Well, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this month for the first time, and I have to say that it has done wonders for my creatively stuck but deadline-driven self. I highly recommend it for any fiction writer who has writing work they know they need to do and simply haven’t been able to prioritize it. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words – a respectable length for a novel’s first draft – in 30 days. I’ve taken away at least two lessons in the first 10 days (the first of many, I’m sure):

1. The creative impulse of writing and the meticulous nature of editing can fully live and even thrive in the same person. You just have to keep these two impulses completely separate.  When your primary goal is to get 50,000 words out in 30 days, quantity, not quality, counts. I’ve found that I have to just keep writing through the plot, even if the tangents seem to make no sense and even if I used the totally wrong tense back there, if I am to meet this goal. Here’s a fun & frivolous video from the NaNoWriMo site on trashing your inner editor.

Now, this is obviously not about trashing editing entirely, just viewing the two capabilities as a light switch – when one is turned on, that inherently means the other is off. Otherwise the same crackling noise you hear when a light switch is hung in the middle will happen to your brain. Which leads to learning #2:

2. Editing is just as vital to the writing process as the writing itself.  As much as editors may assert the value of editing, no one recognizes their value more than writers who really care about their work – not just what their work says about THEM. Receiving good editing requires killing your inner narcissist. This may seem embarrassingly obvious, but this is as difficult to do as parents learning to personally separate from their children. If you’re called into a teacher conference with your son’s principal after he was caught cheating on a test, only the most narcissistic parent would blame the principal and the school and try to cover for her son. (Well, OK, we would all think this, but only the most narcisstic would actually do it.) A parent who really cared about her son and wanted him to be an independent and thriving adult would (until proven otherwise) give the principal and teachers the benefit of the doubt, and would do whatever it took to help her son change for the better. The same is true for writing. Otherwise we’ll have all these clingy, manipulative, perpetually adolescent stories sticking to us, because we’re as unable to let go as they are. When what we really need are independent, thriving entities capable of moving freely about in the world and having their own good and independent effect, as all great stories do. In fact, as much as we need our inner editor after we finish the plot line of our manuscript (at the very least, to save us from utter embarrassment during the workshop), we need that external editor even more to help us separate, already.

I think we guard ourselves from editors because, let’s face it, editors can be holier-than-thou perfectionists, judging our work against the annals of the Western canon. I know this because I am one. When really, that’s not why we write. (See a fantastic profile about how Poetry editor Christian Wiman broke through to writing his own authentic poetry collection in the print version of Poets & Writers this month.) Nonfiction writers have a much easier time dissociating themselves from their books, because they want to get the ideas right – sharing direct ideas with readers who can benefit from them practically is just a simpler proposition than fiction writing. Why do we write fiction, anyway? To get into Norton’s after we die? Hopefully fiction writers write because there’s no other way to give voice to this particular and complex truth that won’t feel complete until it’s expressed, and that the world probably needs to hear just as much as nonfiction. All writing needs to be shared – that’ s how it lives, right? So the best place to first share your work – the first external editing pass you should get – is from a fellow writer. The gentlest way to separate and establish objectivity is with lots of affirmation of what IS working. When you’re struggling with your children, would you rather talk to a Ed.D. with no children, or to a fellow parent? Writers understand how personal this is, and they’re a lot more apt to name the strengths and just enter into the frivolous and emotional parts of your book without criticism. They’re more apt to get it. Which is why I’ve loved being associated with local poetry and creative writing centers – we can share our work to be enjoyed, not criticized. And if any feedback comes, it’s usually couched in understanding. When I’m done with this novel, I’ll definitely be workshopping it – with other writers first. Then I’ll have the confidence to receive the cold, hard, marketable truth from professional editors and agents – whom I will be glad to hire precisely because at that point, when I believe in the intrinsic value of my work, I can be objective enough to hear it and accept it and enable them to do their job.

To come full circle: If the editor – either inner or outer – gets involved at the wrong stage – the book’s over before it begins. Which is why a full outline for this novel sat on my computer for so long – I couldn’t turn off my editor brain to just write through the thing. I’m pleased to say I’ve finally learned how to turn it off appropriately, and as of today my word count is on target – 17,525. So I’m glad I finally submitted to someone else’s whip-cracking – not an editor’s, but a writer’s.