NaNoWriMo -- Thank God It’s Over Party!Sand Pilarski - firstname.lastname@example.org
"Look for a yellow door" the directions read, and there the yellow door was, just where they said we'd find it on Mission Boulevard in San Francisco. Bernie and I were on an early afternoon scout on December 1st to determine the location of the "Thank God It's Over Party" for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which would-be novelists pledge to hammer out 50,000 words of fiction in the 30 days of November) before the party was to begin at 8pm that night. We stared at the yellow door as we drove past, and then rounded the block to see if we could determine why there were three police cars congregated in the nearest intersection. As we looked at the grubby, crowded sidewalks, the graffiti, the steel barred gates on the front windows of businesses, the utter lack of parking, and not to forget to mention, the rather beaten-up appearance of the yellow door itself, we pondered whether or not discretion was indeed the better part of valor, and should we try this or just quietly return to our safe little suburb in the Valley. Had the party's address been in a similar-looking neighborhood in Stockton, or even Modesto, we would most likely have passed on this adventure. But for the rest of the afternoon, I kept telling myself, "This is San Francisco, the Mission District, where people actually live and work and shop and come home again at night to eat dinner. We'll be fine. Besides, Chris Baty would never put novelists in danger."
When we returned that evening, there were a surprising number of parking spaces not far from the party apartment (situated above a book store) where we faced the daunting prospect of meeting strangers in that strange land. The sidewalks had cleared of crowds, the storefronts were closed. We rang the doorbell. A voice said over an intercom,"Yes?"
I answered with a question, "NaNoWriMo Decompression Party here?"
"No," said the voice, causing us to look at one another in astonishment. "Ohhh, yeah, I guess so. Come on up." Very funny.
We climbed stairs past the yellow door to a third floor apartment that was nearly as big as a whole house. Plastic inflatable palm trees and beach balls were scattered about the sparsely furnished front room, and strings of white Christmas lights were strung between the pillars of the room, with pages of excerpts from November novels hung from them by clothespins. I clipped my two pages of excerpt to the light-line and began meeting people who write books.
Of the fifty or sixty people who attended the TGIO party, occupations when not writing ranged from engineers and tech writers to composers and computer gurus, from students to retired persons to simply self-described 'wage-earners'. Most of the partygoers seemed to be San Francisco and Oakland residents, but some came from as far away as San Jose, Modesto, and the Sacramento vicinity.
To help us over the hurdle of greeting each other, the party planners provided crinkly leis with questionnaire-nametags attached. Below our names we circled items on a list of 65 things that might be featured in our novels: "Body parts, Jimson weed, Pirates," the list included. "Squirrels, Sex, Men without hair. Vampires. Pumice. Explosions." Over beers and sodas, we asked one another,"How did you feel when you hit 25 thousand words? Didn't it feel easy when the word count rose to 42 thousand and you knew you'd make it? Are you going to write another novel next November?"
In the middle room of the lofty-ceilinged apartment was a corner dedicated to the reading of novel excerpts by their authors. A spotlight and a microphone formed a miniature stage, with the audience seated on the floor and leaning on walls to listen as raptly as preschoolers at story hour in the public library. We listened to a long explicitly sexual excerpt, and one in which a new recruit to the army learns about the language of sergeants. A young woman blushed as she performed with broad gestures as well as read her excerpt of a fantasy with magicians. Applause! Applause!
From all the styles of writing, from first person autobiographical treatment of an eviction to a wry tongue-in-cheek mode about sentient soap, one thing above all was evident: all those partying crazies who were celebrating the end of National Novel Writing Month were storytellers. Instead of a village bonfire, their venue was likely a computer screen with links to the Internet, but there at that gathering were one incredible bunch of tale-tellers who thirty days before decided, "I have this story that wants told," or "There's this book I've been meaning to write," or "I wonder if I have 50,000 words in my head that could form any coherent thought?"
Are all the stories good? No. Are all the authors good? No. Will any of them ever get published and become bestsellers? Who knows? The motto of NaNoWriMo is "No plot? No problem!" and the sole purpose and beauty of it is to break down the walls of expectation and fear and just write like a waterfall of words from the mind and heart and hand. Not aiming for publication, but rather just for the joy of being able to say "I wrote a book."
14,833 of us signed up to take the challenge of writing in November of 2002. Through the website, www.nanowrimo.org , a number of would-be NaNovelists posted messages on the site's Forums. A very large number of messages. Try 78,672 of them to date. At the TGIO Party, I met some of the message posters, whose NaNo names had become more familiar to me than my suburban neighbors. "Wordweaver!" I cried as I pumped her hand with elation. "And you're Mootmom, my God it's good to meet you! SF Lore? You're SF? Wow!" In a way I felt like I was meeting, say, favorite comic book characters in real life. I'd seen their words in the posted messages, and those were charming cariacatures, but here they were, in person, faces and smiles finally united with names.
And then we got to meet the superhero himself, Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo.
First I think you have to understand the NaNo phenomenon. In 1999, Chris came up with the idea of tackling the very scary concept of writing a novel head on. Leave yourself no time to worry about whether or not the story is good, just grab your keyboard and write like you only have November in which to come up with 50,000 words of tale-telling. Twenty of his friends and associates pledged to give it a try. In 2000, the jolly crew of NaNovelists numbered 140. Last year, along with Josh Brown and Alexandra Queen of the Filthy Pikers, I piled into the mix along with over 5000 others. This year the nearly 15,000 maniacs were from all over the world, teenagers to senior citizens, lawyers, doctors, assembly-line workers -- even some honest to goodness writers. Any way you look at NaNoWriMo, those statistics add up to one very impressive idea.
I had some trepidation about actually meeting Chris Baty, of being ushered into his august presence to bend a knee and stammer "G-gahhhh..." in awe and wonder. However, the pleasant truth is that he really is a superhero, capable of putting people at ease in a single sentence and making them -- me included -- feel as though what one might say is worth listening to. Bernie and I had the great pleasure of chatting with Chris about his astonishment about the overwhelming size of the movement, as well as his concerns for the needs of the first-time novelists as opposed to those who have two or three books under their belts. And even though the man is perhaps twice as tall as I am, I was not the least intimidated. Chris has a knack for drawing people into feeling a partnership of creativity. AND a prodigious memory. After a couple introductory sentences, he nodded and said to me, "Yes, you're with the Filthy Pikers, right?"
Needless to say, I nearly fell down with surprise and delight. Chris Baty knows that there are Filthy Pikers? "Wow" became the word of the day.
"Thank God It's Over," we said, but what we really meant was, "Look at us! We're novelists!" To the roaring beat of the music and the shimmer of white Christmas lights, we greeted as many other elated writers as we could, and read as many excerpts from novels as we could, and reveled in the presence of an unbelievably vast well of creativity and good will.
Because of the long drive back to the Valley, we had to leave the party before the exciting arrival of more police cars on the street outside and the even more thrilling power outage during the event that we heard about days later.
I hope to keep in touch with the people I met in person that night. And I came away from that place with a healthy sense of closure on the madness of novel-writing November and a renewed desire to write something more of the stories that flit through my consciousness.
Bernie and I walked down the two flights of stairs and closed the door behind us. Far from being the scary neighborhood it had been three hours before, this block of Mission Boulevard was now a place where a part of us resided, and the yellow door -- a gateway to a world of friends.
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