Rusty bulkhead

If you’ve been watching my NaNoWriMo progress on my blog sidebar, you’ve already seen the good news: I finished and thus “won” my write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge, logging in late last night with a whopping 50,311 wretched but oh-so-gratifying (now that they’re oh-so-over) words. Can somebody please pinch me?

In my Zen school, there’s a famed phenomenon called the 90-day giggles. During the winter and summer months, monks, nuns, and motivated lay-people have the chance to sit a 90-day intensive retreat that involves a 4:00 am until 9:45 pm schedule of sitting, walking, and chanting meditation. During the entire 90 days, retreatants keep silence; consume no meat, sugar, or caffeine; and are encouraged to refrain from making even eye contact with other retreatants. This rigorous regime is designed to clear the mind of all mundane distractions so meditators can focus whole-heartedly on their practice for the duration of the retreat.

Keene State window decal

By the time the 90th day rolls around, something quite remarkable happens. After ridding the mind of distractions and slowing down to enjoy the minute details of life, retreatants are completely in-tune with the universe and themselves. And in response to this remarkable feat, people on the final day of 90 days of silence often, typically, get a massive case of the giggles…the so-called 90-day giggles. After sitting in silence staring at a hardwood floor for three months, nearly everything seems gut-wrenchingly, side-splittingly, fall-on-the-floor-laughingly funny.

Although I’ve never sat a full 90-day retreat, I’ve sat week-long chunks in the winter and three-week-long stints in the summer. After 21 days of silent retreating, you do get somewhat slap-happy, the simple phenomenon of eye-contact being enough, at times, to send you over the edge of silliness. First one person starts giggling, then another, and another…before you know it you have Zen Masters slapping their knees and monks rolling in the aisles. It’s simply natural, I think, to need some sort of physical, emotional catharsis after the intensity of doing nothing but concentrating for 7, 21, or 90 days, and a good senseless giggle fest is as good an emotional enema as anything.

Sidewalke with tree

So last night, after hitting the Wall of Despair around word 43,000, I experienced a nearly terminal case of the 50,000-word giggles around word 46,000.

Writing a novel in a month is very similar to sitting a long retreat. When you sign up for a Zen retreat, you have visions of how relaxed and enlightened you’ll become after spending a concentrated amount of time meditating without distraction. Once you’re actually sitting a Zen retreat, however, you inevitably reach an “oh shit” moment where you realize or remember that Zen retreats really, really suck. Your knees hurt, your thighs ache, and your back is screaming for mercy. Your mind is either wildly racing with distractions, neuroses, and obsessions or you find yourself literally bored to tears. You find yourself madly craving pizza, beer, and chocolate, and you have elaborate fantasies of seducing, slapping, or simultaneously doing both to whomever (man or woman) happens to be sitting next to you. In a word, your mind goes completely and entirely nuts when you spend massive amounts of time doing nothing, and the tricks it comes up with to entertain itself make you want to run out of the room screaming.

Threshold

And in a word, that’s pretty much what the act of writing a novel in a month feels like. When I began NaNo’ing, it sounded like such a cool writing exercise: what better way to kick-start my writing and kill my Internal Editor by diving head first into a massively insane writing project? Partway through actually doing the damn thing, though, I experienced that aforementioned “oh shit” moment where I realized writing a novel in a month really, really sucks. I’d lost all sense of plot (not that I had any to begin with), I lost all sense of characters (not that I had any to begin with), and I lost all sense of sanity (not that I had…oh, never mind!) I ran out of words to say but continued writing anyway, taking the storyline in directions that were entirely unbelievable, adding sex scenes that were entirely unnecessary, and having characters do things that were entirely out of character. Around about word 46,000, I was tired, thoroughly sick of the horrid crap that was masquerading as “my so-called novel,” and completely slap-happy.

As Gary, who finished his NaNo novel yesterday afternoon, can testify, last night I could barely speak I was laughing so hard at the utterly awful sentences I was writing. In the end I killed off a handful of my characters in a shoot-’em-up blood bath; had one character speak from beyond the grave to talk about how she’d died; featured a rhapsodic sequence where rocks, trees, and Mother Earth herself derive a so-called moral from this tawdry sequence of events; wrote a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards in a cheap attempt to pad my word count; and transformed an otherwise innocent, idealistic female character into a lurid seducer who beds (in absurdly comic and astonishingly acrobatic fashion) nearly the entire male population of her college campus.

So, what did you do over your Thanksgiving weekend? Now that it’s over and my ribs are slowly recovering from the 50,000-word giggles, I’ll proabably be crazy enough to try the whole NaNo insanity again next year. But I won’t be able to say then that I didn’t warn myself now. No shit, Sherlock: writing a novel in a month really, really sucks, so maybe next time I’ll try to start off with a plot, a couple of characters, and an ounce of sanity in my head. Or then again, maybe not…and maybe that’s what’s the funniest of all.