One of the (few) things I miss from my very short stint in academia is the joy of collaborative writing. It seemed like I was always working with a colleague or two on journal articles or presentations. We’d sit together in the library or cafeteria and, even though we were often working silently and on different pieces of the project, we had the comfort of each other’s presence. We also had the opportunity to talk through sticky writing questions or problems. Sure, there was the possibility of distraction, but with equally hard working people, that was minimized.
When I entered the corporate world and, later, the novel-writing universe, much of that collaborative experience disappeared. Now most of the work I do is every man for himself, lock yourself away in a room type work. Fiction is definitely a solitary activity and much of my freelance work is, as well. I may get to talk to an engineer or scientist about their work as I work to create the manuals and help files that will accompany their invention, but they aren’t going to keep me company as I write.
That’s why I look forward to NaNoWriMo every year. It’s the one time of year when I can satisfy that urge to work with other people. While we’re not all working on the same projects, NaNo generates that same feeling of collaboration that I enjoyed in academia. You can work independently but still talk through sticky problems, crazy ideas, or just share your suffering together. And when you need a break, there are people ready and willing to grab a coffee and talk about something else for a while. At the end of the month, there’s the celebration party or dinner out.
I’m often surprised that I crave this social interaction. In school, I dreaded group projects because I’d get stuck with all the work. The other kids would goof off and waste time and we ended up rushing to the deadline. In many respects, writing was the perfect career for me as an introvert and lover of quiet. When I first started meeting other people during NaNo, I was afraid of the same things. “What if they goof off and waste time? What if they won’t shut up?” Happily, my NaNo groups are the opposite. The people I meet during NaNo are in it to win it, but they, too, are looking for a little social boost.
Of course, our groups tend to lay down a few rules and norms that keep things on track. We socialize at the beginning of the get-together. New people are introduced, any problems are discussed, and people mingle for a while. Then “time” is called and everyone gets to work. We work for an agreed upon period of time, usually 45 minutes to an hour. Then there’s a break where more socializing occurs. People can ask each other about their ideas, or get help with a problem. We do this for however long we have and then call it a day. At the end of November, there’s a party to celebrate.
Even when we’re not actively socializing, there’s solidarity in having people in the same room all pursuing the same goal and activity. You feed off the energy of others. When you’re tempted to slack off, all it takes is one look at the others pounding out the words to get you back on track. Knowing that others are going to ask you how you’re doing makes you push harder. (Because you don’t want to lie, right?) Working together gives you people to share the burden with, but it also gives you a little competition and accountability. That’s missing when you work at home, alone, every day.
I think the thing that distinguishes NaNo from a regular writer’s group for me is that NaNo groups are all about the work. Many writing groups become critique groups. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m much happier making the actual writing a social experience. I prefer to keep my critiques to a one on one basis, working with my beta readers instead of a whole group. Working together to pound out the words isn’t threatening or stressful. It’s fun to sit in a room and share the joys and miseries of work. Critique groups feel stressful to me and less enjoyable because you know all the small talk is going to lead to criticism of your work. Again, criticism is fine and necessary, but not something I want to make a social event out of.
Every year I tell myself and my friends that we really need to keep this social thing going, even if only once a month. Everyone nods and says, “Yeah,” but it’s not too many weeks after NaNo that everyone has drifted back into their solitary cocoons. As time goes by, it gets harder to get people out. I envy people who can keep a NaNo-like group going all year long. Online groups are fun, but they just don’t feel the same. I wouldn’t want to work or around with people every day, but a couple of times a month would add accountability and a nice change of pace.