I first attempted NaNoWriMo in 2004. It was the last time I would do so.
I have yet to discuss it here, but I read a lot of fiction.
Nope, sorry; that didn't come out correctly:
I read a LOT of fiction.
Short stories. Novellas. Novels. Ten-volume, epic arcs I return to every three or four years, once my memory softens the details. (I have two of those arcs on my list of faves! And they got official sequels! 😀)
Reading was always one of my favorite pastimes, highly encouraged by my parents. My mom promised me at an early age that, if we were at the mall or a standalone bookstore, she would buy me a book of my choosing. Somehow, when I ended up with the 1982 Chancellor Press edition of The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll, my dad sat next to me in bed every night to read it to me; Phantasmagoria and The Hunting of the Snark remain two of my favorite poems. (The man, bless him, even attempted to make the various adventures of Sylvie and Bruno interesting to a grade-school kid who knew absolutely nothing of satire, academia, or even rural England; those nights, I slept early.)
At some point, they introduced me to Beverly Cleary, and to the concepts of both sequels and shared literary worlds. I devoured those books on the long car rides from the damn-near center of Illinois to my grandparents' homes in south Georgia; I remember my Granny telling me I'd strain my eyes as I sat in the back seat of her car, unwilling to let the encroaching dusk pause the story.
The bookshelves in my childhood homes (yes, "homes"; my mom was a chemical engineer not above relocating the whole household for a better job) were full of fantasy and speculative fiction. Anne McCaffrey, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov; boxed sets of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Le Guin's "Earthsea" novels; multiple years of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine filled multiple shelves. I had so many worlds available to me that, legitimately, I requested and started reading an abridged dictionary to better my comprehension and enjoyment.
Yeah, society had no real understanding of the autism spectrum back then.
Despite all that reading, I rarely wrote.
I was a child of the laissez faire '80s. My mornings and afternoons (even evenings, thanks to The USA Cartoon Express) were full of cartoons. Once discovered, entire days of my life were spent ingesting MTV. I can barely recall a childhood dinner that didn't see the family honing our skills at Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! I knew exactly when and where my favorite – hell, even my least favorite – programs aired.
I spent the requisite time with friends, of course, played baseball (at which I was terrible) and soccer (with slightly more success); I was involved in S̵̨̨̳̞̝̣̗̳̱̬͕͚̤̰̖̊͐͝ͅc̷̲̘̣͉̝̺͆͑̓̅͒̾̃̃̑͜ͅŏ̶̮͕̯͕̤̼͓̬̋̀̇͝u̷̘͇̻͔̱̹̝̺̦͕̭͊̀͗͂͒t̷̡̢̨͓̬͚̖̰͉̼̬̯̥̝͛͋̓̂̈́̈͘i̵̧̡͇̦̦̘̩͖̠̼͔̗͙̝͎̋̃̀͠n̶͈̖̫̹̏͐͆̍̽͜ģ̸͙̟̫͕̫̦̫̔̇̂͌̿͝ at the earliest possible age, was forced to attend various church youth groups. I happily spent time playing my friends' NES games until we got an NES of our own, and my dad (again, bless him) hand-copied the GWBasic code for The Oregon Trail from an oversized softcover volume to the keyboard of our Tandy 1000HX. I remember falling asleep to the sound of cannon fire and crashing waves from Sid Meier's Pirates! – the 1987 original, with its weird-ass CGA color palette.
I read. I watched. I listened. I played. The table was vast, its dishes varied.
I had no need to create; I consumed.
Fast-forward to 2004.
My partner, Virginia, became aware of this event: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. It piqued her interest as both an educator and a lifelong reader herself. There was a website, and a mailing list, and a local meet-up of like-minded hopefuls; there were tools suggested by an entire community of people ready to become novelists. She had her extensive library of beloved titles and her BA in English to back her up; she was in.
Me? I was a freshly-minted, stay-at-home father. I had an idea for a psychological thriller, complete with unreliable narrator. (Was I reading Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun at the time?) I did not have a BA in English to back me up – or anything as useful as, say, a plot outline – but damned if I hadn't read a moderate library's worth of genre fiction, and K'rul knows I had the time. Fuck it! I was in, too.
For, perhaps, a week and a half.
I had absolutely no issue putting words to page. So long as I sat down to write, I hit my daily word count. The issue, as I'm sure many people discover, is that a beginning, an ending, and an ability to string words together – even when those powers combine – do not magically create rich settings, nuanced characters, or an exciting plot.
I found myself writing a lot of dialogue, using interactions to build my characters and move events along. There were very few descriptions, all of them rather terse; I could have the people in my head chat and argue for days, but I didn't see them, could barely tell the potential reader the details of where they lived, what they did. After ten or eleven days' work, I had a steadily growing, but not very interesting collection of fictional conversations and internal monologues. Even worse, I was barely finding my way from point A to points B and C, and had no real idea of what point M might look like.
Writing went from excitement to exercise, and the exercise produced naught but a metaphorical set of rock-hard, ridiculously incongruous traps. (The shoulder muscles, not the things adventurers disarm.)
Surprising no one, I quit.
There's a condition called "aphantasia".
Wikipedia describes it as "the inability to voluntarily create mental images in one's mind", and when the internet began spreading news of Professor Adam Zeman's then-recent study of the condition in 2015, I immediately recognized that I had it.
I've never had the ability to see things in my mind as clearly and vividly as others report. My own experiences are most like outlines thrown from transparency to screen by an overhead projector: a translucent vision of the most general details that works best, somewhat surprisingly, when I have my eyes open. (Can't have a projection without a backlight, after all!)
The discovery was a revelation, like most times we learn that not everyone shares the same cognitive abilities. It lodged in my mind, surfacing to add new context to my memories, even offering a potential explanation for my relative dearth of vivid memories. (Think about your own fondest memory; you can probably see it well enough to relive it, can't you? I can't; when I try, I get a static image at 70-85% transparency, and links to associated references & audio files.)
When I learned I had aphantasia, one particular habit stood out: When reading, I've always skimmed the visual descriptions. I don't care what characters look like; I can't see them. The sweeping grasslands of Tolkien's Rohan? The deep tunnels in which Harlan Ellison's AM torments the Earth's few surviving humans? 🤷 Fuck if I know, boss! Each is essentially a word cloud of associated nouns and adjectives, many of which I will forget if they aren't integral to the unfolding story.
How did I blaze through so many books, as both a child and an adult? Why, when I've pored repeatedly over masterworks of fiction, did my own writing feel like a collection of quotes pinned to a dressmaker's mannequin?
Oh, it's probably because I can't see SHIT, and rarely bother trying.
I'll likely never attempt NaNoWriMo again.
Every so often, I'll make an attempt at short fiction; those attempts best succeed when the lion's share of the work focuses on emotions, reactions, dialogue (Surprise!) and internal monologue. (Surprise again!) I accept that even with an idea of blinding brilliance, whose characters, events, themes, and stages indelibly sear themselves onto my neglected, shrivelled little soul, I won't be able to deliver it to the world with any competence or justice. My pro- and antagonists might have deep, chilling wells of emotion, bulgingly overstocked storehouses of history and personal morals; I may successfully, persuasively impress such upon a reader;
and everything about their world will look like this frame from (the incomparable Chuck Jones') Duck Amuck. Just, y'know, with a Daffy that matches the bare outlines of the scene behind him.
I'm a voracious reader. I'm not a novelist.