November is National Novel Writing Month, known in the writing world as NaNoWriMo. Tons of people, professional writers and hobby writers alike, burrow down in beds of words for one month – 30 days – and ideally emerge with a complete draft of a novel. Whew. That’s a lot of work, folks.
A grad school friend of mine is participating in this (you can learn more or get involved at www.nanowrimo.org), and she posted her progress yesterday on Facebook. I asked her what she was writing about, and she responded with the most compelling, gripping plot line. (I won’t share here, because it is her story, not mine!)
I was jealous. “Holy cow,” I commented. “You have a knack for plot. I envy.”
It’s true. As a nonfiction writer and essayist, I excel at description, character development, setting. As an over-thinker, I excel at symbolism and thematic images. But plot? It is my downfall.
Wow, you might say. A writer who has not mastered plot? Perhaps that’s like a chiropractor with a bad back, or a heart surgeon who smokes. I admit, there are areas in my profession where I could improve. But isn’t that true of us all?
I often think my lack of knack for plot (oh, the inadvertent rhyme there – sheesh) is one of the reasons why I choose to write nonfiction. In nonfiction, plot lines are playing out all around me. I don’t have to make up the story. I simply get to re-tell it. As the writer, I get to be the artist and craft the story however I choose, as long as it stays bound by truth.
Here are a couple of other reasons why I write nonfiction. First, there are way too many talented fiction writers out there already. If I added my voice to that mix, it would simply blend into all of the grey and be lost. God did not create me to be a fiction writer. Second, a good ‘ol college professor. During my sophomore year at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, I wrote a cute little story called “Strawberries in Spring” for a fiction class I was taking. I fell in love with the story, for its beautiful language and symbolism. It was a winner, I was sure. An “A.”
I think my professor gave me a B- on the assignment. So much had I invested in those few pages of work, I asked to meet with him after class. I wanted to know why he didn’t love it as much as I did.
Quite simply, he said, “It lacks plot. There is no story here.”
That stuck. He was honest, and it felt to me at the time, brutal. That was good. It was an important lesson. We all excel at some things, not at others. While I still love that story for its language and symbolism, I see what he was saying. There was no action, no real meat of conflict taking place. Therefore, the story was incomplete.
I applaud all of the writers and amateurs out there who are undertaking NaNoWriMo this month. I especially stand behind my grad school friend, because I can’t wait to see what she produces out of that rocking idea she has. I hope she’ll share it with me when she’s ready.
As for me, I am going to stick to what I have found to be my own true passion: seeking to understand people and their real plights, in all of their complexity and beauty, and paint portraits with words that aim to make sense of all of our very real struggles and triumphs.
*What project are you currently working on? What one thing are you struggling with the most on it?