NaNoWriMo and Chronic Illness – Why I’m Giving It A Go

Planning for nanowrimo as a chronically ill person. Is it even possible?

In the past, I’ve had very mixed feelings about nano. This year will be my fourth attempt, but every year as November draws closer I find myself umming and ahhing over whether or not it’s a good idea to even attempt to join in. Why? Because being chronically ill and trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days seems like a ridiculous endeavour.

But I am always so, so tempted.

For anyone who doesn’t know what nano is: NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write 50,000 words throughout the whole of November, and then you have ‘won’ nano. There is an official website where you can sign up here, and forums here, and there’s a very large, international community built around the challenge.

I tried nano twice during my university years, and both times I failed miserably. The first year, I think I wrote about 2000 words in 3 days and then gave up, crying, because I felt sick and like an ultimate failure. And I think that’s one of the pitfalls of nano – if you don’t keep up with the (often gruelling) word count, you can feel like a disaster, or like you’re a failure of an author, or like you will never write again.

There are various ways to avoid thinking like this, and I’ve found my attitude towards nano changing more and more as I get older (and as I come to better understand my chronic illness).

Last year (2019), I’d pretty much decided I wasn’t going to bother to attempt nano. I’d had a pretty rough health year generally speaking, and I was struggling to maintain my baseline without getting overwhelmed by fatigue, pain, brain fog, and migraines, all which are brought on by writing. I thought, there’s no way I’ll be able to manage it. I didn’t sign up on the website, and I decided to just write if/when I felt well enough without worrying about an arbitrary word count.

And you know what? I wrote 50k in 2 weeks.

I was astounded. Sometimes, when my brain switches on, I can just… write. And write. And keep writing, and I write tens of thousands of words a day. These occasions are very few and far between, and when they hit I still have to be careful to pace and not overdo it, because one day of pushing too far can send me into a months-long crash. And times like this are the exception. Most of the time, I struggle to hit 500-1000 words every couple of days.

One thing I do find, though, is that when I don’t put immense amounts of pressure on myself, I tend to get more writing done. When I’m not stressing over hitting a certain word count, I’m not beating myself up every day for not hitting it, and then I’m able to come back to the manuscript the next day freshly motivated (most of the time. I’m not a miracle worker).

A page from a bullet journal with a word count tracker for September
My bullet journal page for September’s Word Count. I wrote 37k and was very pleased with that!

So does that mean I just won’t take part in nano ever again? Well… after much thinking about it, I have decided I am going to join in this year. Just… carefully. I (and many others) are of the opinion that you don’t actually have to ‘win’ nano to get something out of. Any words written during nano are more than you had at the beginning of the month, after all. Even the year where I only wrote 2k and then became a ball of fatigue and pain for the rest of November, I still had 2k more than I did originally.

The other great thing about nano is the sense of community. There are forums on the website this year which I’ve had a lot of fun diving into, and groups you can join to have smaller chats and sprints with other like-minded writers. I’ve even found a few discord groups to join, which have helped me to feel motivated and hold me accountable in a way I find very useful. Personally, I love doing writing sprints with other people, and it’s a great way for me to get many words down on the page whilst keeping up with my pacing and regular breaks for managing my chronic fatigue. I didn’t want to miss out on the social element of nano.

(A quick side-note: another reason why nano always felt fairly inaccessible to me was that a lot of the group meetings happened in-person. But this year, there’s the small matter of a pandemic, so everything is online. Which is great for me as a housebound writer! Silver linings, right?)

So my goal for nano 2020 is this: write more than I had at the beginning of November and find a group of writers to join in with. If I hit 50,000 words, I will be frankly astonished, but also very happy, but if I don’t? I’ll still be happy that I joined in and had a go, and I’ll end up with more than I started with.

I’m using nano to draft out book 2, which is a queer disabled fantasy romance, and I have been prepping for most of October, although as a pantser I don’t plan too much. November should be a wild ride as I develop the characters and story further and see where it takes me, and I’m excited for the challenge. I love the process of the first draft.

Having said that, I’m still being realistic. I find it difficult to join in with a lot of the rhetoric around nano, because it simply doesn’t work with my chronic illness. The idea of writing every day is, frankly, unrealistic. Some days I can’t even sit up, let alone look at a screen, let alone type. So I’m setting my own goals instead, and I’m finding groups that I can join in with that don’t make me feel like a failure for not hitting that word count religiously every day. Being flexible is the key, for me.

And I’ve even found several other disabled/chronically ill writers who really get what’s it like to manage a struggling brain and body along with the intense desire to write, and that’s been truly wonderful.

If you’re considering nano but you’re worried about hitting the word count, or you too have a chronic illness/other problem that limits your ability to write, I think there is a way to make it work for us. Nano isn’t for everyone, but when I find ways to make it accessible, I get to join in with something that feels bigger than just me sitting alone on my sofa typing furiously into a word document.

If you fancy it, come and join! And let me know on twitter, too (@jasewrites) or add me on nano (@jasepudds). I need more writing buddies.