03 December 2006

Literary complex carbohydrates? Parallels between NaNoWriMo and Weight Watchers

I'm now taking a breather from my novel, Mix Tapes for Boys and Girls, after completing my November sprint to write 50,000 words, the arbitrary goal assigned by the folks at the Office of Letters and Light, aka National Novel Writing Month. It was such an odd but productive experience; I've had deadlines before but never the daily requirement to write a certain quantity.

In its absolute focus on word counts, the whole novel-writing experience reminded me a little of the Weight Watchers program (which I did for about three months a few years ago but probably would never do again). In the few months I did participate, I learned a lot about the caloric values of foods and about how much I really needed to eat. They talked about portion control, which is a good thing to be aware of; the best part was learning to change my focus to stopping when I'd had enough food instead of eating as much as I could get away with eating. I found that the quantity of food that satisfied me was, of course, quite a bit less than I had thought previously. It was a revelation that going to bed somewhat hungry wasn't such a bad thing after all; some of my fear of scarcity fell away when I realized nothing bad would happen if I went to bed with a rumbly tummy. (I read one account by someone who said that when dieting, she stopped eating early in the evening and then went to bed earlier than usual so she wouldn't be bothered by her hunger pangs. But skipping part of one's life in order to lose weight seemed extreme to me. Foregoing food is one thing; foregoing evenings is something else entirely.)

What I did not like upon reflection was Weight Watchers' narrow focus on the absolute number of calories consumed daily without any regard to the quality of the food being eaten. This oversimplified approach to dieting meant that things like nuts, olive oil, and avocadoes, all of which I love and consider "good fats," were as "expensive" as chocolate bars or cheesecake. I never bought into the notion that all fats were bad, nor did I buy into the "cholesterol is evil" ethos adopted wholesale by the medical establishment despite the studies on cholesterol having been conducted exclusively on high-risk males. I heard stories about people who tried to save many of their daily caloric allocations for alcoholic drinks or tried to avoid all fats entirely and found that the appearance of their skin, hair, and fingernails quickly deteriorated, probably reflecting their deteriorating underlying health. So on one hand it was useful to find out how many calories a day I needed to stop eating if I wanted to lose or maintain my weight, but on the other hand it seemed to discourage a healthful perspective on the relative nutritional values of foods. I found little discussion of how eating complex carbohydrates and some fat could also help you feel sated longer than eating simple carbs and lots of vegetables with icky nonfat dips or nonfat desserts with low-calorie "whipped topping."

So my disgust with Weight Watchers' absolutist approach to calorie counting led me to expect more inner resistance to having to write a certain number of words per day to meet this arbitrary goal of writing 50,000 words. I wondered, what if I wasn't inspired that day? What if I wrote 1,000 words and they were good, and everything after that for the day was drivel?

It didn't really happen that way (okay, it may have; I'm too close to the 53,500 words I wrote last month to be a good judge of their quality at this point). But not only was the 1,667-words-per-day deadline nowhere near as onerous a chore as I thought it would be, there was something good about being encouraged to "throw words willy-nilly at my novel," as I described the process to my mother earlier today. Instead of writing nonsense or unrelated stuff, I found myself getting deeper into my characters' thoughts and motivations. I found myself putting more from my own life and what was happening around me into the story. The word-count goal made me dispense with my usual poring over individual sentences and instead push on, which made me take more risks than I usually do in my writing. I had to "leave my inner editor behind" (as Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder recommends in his book No Plot, No Problem!) to succeed at the task, which turned out to be a very good thing indeed. (She's stirring and uncurling from her deep slumber, though; I'm looking for cover.)

I had thought this might be a sort of silly, wasteful way to write a novel; I suspected half or more of what I produced would be garbage and have to be cut out later. The jury's still out on that, but it was a fabulous exercise in getting stuff out of my head and onto the page. And I am relieved to believe there's more "good fat" in my story and far less dreck to be excised than I had predicted.

Now I just have to figure out how I am going to finish the thing!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm here from the Nano forums (I'm soleta_nf there). I really like what you have to say! I found Nano to be a fabulous experience and I also produced a lot more "good fat" than I expected. I also agree with your criticisms about Weight Watchers. I really like your writing style, and will try to stop by here again. :)