In Defense of #NaNoWriMo? Kind of?

We’re a bit more than a week from November 1, which probably means a lot of things — it was my grandfather’s birthday, for one; he passed away a couple years ago, but he’d have turned 98 — but around the internet (and almost-equally among the event’s devotees, its haters and many of the utterly ambivalent), one of the most noticeable things has become that it signals the start of National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. (I’m largely going to assume familiarity here; click over there to read up.)

As far as I can tell, Twitter and other social media was really first inundated with NaNoWriMo about four years ago — people enthusiastically updating everyone they knew on their word counts, plot structures, favorite lines, etc. Very quickly after that came the backlash — people who hated that other people were cluttering their feeds with this stuff (and understandably, I think), mocking it. Some of the backlash-type stuff is funny (see Fake NaNoWriMoTips), some is really not; much more isn’t meant to be, just (again, understandably) annoyed.

In my experience (and it’s a very limited, very skewed experience, probably not representative), the backlash very quickly quieted the…frontlash? We’ll go with frontlash. I’m sure there’s a lot of earnest NaNoWriMo tweeting still going ON out there, I just don’t see it in my own little corner of the internet, and haven’t for a couple years. People I know don’t really like feeling like they’re being mocked by people who for the other eleven months of the year are their friends.

I did NaNoWriMo three years ago. I didn’t publicize it, kept it fairly well hidden, actually — I just felt like doing it, and I did. What I got was 50,000 words (more like 55,000, I think) of…something. It wasn’t a novel, certainly (not that I was expecting it to be), just the very beginning of a story about something, with some good bits and some bad bits with a strong beginning and a super-weak ending and a whole lot of holes to be filled.

I was working 60-hour weeks, and had a spouse and a toddler; it probably took a year after that November 30 to get back to it at all, and when I did all I could make myself do was reread, clean up a bit around the edges (when what I needed was a bulldozer, and then twice as many words) and wonder where I’d intended to be going with some of it. My wife has read through most of it, and I sent a few pages of it to a friend for feedback who (as far as I can tell) never got around to it, and that’s it. Not that there mightn’t be some part of it that has some use to me, somehow, someday, but it’s pretty clearly not going to turn into the Great American Novel, or even a small-n novel. I “won,” per the rules of the site, but if the goal was to actually write a novel, there’s no avoiding the fact that I basically failed.

On the way, I confirmed a lot of things I thought or knew, a lot of them pretty valid criticisms of the whole NaNo idea. Whatever they may tell you, 50,000 words isn’t really a novel (unless you’re a genius like Jerzy Kosinski, and even then I assume you start by writing twice that many words and then cutting out the trash); you can’t write a novel in a month (unless you’re Stephen King, so no matter who you are you can’t write one I want to read); writing is incredibly hard, and not nearly everybody who thinks they can do it can do it. Most of the fiction written in November (and most months, but especially November), I’ve no doubt, is trash, valueless to anyone but the writer him- or herself.

So…I’m doing it again.

It’s weird. I know how much time it takes and how frustrating it can be and how much false advertising there is in it and how unlikely it is that anything of any measurable value will come out of my doing it. But I decided, a week or two ago, that I’m going to do it again. Because I have the beginnings of an idea that’s been nagging at me for months and I want to see if it’s anything. Because I love to write, and at least as much as that, as good and rewarding as my various excuses may be, I hate not writing, and yet I still seem to find time in my day for at least a few bad reasons not to do it. And sure, there’s no reason I couldn’t just kick my own ass and do the same sort of thing any old time of the year, but it’s almost November and it’s a good time for me, so why not do it when everyone else does? Why not show up some Sunday afternoon next month and spend a couple hours typing away with a bunch of other freaks? I can’t think of a reason.

So it occurred to me to rattle this out because the other night, a Facebook friend of mine — and a really smart, funny guy I respect a whole lot and with whom I seem to agree on almost everything else — put up a status complaining about NaNo. Not, as above, about the formerly-incessant public updates about it (though I suspect that’s at the root of it), but about the idea of doing it itself. And beyond my total inability to grasp why anyone would take issue with a little thing other people decide to do for themselves that couldn’t possibly affect him in any way, the “reasoning” for it just blew me away: in essence, if you were going to be a great writer, you’d be doing it already, and wouldn’t need that kind of jump-start, wouldn’t need a super-special month to focus on it.

