There’s a certain line from The Waste Land that poets love to trot out around this time of year: ‘April is the cruellest month’. I’m sure you’ve come across it at least twice in the last thirty days on every blog you follow, including this one. There’s a certain truth to it, too. The Titanic sank in April. Chernobyl disastered in April. Hitler was born. Lincoln got shot. Not all at the same time, of course. And of course you can pull examples from every day, every month in history to show that when it comes to human existence, the whole thing is cruelness and we might as well go back to the trees. But in this case, I agree with Eliot: April really is the cruellest month. Why? NaPoWriMo.
Now, I know that NaPoWriMo is a great event which raises awareness for poetry writing, encourages newer poets to write more frequently and serves as a worthy endurance test for everyone else. But I hate it. It makes me cry. And around about the same time every year, I’m inundated with emails, blogs and Skype conversations which all read the same way: ‘Are you doing NaPo?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not? ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Oh, but you have to! Because…’, that fateful because being where I generally curl into the foetal position and start whimpering atonally until it stops. Because although I think NaPo is fantastic and everyone who does it is a superstar, it is simply one of those things that will never be for me. Here’s why:
1) Semi-legitimate personal considerations
I am not a well bunny. I count five chronic illnesses among my closest friends (you know, the type of friends who always gets you into trouble with the authorities but whom you can’t seem to shake) and being alert enough to write an email is often an achievement. On top of this, I am already eking out careers as a translator and editor, and when a job comes in for either one writing usually goes out the window. I do not have the energy to do two things at one time, unless those two things are cupcakes.
So making a commitment to write once a day is hard for me. In the last six years, I have attempted NaPoWriMo precisely twice; the first time I apparently got twelve poems in, but I can only find six of them and I have a hazy memory, so maybe I was lying about the rest. The second time I kicked it up a notch and made it to fifteen, but stuck to writing haiku. Still, even at three lines a poem, I bombed out before I made it properly halfway. Why? Commitment. I know from years of experience that there usually at least three days a week where I am too unwell to write. That means three days a week where I have to write two poems, which usually gets put off because I’m still recovering from the day before, which means that every day I’m capable of writing I end up having to do at least three times what I signed up for. This, in my situation, is impossible.
I’m sure at least one person will read this and chortle, knowing that they have more problems than me and still manage to eke out one poem a day for just one month of the year, even if it’s just a haiku. Whoever you are, one person, I’m going to go out and buy a hat just so I can tip it to you. Every year I am overawed by the people who manage to pull this off, no matter who they are or what their situation. My point is simply this: not everybody can.
2) Entirely illegitimate personal hangups
…By which I do not mean to imply that my hangups are born out of wedlock. What I do hope to imply is that here is where I take all the sensible arguments I just made up above and throw them like so many toasters into a bath. I have an irrational fear of NaPoWriMo. When the end of March rolls around, I see poltergeist activity in all corners of my brain. It stresses me out. It shits me off. I love my friends dearly, but when they chirpily comment on their latest NaPo creation I want to stab them with a hammer. And I don’t even know how that works.
I think it started the first time around, the time I wrote twelve poems. Looking at the six that remain, I see I went about it all wrong–these are long poems, challenging poems, poems I clearly had to think hard about. Back in March, Helen described NaPoWriMo as ‘poetic colonic irrigation’. Looking back on it, it seems like I was just trying to do the biggest dump of my life every single day. And naturally, it didn’t work. By the third day, I was already two poems behind. That was before health concerns swooped in to dominate every conversation like The Raven at a teenager’s poetry group, but it was enough to leave a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t attempt NaPo again for five years.
Last year, I decided to start fresh–but start sensible. I listened to my body, my brain and my overbearing schedule, and decided to stick to haiku. Any fool can write three lines a day, I thought, especially under the steady influence of peer pressure. But nevertheless, I choked at fifteen. Why? I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding between myself and the purpose of the project. I am a perfectionist at heart, and I find it incredibly hard to write dirt so I can search in it for gold. NaPoWrimo teaches a hard truth, a truth I’m always been unwilling to hear: that sometimes, that’s the best method of finding gold we have.
I honestly started this post intending to stir up a one-sided storm. In the course of it, I’ve actually changed my mind. I still hate NaPoWriMo, it stresses and scares me, but it’s like a medicine that makes you better against your will. When you take medicine, you don’t worry what angle the cup is at, you don’t colour coordinate your pills, you just get the damn thing down. NaPoWrimo’s the same. So I’m going to swallow my pride next year, and get it done. Because sometimes failing means you win too, if you’re prepared to fail the whole way through.