In July 1999, twenty-one friends in the San Francisco Bay area decided to challenge (and support) each other to write a novel of 50,000 words in a single month. The next year—in November, when worse weather makes better writing—140 people signed up to write. Each November since has been National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo 2012, just completed, 340,000 people participated, writing a total of nearly 3.3 billion words. Those numbers include several dozen here in the Grand Traverse region. This is an account of how one local writer used NaNoWriMo to jump-start her long-dormant writing ambitions.

I have never written anything longer than twenty pages. Unless you count my journals, which are written I hope with enough clarity that some day they will make an interesting read for anyone interested in the dark, furious, sad, quiet and contemplative recesses of my mind. But for obvious reasons they don’t actually count as something I want to share. It has been almost twenty years since I wrote anything longer than four or five pages that wasn’t a work plan, a policy or a procedure. But writing really is one of those things that is a necessary part of my life. In the same way that I lose sight of what is important to me when I don’t get out into the woods, or sit next to a stream with my eyes closed, or tromp through deep snow often enough, my pauses in writing cause me to atrophy and become a less succulent person.

So I set out last year to begin fostering my writing self. I joined Michigan Writers to build my writerly network. After all, hanging out with writers would make me nearly (or at least near) a writer. One of my intentions in growing this network was to find a writers’ group—a group of talented, passionate, interesting, intelligent people who would become my resource for all things writerly. But finding such a group seemed to elude me.

And so did writing. Questions of what to write, when to write, and where to write plagued me. I had no concept of how I was supposed to work a full time job, raise two kids, maintain a relationship with my husband and, well, do laundry or clean and have time to write, too. I was banking on a writers’ group to hold me accountable to myself and to the other group members that I would write.

“Writer at work”

Imagine my joy at learning that the Michigan Writers were hosting their fall potluck with writers’ groups in mind. And this is where I found my writers’ group. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I had imagined gathering with a group of people, either in person or perhaps remotely, to help move each other forward in our writing processes. I was surprised to find my interest leaning towards something a little bit different. Here I was in a room full of writers, a fertile ground for potential writing pals, and what really piqued my interest was learning about National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo, a month long challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days, focused on output, with no feedback from writing peers. All I would have to do was write, and then update the number of words I wrote every day. There would be some opportunities to gather with local NaNo’s to write in groups, along with the option to keep tabs of my writing buddies’ progress on

Two things hooked me. First were those graphs keeping track of my progress, visible to myself and my “writing buddies.” The idea that people would be able to check in on me, and I on them was right up my alley. The second, and more enticing thing, was that it started in two weeks. Having something to state that I was officially working on for the next thirty days—“I am writing a novel this month so I can’t come to your son’s birthday party”—had a kind of validity that I wasn’t sure I could pull off at any other time. Here was a wall I could put up—nothing permanent, no need to panic, but a wall nonetheless. And it would say, “Writer at work.”

As soon as my head hit the pillow that night I knew I would do it.


My first steps:

  • Borrow a desk from my parents with the stipulation that I would give it back at the end of the month. (I’m using it right now so I think I have earned a tiny grace period)
  • Read No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, one of NaNoWriMo’s founders (the best gift of support I received prior to November—thanks, Jen Shock).
  • Tell everyone that I’m writing a novel in November based on the suggestion from Baty that there’s nothing like fear and shame to keep you going during November. (What have I gotten into?)
  • Involve my children by sending them on a shopping trip in search of healthy, non-sticky, tasty treats for me to eat while typing—including chocolate.
  • Count down the remaining two days without any plot structure or characters, just a vague sense of what I want to write.

What I was missing

Within the first week I had discovered two critical tools that I was missing.

1. Ear phones. Apparently ear buds are best used for short phone conversations and as a block for the insanity of shopping at Meijer. I went promptly to Radio Shack and purchased big puffy head phones to muffle outside noise and pipe in my favorite classical music.

2. My own laptop. This was discovered on day five when I went up to my sacred writing space to take my husband’s laptop and pack it up for travel, only to find it GONE. I promptly threw a snit, impressed upon him the importance of not just taking his own laptop without asking my permission first (for the rest of the month at least) and left grumpy for work. I had my own highly coveted device by the next afternoon along with a little perspective on the insanity of my snit.