And to me, that stance missed so many points at once, so completely, that it really cemented in my head why I wanted to do it. For just one thing, writing fiction isn’t like, say, athletics, where if you have the natural talent you go for it while you’re young, figuring that if it doesn’t work you’ve got the rest of your life to make something else of yourself, or just that (in a lot of cases, sadly) it’s all you’ve got. Writing pulls from other skills and experience, and those skills and that experience often add up to other careers with lower failure rates that demand a lot of your time. I’d love to win the lottery or for my schoolteacher wife to suddenly fall into a $500,000-a-year job, freeing me up to stay home and drop off and pick up the kids, and in between to write 5,000 words a day, every day, until I got good at it. I would. Turns out that’s not my life, though; turns out I’m a lawyer and a dad and that the rest of my life boils down to a couple exhausted hours at the end of the day, that I don’t love writing or feel a pull toward writing any less but that I love other things too, and they take turns bumping each other out of whatever scraps of those couple hours are reserved for leisurely things.

I’m probably not going to be a great novelist, and not even a novelist, and that’s so not the point; but hell, I wouldn’t be the first English major and full-time-working professional to publish his first novel in his mid-to-late thirties (or later), either. If it’s a thing I want to do with big chunks of my precious free time for a month — and right now, it really feels like it is — then why on earth not? Really, given all those time constraints, a thing like NaNo is perfect for me. Take all that energy that’s pulled in all those different directions and force myself to focus on this one thing for four weeks, or rather for those tiny little slivers of the day during those four weeks that belong more or less to me.

So, why not? I’m not a great fiction writer right now, and I don’t think I’ll suddenly become one next month, I think I probably won’t ever be one, and I know for sure that I won’t come out of November with anything like a novel that I started at the beginning of November, and that neither will anyone else. I am a good writer with a lot of thoughts, and with an urge just now to do something with that. So I’m going to sprint right into this, again, and hope that this time I come out of it still jogging.

And the great thing is — what happens if I don’t, if I fall flat on my face instead? My consolation prize is that I spent an hour or two each night for a while working out the creative parts of my brain, with nothing else to show for it. Oh no! Guess that’s just a risk I’ll have to take…

Stuff I’ve Learned About Sodium

I’ve had a few doctor visits lately — two for an injured arm (side effect of working out without a brain) and a regular-for-me eye specialist trip — and in each of the three, my blood pressure has come back a bit high. Just a bit. Could be nothing — I’d gained a few pounds lately (from eating garbage and the arm not letting me exercise properly), I was in pain, I was stressed out, all that stuff. I’ll get it checked again sometime soon under no stress at my mom’s house or a Walgreen’s or something, and it might be right back to normal, right where it should be and has (until about a month ago) always been.

But I decided to treat it like it’s something, mostly because I’d like to avoid medication and much more sweeping and permanent changes going forward. The only real recommendation for someone like me — mildly high BP, relatively young, not overweight, no family history — is to cut back on the sodium intake a bit. So I’ve been trying. And in this age, in this country, it’s a freakin’ hard thing to do. There’s no escaping salt. Sodium — a lot more of it than you’d likely ever imagine — is everywhere.

Here are some things I’ve learned about sodium, and the avoidance thereof:

