At the beginning of the month I blogged about my foray into the world of Nanowrimo, an organization of individuals with a singular purpose: to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. My reasons for joining were twofold. The first was as a challenge to myself, to see if I could in fact write consistenly enough over the course of a month to churn out a story roughly the length, although not the quality, of The Great Gatsby.
The second aspect of my little experiment was of a more social bent. I was interested in exploring the idea of social capital, the measure of 'connectedness' amongst people. Social scientists examining a number of indicators have concluded that the social capital of Americans has been steadily declining since the 1950's. Fewer people are joining clubs and teams, participating in professional or neighborhood groups, volunteering their time, or simply stopping by the neighbor's for a visit. Additionally, and perhaps most troublingly, the percentage of people who respond positively to the question 'in general, do you trust most people' is down to about 32% from a 1960's level of around 60%.
There are a number of possible explanations for these trends and it is probably impossible to point to one thing as the primary cause. But there is little doubt that the rise of technology such as televisions, the personal computer, and the Internet has a damning correlation with the fall in levels of social capital. While the percentage of people who join social clubs falls, the amou
nt of time the average American spends watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing video games is rising. Studies of online 'social' activities, like internet gaming or cards, even show that the participants pay more attention to the game itself and make little use of the chat feature.
Of course, exploring falling levels of social interaction by joining an online writing
community doesn't exactly meet the rigorous standards of the scientific method. But what I was interested in was not the actual writing itself but the effect the social bonds had on the participants. One of things that helps keep the Nanowrimo writers going is the reinforcement and support offered by the numerous other people participating and going through the same type of travails. Surely with a dedicated group of your friends in your corner egging you on, writing 50,000 words wouldn't be much of a challenge.
With that mindset, I assembled a group of friends and coworkers and convinced them to join Nanowrimo and take up the challenge (I also relearned the lesson of how reluctant people are to join things--only about half of the people I solicited took up the invite). I reassured all of them at the outset that we'd all be in each other's corner, encouraging each other's writing and pushing each other to finish line. The month got off to a good start, as the seven of us exploited the early excitement of the task to pick the genres of our novels, come up with titles, and get cranking away. Trashtalking ensued, leading to some goodnatured bets on final word counts and promises of evenings spent commiserating at a local watering hole. I finished the first week with 5,932 words, not a bad total but well off the pace (at 1667 words a day, I should have been at 11669 by the end of the first week). And only one member of the group had failed to even write anything.
According to Chris Baty, one of the founders of Nanowrimo, the second week of the competition is the toughest. It is during this week that participants hit that "fabled Week Two Wall---a low-point of energy, enthusiasm, and joie de novel that strikes most NaNoWriMo participants between days 7 and 14." Indeed, my word count remained flat for four straight days. Plans for possible meetings and writing in sessions led to naught. I finished the week at 9,456 words, not even a fifth of a way to the total. Three other participants were so far behind the pace they finished the week with fewer than 5,000 words, virtually dooming them. It was not looking good.
I decided to try to kick things into high gear for the third week. I urged, I cajoled, I begged, I pleaded. Anything to try to get my fellow nanowrimo'ers to work on their floundering word counts. Unfortunately, for the most part my efforts fell on deaf ears. By this point in the month, four of the original seven participants were finished. One never wrote another word after the beginning of the third week. I was still chugging along in second place, trying to stoke the competitive fires to drive me into the lead. By the 21st, I was at 15, 809 words and more than 4,000 words behind the leader. There were nine days left in the month and I still had almost 35,000 words to go. And Thanksgiving was looming, a writing-killer if there ever was o
Most of the other participants looked at the upcoming four day weekend as a golden opportunity, the chance to put there heads down, type and get back into the game. The optimism was apparent in the renewed chatter amongst the group. "Wait to you see my word count after the holidays" was the popular refrain, even from the members dead last in word count. I, however, was not so sanguine about the possibiliy of a massive holiday word rush. As an amateur student of human nature, I figured that it would be all too easy to look at that great empty expanse of ninety-six hours and keep thinking that I would write right after dinner, right after this nap, right after this football game's over. There was no way I was banking that coming out of that week that I, nor any of my fellow participants, would be anywhere close to being on target for 50,000 words. Lo and behold, I surged into the lead with 30,021 words, about 6,000 words more than my nearest challenger, who wouldn't write another word.
That left me with two days in the month and a moment of truth. I could pack it in, pat myself on the back for at least beating the other six in my cohort, and settle with the knowledge that I gave it my best and fell short, as did roughly 80% of the other Nanowrimo participants. Or I could make good on my promise to myself and my friends to do what I said I would do 28 days ago. Once I considered the situation in those terms, the decision was clear. I was going to finish. To me, it was a symbolic gesture. I told everyone around me that I was going to do something, an action that creates an implicit trust, the cornerstone of social capital. So I would finish. Not coincidently, in my opinion, by this point, not only had everyone pretty much packed it in, but only one of my friends was even offering me any encouragement; the rest had melted away.
Over the course of 36 grueling hours that included only about four hours of sleep, I wrote those 20,000 words. I finished the last words at 11:30pm, a mere 30 minutes before the deadline. And it was a great feeling, worth it to me because I could say that I followed through on the promise I had made and perhaps contributed in a miniscule way to the overall level of trust in the world. On December first, the New York Nanowrimo chapter had a party to celebrate the end of the experience. I extended an invitation to my vanquised comrades to join me to reminisce and rejoice in the efforts we'd made. I guess other things had come up for them, though. Alas, I went to the party alone.