NaNoWriMo, Here I Come!

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Every November, I mean to buckle down and write 50,000 words. Every November, something comes up that keeps me from doing it. Last year, I taught an introductory course to creative writing at Texas A&M University. The year before, I probably got too busy with work. This year, I’m going to make it happen! I don’t have any trips planned except for Thanksgiving. I don’t have any activities after work or on the weekend that take up a large amount of time. Nothing is standing in my way.

For those who haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, hop over to the website and take a look. I’m raising money to help the nonprofit that runs it build communities in classrooms, coffee shops, libraries, and living rooms all over the world and help the inspiration flow for me and thousands of my fellow novelists. More importantly, your contribution will help The Office of Letters and Light build a more engaged and inspiring world.

For the rest of this post, I want to explore why NaNoWriMo works and touch a bit on what it could mean for digital humanities. Today is my research day, after all, so I need to tie this in with my work somehow.

For my creative writing course last year, I assigned Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print as the textbook. It’s cheap, practical, and available in a variety of formats. It’s a book that the students should find useful throughout their careers. The last two chapters are “Sophistication” and “Voice,” or, as I titled the weeks that we covered them, “Editing without writing” and “Writing without editing.” These two are the culmination of everything else a person learns in a creating writing course. Another book that is helpful in trying to understand why voice comes from turning off editing is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

The idea is that there are two processes going on in our head: the creation and rejection of possibilities. What isn’t suggested by our subconcious can’t be rejected, and what isn’t rejected is what we end up doing. Experts have exercised both of these enough (usually over a 10,000 hour period) that the part of their brain that does the creating has learned what is likely not to be rejected. This is why experts shouldn’t think too much about decisions they make in their area of expertise. It’s why we have to not think too much about what we’re writing if we want to bring out our own voice.

Our internal editor is what makes blogging difficult for someone who hasn’t blogged before, especially if they are used to publishing only finely honed text. It’s the source of writer’s block, of the blank page that remains blank because the right word isn’t popping into mind.

But turning off that part of our brain that says, “No,” is the hardest thing to do. It’s the part of our brain that provides judgement. It’s what keeps us from jumping out the window when a something in the back of our head wants to feel the air rush by, and our stomach churns at the thought. Our survival depends on it.

A good way to turn off the editor is to force a crisis. Judgement takes time, and when that time isn’t available, judgement can’t happen. The subconscious has to take over. It’s easy to watch a sports game and decide that a player made a bad decision, but the mistake might be in thinking that a decision was made at all.

A baseball player can’t know where the pitcher has thrown the ball until after he’s swung the bat. It’s all of the practice that has made his subconscious learn how to play the game. It takes a little under half a second for the ball to go from the pitcher to the home plate. It takes about 200ms for the brain to realize what it’s seeing, so by time the player realizes the pitch has been thrown (much less where the ball actually is), it’s almost half way to the plate. There’s just enough time to swing the bat.

The trick with NaNoWriMo is that people who are going to school or have jobs or other things keeping them busy in life don’t have time to write fifty thousand words if they spend time choosing each word carefully. By throwing the writer into crises and forcing the fingers to move on they keyboard (or across the paper), the editor has to be turned off.

A good typist can type over fifty words per minute. That’s a thousand minutes to type fifty thousand words. That’s sixteen hours and forty minutes, or about thirty three minutes each day for thirty days. Given that my bus ride is about twenty minutes each way, that seems perfectly doable. Of course, that depends on just typing and not doing any editing, which is the whole point of NaNoWriMo.

Digital Humanities and “More Hack, Less Yack”

What does this have to do with digital humanities? “More hack, less yack” has been floating around for a few years now. The humanities are good at contemplating and talking about what other people produce. Literary theorists study literature created by other people. Historians study events created by other people. This tendency to produce secondary sources instead of primary sources is baked into the profession.

Secondary sources are still useful. As a writer, I find Freud and Foucault useful, but only to the extent that they help me write better fiction. Reading what historians have discovered is useful because it helps us learn from past mistakes and successes. But sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe. Sometimes, it takes some practice doing a thing to understand how a thing is done or why certain decisions are made.

Thus, “more hack and less yack.”

I’ve been at a THATCamp before where we were talking about the need for standards and had someone raise the question of why we should try to have standards at all. A question that comes from a lack of experience dealing with the lack of standards for certain areas of computing in the humanities. Any attempt to explain our experience was met with resistance. Even the idea that we were using English as a standard of communication within the room was met with derision.

The need for “more hack and less yack.”

We can watch a baseball game all day and think we understand what’s going on, but we can’t become experts in the game until we understand what’s going on inside each player’s mind. Any criticism we make, that a pitcher should have thrown differently, or a batter swung differently, comes from a different reality than the ones the players are in. All of the studying done in neuroscience and psychology are just attempts to put us in that place by proxy, by deconstructing everything into the basic ways in which our brains process information, resulting in the fact that there just isn’t enough time left in a pitch for a player to contemplate what they want to do once their biology has been accounted for.

This is probably why so many sports announcers are former players. They’ve done a lot of hacking. Now they can do some yacking.

How to Increase DH Hacking

I’d like to try an experiment some time. We have workshops in creative writing programs in which students write material and pass it around to the other students and professor for comment. Why not have a digital humanities workshop sometime in which people try to produce original digital work and pass it around for comment from other participants? Perhaps something after the Clarion model.

The nice thing about this is that it would force the participants to spend time building instead of constantly talking about what they want someone to build. Just as Clarion expects people to know how to write paragraphs and use a typewriter or word processor, participants in a DH version would need to know something about the technologies they might want to use to compose their project. The discussions would focus on higher-level criticism of the work. Perhaps the narrative structure or the scholarly discourse enabled by the design.

The week of DHSI isn’t quite long enough to have the same effect that a Clarion-style workshop would have, though I’m not knocking it in any way. Six weeks of intense creation allows the participant to go through several iterations of a project. It’s almost a capstone experience after several years building up skills.

The problem is that we don’t really have anything computational that is as easy to use as words and sentences when building a narrative. While the writer has to produce sensible sentences, there can be problems that don’t keep someone from reading what they’ve written. Programming requires enough correctness that someone can run the program and see what it’s doing. Since the number of bugs per line of code is fairly constant across languages, we need very high level languages that let people create projects with little enough programming that there are few bugs if the program reads well.

Until then, perhaps we can do a NaNoWriMo style event. Take a month and produce a project regardless of bugs. Just write code. Put things together. Create some pages and interfaces. See what happens.

At the end of November, I’ll have a novel that I won’t want anyone to read because it will be absolutely awful, but I’ll have a novel. At the end of the DH equivalent, we might have a program that hardly works or a site that is so ugly it’s obvious we can’t do web design, but we’ll have a project. We’ll have something we can edit and slowly modify until it communicates what we want it to communicate.

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James is a software developer and self-published author. He received his B.S. in Math and Physics and his M.A. in English from Texas A&M University. After spending almost two decades in academia, he now works in the Washington, DC, start up world.