Why Writing Novels Matters by Grant Faulkner
When I was a teenager, growing up in a small Iowa town, I was a reader, and I was a writer, but it never once occurred to me to write a novel. Novels were big things that other people wrote. Adults. People who lived in New York City. People who had gone to war or lived exotic lives. I wrote in my journal, and I wrote the occasional poem or short story, but writing something as big and ambitious as a novel just wasn’t something teens did.
So, it’s interesting to me now when I talk to kids and teens who have participated in National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writers Program. I hear how they have written five, six, or seven novels—and sometimes even published one or two of them. I see a glow of accomplishment in their eyes. I see a zeal to create on the page and beyond. And I see a confidence that I didn’t have as a writer when I was their age.
If you don’t know about National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as it’s popularly known), writers are challenged to write a novel in the month of November. Adults write 50,000 words, but kids can set a word-count goal that’s more appropriate for their age. The idea is to banish your internal editor, plunge into your imagination, and write your story. NaNoWriMo’s goal is to ignite people’s creative potential and empower them to accomplish big things. If you’re a teacher and want to teach NaNoWriMo, everything is free. We provide curriculum aligned to the Common Core, free downloadable workbooks, online classrooms, virtual classrooms, and other writing resources and tools on our website.
As I wrote my new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, I thought a lot about how creativity and writing are more important than ever in our contemporary lives—practically, emotionally, and spiritually. People’s creativity tends to drop lower and lower on their to-do lists as they get older—until it drops off entirely. The world becomes a place where too few opportunities for curiosity are available, and when obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, people’s motivation to engage in creative behavior is easily extinguished. But one’s creativity shouldn’t be a hall pass from the stiff and forbidding demands of your life. I wrote Pep Talks for Writers because I believe creativity should not only be on everyone’s list, but it should be at the top of the list (yes, sometimes the dishes in the sink just have to wait).
While writing the book, I also thought a lot about NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program and the many ways it can benefit students. Too often, I hear people trivialize writing fiction. I hear how such writing might be entertaining, and it might be therapeutic, but “fun writing” isn’t something that should be at the core of an education. Writing fiction isn’t seen as something that leads to higher test scores or the skills necessary for a 21st century workforce. Creative writing, like much of the arts, is increasingly seen as a dispensable luxury.
I beg to differ. Not only does NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program help kids love writing and become better writers, but I’ll posit that it boosts their achievements in other areas of school and life.
Here’s a list I jotted down of some of the lessons and benefits of NaNoWriMo for young writers:
- Kids learn that they are creators. “Other” people don’t write novels—they do.
- Kids get the opportunity to learn how to write through their passions because they get to choose their story and write it their way.
- Kids get to explore different approaches to the creative process, which in this age of “knowledge workers” applies to work life in general, not just novel writing.
- Kids learn not to wait for inspiration, but to find it on the page, by showing up to write.
- Kids realize the benefits of a writing routine—how big things are accomplished by reaching smaller milestones.
- Kids develop their powers of grit. They learn that on the days when inspiration doesn’t strike, you have to just roll up your sleeves and keep going.
- Kids build resilience. They learn that if you have a bad day, if you fall behind on your word count, you have to find a way to turn it around.
- Kids realize the powers of a goal and a deadline as a motivational tool for big projects of all kinds.
- Kids learn how constraints don’t have to limit you but can ironically enhance and even motivate your creativity.
- Kids learn ways to experiment with the creative process and overcome blocks through such things NaNoWriMo’s word sprints and dares.
- Kids learn the benefits of participating in a creative community. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary activity.
- Kids learn to be good digital citizens because a lot of NaNoWriMo’s community happens online.
- Kids learn how putting positive energy in the world creates good things because the soul of NaNoWriMo forms itself around encouragement, with everyone rooting each other on to meet their word-count goals.
- Kids learn the value of looking to mentors for guidance through the pep talks by renowned authors that NaNoWriMo sends participants.
- Kids learn to share their ideas and their writing and receive and give feedback.
- Kids learn how the act of writing teaches you to be attuned to your inner self and observe the world at large.
- Kids learn how writing can be playful because NaNoWriMo is whimsical at its core.
- Kids learn that writing a long research paper is easier after you’ve written an entire novel.
- Kids learn how to use their “inner editor.” They learn to how to banish it in the initial stages of a creative project to invite in a flow of ideas, but then how to bring it back in at the revision stage.
- Kids learn how to accept the mess of a rough draft—to see it as a phase of ideation.
- Kids learn how to write from their hearts. The pressure of writing more in order to hit their word-count goals works to open themselves up and explore their vulnerabilities through their words. They learn how to risk openness.
- Kids learn how to “fail better”—to try new things and realize that you have to accept “failure” as a path to success.
- Kids learn tolerance by seeing life through the eyes of different characters.
- Kids learn about the life-enhancing force of curiosity, because they have to tap into their curiosity to keep their novel moving forward.
- Kids learn what “mastery” is. It’s said that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to reach mastery. NaNoWriMo teaches the value of practice—that you have to show up for “determined practice” every day to get better.
I can easily write 25 more benefits of NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program—and why creative writing is important for so many reasons. Approaching the world with a creative mindset is wildly transforming. Suddenly you’re not accepting the world as it’s delivered to you, but living through your vision of life. If the next generation is to face the future with zest and self-confidence, we must educate them to be original and creative as well as competent. We must teach them that they are creators—and that it’s important to be creative every day.
Take a moment and consider what role stories and creativity play in your life. Writing is important to me because it’s my way to touch life’s mysteries. I think we need to step out into the world looking for new solutions to old problems, if not new worlds all together. We need to tap into our vulnerabilities, seek to understand our fears, look at life through others’ eyes, ask questions, and open up our awareness of the wonders of the universe. Stories are the oxygen our souls breathe, a way to bring the unsayable, the unseeable, the unspeakable to life. Writing our stories takes us beyond the grueling grind that life can unfortunately become, beyond the constraints of the roles we find ourselves in each day, to make the world a bigger place.
Stories remind us that we’re alive, and what being alive means. That’s why I wrote Pep Talks for Writers. That’s why I do everything that I do.
Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and co-founder of 100 Word Story. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, where portions of this essay originally appeared.