  1. People eat a ton of it. Duh, right? But it’s more than you think. The US recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,400 mg; the Centers for Disease Control, which has been a bit nuts about this in recent years, says 2,300. People at risk (like me, now, in theory) are urged to keep it under 1,500 or 2,000, depending on who you talk to. The average American consumes nearly 3,500 mg a day. If you’ve eaten at a restaurant today — any restaurant, fast food, greasy spoon, fine dining, whatever —  there’s a pretty decent chance you passed 2,000 in that meal alone.
  2. But that’s probably okay, for most people. They’d have preferred not to admit it, but CDC’s most recent study found no solid evidence that the average person would benefit at all from reducing her sodium intake from around the average down to below 2,300 mg. No doubt we all (or almost all) get a lot more of it than we need, and a high-sodium diet isn’t good for anybody, per se, but if your blood pressure’s normal and things are otherwise good, there’s not a lot of reason to be concerned about it.
  3. Sodium is sneaky. Easy enough to stay away from soy sauce or anything soaked in brine (a pickle or a cup of olives alone will both get you to around 1,200), and maybe you’d assume that most frozen or fast food meals are packed with the stuff (you’d be right), but that’s about as far as intuition will get you. Most chips and crackers that taste salty aren’t that bad, sodium-wise, if you stick around the serving size; pretzels, generally lower in calories and fat, tend to have more than double the sodium per ounce. (These have quickly become my favorite snack.) There’s loads of sodium in packaged flour tortillas; not so much in whole grain bread; approximately a metric ton and a half in whole grain bagels or hamburger buns. White rice generally has almost no sodium, but Chipotle’s white rice has a robust 200 mg.
    There’s no system, and it can’t really be learned; it’s just the sort of thing, I’m finding, where you have to check, every time.
  4. Prepared “healthy” foods are the devil. The thing is that salt has no calories and is cheap and readily available. So, I’m convinced, people who make low-calorie foods for restaurants or grocery shelves view it as the all-purpose replacement flavor for all the flavors they have to take out of the food because they, those flavors being supplanted, carry too many calories. No Lean Cuisine I’ve ever seen has had enough calories to count as a meal, yet they all seem to have 500 mg or more of sodium. Kraft’s ranch dressing has 300 mg per serving, while its watered-down fat-free variety has 330. An “All-American Flame-Grilled” meatless Boca Burger patty has 380 mg, more than four times what an original ground-beef Bubba Burger has (of course, the Boca is going to be better for you in almost every other way).
    If low sodium is going to be a part of your healthy lifestyle, fresh vegetables, fruit, unsalted nuts and meat you cook yourself is pretty much the only way to go. As someone who still has a bit of a panic when he has to fire up the burner to scramble a couple eggs for his kids every morning, this is going to be the hardest thing to accept. I’m not there yet, and may never be there.
  5. You can get more than 2,000 mg of sodium — my doctor’s recommendation for me for a whole day — from the following harmless-enough-sounding restaurant orders:
    Lasagna Primavera with grilled chicken from The Olive Garden (on their “Lighter Italian Fare” menu at 530 calories)
    – A Chipotle burrito bowl with chicken, brown rice, black beans, cheese, the tomato and corn salsas, guacamole and romaine lettuce (I tried to be as “good” as I could, for fast food Mexican. No Tortilla! Brown rice, black beans and so forth!)
    – A Potbelly’s turkey breast sandwich on multigrain wheat bread with swiss cheese and hot peppers, plus Baked Lay’s (a reasonable-for-fast-food 610 calories; 2023 migs of salty stuff).
    Almost literally any full entree or appetizer at Applebee’s, including at least four of the salads. Hell, several entrees have more than 5,000 mg, and two of the desserts at Applebee’s have more than 900.

So there’s a moral here, and I think that moral is: don’t develop high blood pressure. Or: don’t ever go out to eat, ever. Or: if you have to do one or both of those things, don’t live in the United States.

Gonna be fun!

On semi-retirement

It was about four and a half years ago I started writing, on a regular basis, about baseball. In April 2009, I started a blog on Blogspot (or Blogger, or whatever it was called; it blew) and started making myself do it every day. I did it partly just to give myself something of my own to do, partly because I really had something to say, and mostly because my best friend since forever was doing it and I felt like I knew I could do it better than him if he could do it. And, I don’t know, I was probably okay at it, and said friend and I got some attention and joined together, and we happened to come up with a couple pretty unusual ideas (did you know that Jack Morris’ entire career plus Mariano Rivera’s entire career through 2010 was almost exactly equal to Bert Blyleven’s career?) and got some more attention, and eventually I was getting paid — in money! — to write about baseball. We’re not talking about quit-your-job money, but we’re talking about actual currency that is exchanged in the real world for goods and services, and that alone, to me, was amazing, the sort of thing I’d dreamed about for the preceding ten years or so without, by and large, taking any steps toward making it happen.

And, okay, it still is amazing. That one might spout opinions (however backed up with research, etc.) on the internet and have them read by any number of real people living real lives is, itself, quite something, and that other people might pay such a one in real money for the privilege of hosting and publishing such opinions is a whole other crazy thing entirely.

But it’s over now, if only (probably) temporarily.

I’ve just come through a period in my life that was many things, almost all of them awful. In 2011, I jumped from a good job in Chicago (a perfectly lovely town, but not home) to a perfectly horrible job in a horrible (to me) small town because it was a bit closer to home, and then to a much-better-but-not-quite-right-for-me job in the town that is home, with great people. But this last was one that left me separated for most of the time from my family, leaving me living mostly in the same bedroom (and, stereotypically, the basement) I’d lived in when I met my first girlfriend and was awkward on the Mickey Mouse Club and was co-captain of the debate team, going to work and then going to the gym and then coming “home” to that, my loving (though Big-Bang-Theory-watching) parents who go to bed at 9:30 and then nothing, two hours’ drive from my wife and kids.

That was my life, for most of this past year. I didn’t tell you that, or not really, because you are the internet, and who wants to talk about things like that to the whole internet? But that sucked. There are a handful of things that kept me sane through that time; among them was that I had this whole second life, writing dumb little baseball things (mostly dumb ones, anyway) and, more than that, interacting in person and on Twitter and elsewhere with a crowd of baseball folks I’d come to know, many of them more prominent (and much better) writers I could never have imagined regarding as something approaching equals a few years earlier.