What I was not missing

Funny, though, the other tools I thought I was in short supply of were rarely a problem.

I had enough time to write. I declined a few things I wanted to do, but in large part, what I had to set aside wasn’t that critical. And when I write, the things that annoy me the most, like laundry baskets filled with towers of clean clothes dripping onto the floor because one of their mates has been squeezed out from between like an unwanted tomatoes in a sandwich, are easier to ignore. The time I found was eked out in part because my husband took over the bulk of evening duties like dinner (nothing new there) dishes (definitely not his realm) and putting the kids to bed (a normally shared duty that I missed). There were many nights that I didn’t notice my husband come upstairs or hear him tell me goodnight, and many nights that conversation passed with no more than a cursory kiss in the air on my way to seclusion. But he seemed to like me better when I was happy all the way through, so I think the trade-off was fair.

My children were excited to have a writer in the house. They wanted to know what I was writing, and if I met my goals. My son, Roan, who is four, liked to put on my head phones and listen to the music while he looked at all of the things that had accumulated on the wall next to my desk: drawings of characters, mind maps, lists, one horoscope, a time line and a large reminder to myself, “Stop Thinking. Let them live their own lives.” (Because in some ways, my characters were uncontrollable children. Even when I had set in my mind that I didn’t want to deal with a certain issue, or let a character behave in certain ways, they did as they pleased most of the time. I think we are all better for it.)

My daughter, Helene, who turned eight in the middle of November, started writing me page long letters written in cursive, and leaving them on my writing desk. I would write back to her with my favorite pen, practicing my own cursive, sometimes wiping away my tears at her serious nature, and her choice of communication. And once because she wrote me a poem.

I was more efficient at work because the part of me that allows me to function at my peak was fed and knew it would be fed again the next day, and the next day too.

What I learned

My friends were full of encouragement and questions, so not only did I get to write, I got to talk about writing. They became my writers’ group. I would send them little snippets of what I had done that day, with an update on my word count. If I missed a day, one or more of them would press me with, “Where’s my snippet?” or “Did you get in your writing? Keep it up, you’re doing great.” And because I was writing and telling everyone, friend and friends of friends were asking for my help. I was suddenly a resource to others, sending links to NaNo, and to MichWriters, and other resources.

I posted daily number counts on Facebook to increase the odds that I would not succumb to weakness and give up. Because writing is hard work. There were a few days where I sat and stared at the screen and didn’t write a single thing, even though I knew I would have to write double to make up for it. There were days I couldn’t write because I had to travel for work and had evening meetings (and too much wine.) There were days when I intentionally doubled my word count so I could take a day off and spend it with my family.

And even though it continued to be hard work, I basked in the pain and joy of it. Sometimes I was so exhausted when I got up I wasn’t sure I could drive safely to work. It reminded me of having an infant in the house. But even so, I was in the right place for the first time in years.

I came to MichWriters to feel inspired, and to meet other writers, and to learn how they do what they do. Because of NaNoWriMo I re-remembered that I already know how, and I have my 52,759 words to prove it.

Jennifer Kirkpatrick Johnson is the mother of Helene and Roan, daughter of Ellen Kirkpatrick, granddaughter of Helena Hudson, great-granddaughter of Marie Besemer. She grew up in Fife Lake and has memories rich with childhood family adventures that required both endurance and tenacity; like twenty mile bike rides in the rain, backpacking trips, and cross country skiing for miles and miles on state land just for fun with her dad, Glen. She had unhampered access to the nature around her wherever she played. She graduated from Adrian College with a Bachelors in Creative Writing and a minor in art. She met her husband, Richard Johnson, 18 years ago when she was getting ready to leave for Great Britain with a six month work visa. While abroad she lived in London, Edinburgh, Northumberland and Oxford before she cut her trip in half so she could accompany a fellow traveler to the Canary Islands as a Spanish interpreter for two weeks. She returned home and was married six months later. Travel remains an important part of her life, with and without her husband. Jennifer works for Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan and is working on her fifteen-year “planniversary.” Two of her proudest moments include birthing her children at home: ten pound three ounce Helene and nine pound seven ounce Roan. She most recently produced a 237-page novel, which has not yet been weighed or named.

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