They answered, "Oh, I don't know yet. How it works is you just have to keep writing every day, and the book will take shape naturally. I'm concentrating on reaching my word count goals and seeing where it goes."

I'm sorry (not sorry) to piss in anyone's cornflakes, but that's not crafting a novel. That's brainstorming for 100+ hours. What you'll end up with is not a book, but a 50,000-word journal entry with a few ideas that could maybe be a book in the future, if you start over with a plan and a notion of what you want to accomplish.

However, the low completion statistics and unsalvageable "novels" that result from the challenge are not the most significant problems with NaNoWriMo. My main issue with both diet culture and NaNoWriMo culture is the lasting psychological harm they inflict.

If you want to teach children to appreciate music, you wouldn't tell them, "This month, we're going to practice piano for four hours every day. Whether you like it or not, you're going to sit down and keep hitting those keys until you love it." Within a week those children would despise the sound of the piano, and they'd never willingly touch a musical instrument again.

Or if you want to incorporate exercise as a part of your daily life, the worst way to do it is to say, "Starting tomorrow, I'll wake up at 5 am and run three miles every morning, no matter how tired I am and how much I hate running. I'll post my miles on Facebook to hold myself accountable, so if I give up everyone will know how lazy and worthless I am."

I can tell you from my disordered eating days that "accountability" is a euphemism for "publicly shaming myself into doing something my body and mind are telling me to avoid." NaNo participants posting and comparing their word counts reminds me strongly of the women like me who posted their daily calorie counts and monthly pounds lost on the internet for "accountability." It was a form of self-flagellation dressed up as motivation.

The real prize for dieting isn't a pair of sexy gams that fit in size-four skinny jeans, but a long-term loss of self-esteem that is very difficult to build up again. You learn to think of the number on the scale as an inverse measure of your worth as a human being. You learn that cooking and eating meals is stressful and guilt-ridden, and the tasty foods you enjoy are an evil "temptation," and there must be something essentially wrong with you because you failed to endure hunger long enough to see "results." If only you had more discipline and stronger will-power, you'd be as beautiful as the other women posting celebratory bikini pics after losing twenty pounds for summer.

Similarly, the structure of NaNoWriMo does not nurture a life-long love of storytelling. It's a fool-proof recipe for burnout.

I can write a 3,000-word chapter on a weekend. A professional writer who already has 4-8 hours a day carved out for writing could complete a first draft in a month with a little extra effort, which might be why so many AuthorTubers don't see any problem with NaNoWriMo. But if I attempted to crank out that many words every day with my full-time job, like those mythical school teachers and mechanics, I'd have a complete psychological breakdown. By day seven I'd be puddled on the floor, pounding the carpet and wailing like a Sim with their Needs bars for Energy, Social, Fun, and Environment all stuck in the red.

The only way for a person who doesn't write full-time to "win" this challenge is to write a bunch of nonsense without critical evaluation, like that student at my former library. When they see the inevitably terrible results, they're likely to believe they have no talent and no future in creative writing. Drafting a novel is discouraging and humbling enough when you can pace yourself and do your best. Doing it under duress is a great way to destroy your self-esteem.

Though NaNoWriMo professes to provide encouragement for writers, it actually teaches people that writing isn't an activity we do willingly because it has intrinsic rewards, but something unpleasant we force ourselves to do on the threat of humiliation.

If you enjoy storytelling, you'll do it regardless of the date on the calendar or your progress towards an arbitrary word count. You'll read a lot, and practice regularly, and improve your skills over time. You'll come up with a lot of ideas for stories that don't work out, but some that do, and you probably won't find your groove until you're a few books in.

If the idea of writing continuously for years makes you balk, and it's a lot more appealing to "get it done" in thirty days of NaNoWriMo, you probably don't enjoy writing. And if you don't enjoy it, don't do it. Seriously. Go try other activities that are fun for you. The vast majority of novelists don't get extrinsic rewards like fame, money, or critical acclaim. The only logical reason to write is because you want to.


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