Here’s the thing, though: stuff has very quickly come together. Life is good again. Very suddenly, I have a house, and a cohesive family, and a job downtown (starting tomorrow) that pays me pretty well and justly demands a whole bunch of my time, and while I love baseball and will always continue to love baseball, it’s become priority number, like…twelve? Something like priority number twelve. We didn’t reactivate our television when we moved, which means I can’t watch the Twins live anymore, and I have to say that so far I haven’t missed much.

So the upshot is: I have to stop that second life. At least for now, at least until I really know what my real life is now and how much extra time I have and what it is I want to be doing with that little bit of extra time. I want to do exceedingly well at this job, and to continue to do the best I can as a dad and husband, and to write the things I want to write, and how can I commit to writing baseball things until I know about all those things and how much time they take and how much they leave me with?

Thus the reason I’m “retiring” at age 34. I’m not going away; I’ll stay active (probably not during the day much) on Twitter, keep being a part of the community, and I’ll keep writing things here as they come to me, and I imagine there’ll be times when I get moved to write something baseball-related and put it up on TPA (which I hope to keep active as an editor; I’ve scrounged up some guest posts and am on the hunt for more). Maybe (as Mike has suggested) I’ll be storing up good ideas and come back on fire in a few months, once I’ve figured things out. But for now, at least, I’m out of it (almost) altogether.

This is a hard thing for me. I make a lot of jokes about how little I actually watch or pay attention to baseball, I talk a lot about Doctor Who while there are twelve or fifteen baseball games going on, but the fact is that it’s a huge part of my life, and giving the writing part of it up — even partially, even temporarily — feels like letting a dream die, a bit. But in this world of finite time, it’s a sacrifice that (temporarily) has to be made.

And in the early going, let me tell you: it can be incredibly freeing to watch a baseball game, notice something interesting, and realize you don’t have to write 1200 words about it. So I have that going for me, which (among many other things, just now) is nice.

Making Changes (Promisses No. 9)

Why can I only find time to write here on Fridays?

Anyway, if you’re here, and you’ve been here before, you might notice that it looks a bit different allasudden. The old theme had one thing going for it: I tend to write a lot of words, and occasionally tend toward long paragraphs, and that theme let the text take up a lot of horizontal space (it’s even called “Widely”), so it made my long posts and long paragraphs look not quite so long. But it was boring as hell.

This isn’t much better, but it’ll do for now. There are navigation/subscription links over there <<<, if you want ’em (they were at the bottom of the page before). The background picture is actually a kind of stunning shot (by total-amateur-pointing-and-clicking-an-iPhone standards) that I took of a Revolution-era house somewhere in northern Virginia a couple years ago (embiggening, would be the purpose of your clicking below):

IMG_0190 …but the way it comes out here — depending on your screen size and resolution, maybe — really only adds a nice little splash of color and a couple clouds. Oh well.

So anyway, there’s that, but there’s more. When I started this blog, I thought: I’m going to write a lot about things that make me angry, and most of those things have a left-leaning political tinge to them.

Those thoughts proved largely correct, as you probably know. But that’s certainly not what I want this to be about. I’ve also written about writing and social media and all kinds of things on which all (reasonable) people can agree, or at least can amicably agree to disagree, and I didn’t want this to be the kind of place where the name and general tone of the whole thing drove certain (reasonable) people away. I have conservative friends (a couple) and moderate friends. I’m a Christian, I’m a midwesterner who’s lived on both coasts, I don’t want to alienate anybody (who is reasonable). And you know, I can be awfully cranky sometimes, but I don’t think that’s a defining characteristic. I don’t want it to be a defining characteristic of this blog, at any rate.

So, no more “The Cranky Lefty.” Now, it’s just me. I made a few corresponding changes to the About page. The tag under the blog’s title on the left there will probably change quite often: the current one (“What you’ll need is a jackhammer”) is a snippet of a thing I wrote in my novel (or whatever) project, and it relates to writer’s block. The protagonist hits a wall because he’s afraid of the relative permanence of the words he’s about to put on the page; odds are the next line that comes out won’t be the perfect line, and neither will the next one, and the killer is that after hundreds or thousands of not quite perfect lines stacked on top of one another, editing (yours or someone else’s) can’t save you: editing is a chisel, when what you’ll need is a jackhammer. So he just freezes up straightaway. A bit depressing, maybe? But I choose not to hear it that way, I choose to hear it as kind of a call to be fearless and change-embracing in the first instance, and at any rate it can’t be any more depressing than this place used to be.

So the content won’t likely change much — alternating light/funny/musing and serious/political stuff, the occasional casual cursing just to keep you on your toes — but the look has, and I’m hoping the tone will too. Just a bit. And I’m hoping to write more often. Maybe Wednesdays, to go with Fridays? We’ll see.