Why Camp NaNo Doesn’t Work for Me: When Too Much Freedom is Detrimental

Nearly half a year later, and what little writing momentum I had gained during last November’s NaNoWriMo has long since lapsed, once again, into creative inertia.
If you know me in real life, have ever met me, or have ever read — or even skimmed — basically anything I’ve ever written here, this probably comes as somewhat less than shocking.

Luckily for me and my fellow writers/procrastinators alike, April heralds in the start of Camp NaNoWriMo, a writing challenge similar in spirit to November’s challenge — “no plot no problem”/”just get it written” — but more flexible in both scope and goal. For those of us who have found ourselves stagnating since November, this seems like it just might be the friendly campfire-under-our-asses that we so sorely need.

Or so I tell myself every year. Twice a year, some years, if you count those few misguided attempts at the July Camp NaNo event.

It’s not like my November attempts at NaNoWriMo are ever resounding successes — far from it. After fifteen November attempts, I’ve won via wordcount (hitting 50k) only twice, and never once with a completed novel. On average, my official NaNoWriMo attempts average about 15k — only about a quarter of the final goal. Not exactly a stellar record.

Still, even after four attempts, my cumulative word count for Camp manages to make any of my individual November word counts look positively verbose, and with the first camp of this year ten days away, I had to sit down and seriously consider if it was worth putting myself through it again, when the last few attempts had been such staggering failures.

I’m not necessarily proud of what I realized.

There’s something electric about the November run of NaNoWriMo, you know? If you can even marginally call yourself a writer, or have any friends with any inclination towards creativity, or run basically any non-super-specific-niche blog, you see people gearing up for the November run as soon as the calendar flips over to October. For someone whose greatest pitfall is motivation, that level of hype, that sense of communal enthusiasm, that anticipatory excitement is important — hell, it’s paramount. And it’s something I’ve found lacking during Camp.

My friends aren’t all gearing up for Camp with me like they were for NaNo; I don’t know if it’s a bad time of year for them, if they only have the energy/dedication to do one round of NaNo a year, or if they’re in the same boat as me, and our lack of communication is biting me in the ass, but the point is — the blogs on my reader aren’t all talking plot bunnies and word count. My friends aren’t putting together noveling playlists. The local libraries aren’t advertising write-ins.

And none of that is inherently bad, or wrong — I’m not laying blame on the wonderful folks who run and organize the Camps, especially since they have proven to be successful for so many other people. It’s not bad, or wrong, it’s just different, but it’s a different that, for whatever reason, make the event less motivating for me, personally. During the worst weeks of November’s NaNoWriMo, I’ve often been buoyed along by my friend’s successes, or fortified by the knowledge that we were all taking part in this huge, crazy undertaking, and that all-consuming fervor and zeal just doesn’t come through for me during the Spring run.

There’s the lack of a sense of unity as well, which I guess is sort of hypocritical, coming from someone who has been a NaNo Rebel as many times as they haven’t. But Camp NaNo prides itself on being a more low-key event by also being a more low-pressure event — instead of the hardline stance on already in-progress projects, people are welcome to continue, revamp, and edit whatever they’re working on. Instead of the hard-and-fast “50k in 30 days,” it’s however-many-word/pages/lines/hours you want to put in in 30 days,” which I adored from a practical standpoint, but which hasn’t worked well for me in the past as a Camp NaNo thing.

The flexibility, while great from the standpoint of an adult with, you know, adult responsibilities, seems to take some of the unifying craziness out of the whole experience, and being able to come to Camp with whatever you already have, at any point of it’s creation/completion, seems to make it harder to find someone who is in exactly the same boat as you — in November, you’re all strangers gathering together in the spirit of writing a novel in a month. During Camp, you’re a group of strangers coming together to write — or maybe edit, or proofread, or rewrite, or continue — a novel — or short story, or story collection, or poems, or interactive fiction, or a memoir, or a screenplay, or a…

And I love it, in theory: I love the inclusivity and the supportiveness, and the appreciation for other writing genres, and the realization that the novel is not the aspirational zenith of every writer (because yes, this is true, and thank you for acknowledging it). And I appreciate that Camp has been a very real, very essential, very valuable stepping stone for many aspiring authors.

So please don’t read this piece and think that it’s in any way meant as an indictment of Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s admins, or it’s participants, because it’s not.
It’s a reflection (perhaps a damning one) on my expectations of NaNoWriMo as a writing community.

Because where does the onus of responsibility lie, for the success of my writing? For my success, as a writer? I mean, really?

Not on the heads and shoulders of anyone — friends, family, allies, fellow writers, fellow NaNoers — but myself.

Expecting any writing challenge — any creative group or movement, any people or person — to supply me with “motivation” while I stand by and passively accept it is pathetic. Expecting Camp NaNo, solely, to hold me accountable, or to provide me with a ready-made, made-to-order peer group, or to magically “conjure up” enthusiasm for writing from my procrastinatory malaise is lazy and egocentric.

NaNo is a forum through which I should be able to find like-minded writers and draw from their shared sense of enthusiasm and collective energy, sure. But energy and enthusiasm aren’t pools — they’re wells. I can’t wade in and let them wash over me — I need to draw them out. I need to work and actively draw them out if I want to partake.
I can’t sit back and expect Camp NaNoWriMo to make me excited about writing. I have to find that enthusiasm myself. If I want to find people working on similar projects, I need to troll the forums or join a cabin. If I want my friends to be excited about it, I need to cajole them to join. If I want that sense of shared joy and excitement, I need to come into this already excited about writing.

And that’s hard, sometimes. As a mom, as someone with a full-time job, as someone almost certainly not neurotypical. Sometimes reality swallows me whole, and it’s hard to get excited about something as seemingly frivolous and self-indulgent as writing, especially something that requires so much hard-won mental and emotional energy.

But that’s not Camp’s issue. That’s mine.

Camp is the well in the forest — I can drink from it, or I can pack up the RV and head home.

There’s a week left before we set up Camp.

I’ll leave the keys in the ignition, because I know my track record.

But I’m cutting the engine. And I’m lowering the pail.