Wednesday, October 31, 2007

INTERVIEW: NaNo’s Chris Baty, Part 3

That accelerating metronomic sound you hear is the NaNo clock about to blazon the start of this year’s NaNoWriMo competition. TOMORROW marks the beginning of the 2007 event, which means there’s still time for you to sign up if you haven’t already. (Visit the NaNo site HERE to do so.)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing NaNo’s founder and fearless leader, Chris Baty, about what NaNo is, how it’s evolved and what’s in NaNo’s future. Missed parts one and two of our interview with him? Click HERE and HERE to catch up, then come on back. In this, the third and final part of our interview, Chris offers some last-minute NaNo advice pulled right out of his inspirational book No Plot? No Problem! and tells us a little more about his stunning philanthropic ventures–all in the name of creativity and personal growth. Enjoy!

Part 3: Interview with Chris Baty

Q: Tell us about your book, No Plot? No Problem! Is it meant only to help people striving to succeed during NaNo month? What prompted you to write it?

CB: I think for me it was the desire to have a book like this when I’d written my first novel. I kind of put everything in it that I’d learned from four years of NaNoWriMo and added advice I’d solicited from people who’d done it for many years at that point. A lot of it was to try to get at those ideas and those counter-intuitive lessons that you learn—that when you turn off your inner editor, you oftentimes end up writing better and this idea that it’s okay to be imperfect as a writer and in fact there’s a real power in imperfection.

Also, NaNo month tends to follow a familiar trajectory for a lot of people. Week one starts, and you’ve gotten your words down on paper, and you feel you’re a god and you have no idea why you haven’t done this your whole life and the world has waited far too long for your eloquent gift. Week two comes and that’s when you feel like a truck has kind of parked itself on your face, and that you are the worst writer who’s ever lived. This is because week two usually means making really difficult decisions about plot: you have characters and not you have to something with them. Even professional novelists typically struggle at that point, and they’re usually dealing with a timeline where that crossroads may not occur until the six month point or the one year point. They write at a more humane pace. It’s just flat-out a tough time, and that’s where a lot of people quit. I think No Plot, No Problem can help walk people through those phases and lets them know week two is going to be miserable and they should just accept and embrace it.

Q: All right, what is a “wearable, writing-enhancing object” anyway?

CB: Well, I think this kind of gets into the psychological realm, or as I like to think of it, the 30-day vacation from everyday living. I think wearing a special thing, like a hat or wig or a special writing jersey, can help to remind you that this is a special and crazy month where maybe the rules of everyday life do not apply. It’s easy to forget that and kind of let demands of life sort of wash in and take time away from writing. But it’s harder to forget that if you’re wearing a Viking helmet! It’s kind of like a memory device that helps you realize that this is anything-goes playtime, where you’re not necessarily taking the content of your writing too seriously but you are taking the process itself very seriously.

Q: How can stress propel a writer forward? Is there “good writer stress” and “bad writer stress”? How can you tell the difference?

CB: Really, there is a kind of “good fear” and “bad fear.” In order to tap into the good fear, you need to give permission to write bad first draft—with problems, with agonized embarrassing moments—and really the only bad thing you can do is actually stop writing. So at that point then you have good fear. You’re telling everyone you know that you are writing your novel, and that your fear is that you will not complete it. That then becomes a motivator, because you don’t want to fail at the task of completion.

Then there’s the task of perfection which sometimes opposes the task of completion. One fear drives you to sit down at computer and write; and the other fear drives you away from the computer as far as you can go because you don’t feel up to that challenge of perfection and you’re not living up to an impossible potential.

Q: Do you participate in NaNo yourself?

CB: Every year, yes, until I die.

Q: What has NaNo brought you, personally—besides a mountain of manuscripts and an incredible amount of work?

CB: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to know where even to start. Really that first NaNo month changed my sense of what was possible in life—both for me and for everybody around me. Since then, I have been an absolute proponent of ridiculous kinds of group activities. Right after that I launched a three-minute film festival. We all made three-minute movies and rented a warehouse and chairs, and had a black tie gala and it was great.

I guess it was the start of seeing the idea that I could become a freelance writer. I thought, my god, if everyday people write novels, why can’t I write for the Washington Post? And I realized you can write for the Washington Post, and I did write for the Washington Post. Somebody has to get the bylines in the Washington Post so why not you? I think NaNoWriMo gave me kind of that cheeky sense of “Why the hell not?”

After NaNoWriMo that became my motto, “Why the hell not?” I think that’s a great gift to get as a 26 year old. Everybody gets to that point sooner or later, where you’re liberated from your own fears and the sense of what you think you can’t do, but I think seeing that as 26 year old helped me a lot. It helped me to become more willing to take risks and get in over my head.

We became a nonprofit last year, too, so I think I’ve also learned a lot about how a nonprofit organization works. It’s a beast! There’s enough paperwork to kill team of wolverines, and it’s complicated and it hurts my brain, but it’s also just been a great learning experience. That’s been a real gift, learning about these worlds that I had no real clue how they worked, and now I have a slightly better clue.

Q: Before you became a nonprofit, how did you raise the money and overcome the financial hurdles? There had to be some.

CB: Really, it was though a lot of hard knocks. In the first two years it cost practically nothing and I paid for it myself. It wasn’t until the third year when suddenly we were getting asked to leave our Internet service provider for being so far over bandwidth and there were these fees. It was then that I realized I couldn’t do it by myself.

In the third year, I stopped taking freelance assignments because NaNo month was suddenly, inexplicably flooded with people. I just thought, hey, I’ll send out a PayPal link and ask people to contribute a dollar. Really nobody contributed anything, and it was kind of heartbreaking. That was the year I learned the lesson that if you really want to survive you have to state your case very clearly: how much you need and why you need it. It’s something I definitely got better at—putting out that link early and having a budget, letting people see where the link is going to and what the money’s paying for. Any proceeds from it go right back into the organization. I’m not buying a jetski from this. Yes, I would like to pay myself for my time, but this is a nonprofit organization.

Three years ago, when we had 14,000 people involved, I realized that if I could get each of those people to give a dollar to a charity—any charity—then that would be huge. Forget NaNoWriMo, I wanted to think bigger. That was the beginning of our collaboration with Room to Read—this great organization that basically builds libraries in third-world countries around the world. The group is so effective and is doing so much good in the world, they will make you weep. So I was basically looking for a literacy organization with an international scope that we could donate some portion of our National Novel Writing Month donations to every year—you know revenues from t-shirt sales and things like that—and I found Room to Read. They have this amazing program where for very little money they underwrite the cost of libraries in places like Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos. It works out that basically for $3000 you can fund a library. The local community provides the actual space and room, but that $3000 goes toward paying for 700 books—in both the local language and some bilingual books—maps, games, child-size furniture and more. You should see these spaces that Room to Read creates with very little money. And they do library training, to show people how they work. I just feel like, wow, if we can harness some of this energy that people have that has gone toward personal transformation and creativity and apply that on an international level in these very poor countries, we can really do a lot of good.

That was 3 years ago, when we began giving 50% of our net proceeds to Room to Read.

Q: Wow that is amazing! Fifty percent?

CB: 5-0. Yes. We did it for three years, and in that time raised enough money to establish 17 libraries. It’s not a lot of money, but the power of dollar goes so far in these situations. In our first year, we ended up doing three libraries in Cambodia, the next year we ended up doing seven in Laos, and this past year was for Vietnam—we ended up doing another seven there. And that was kind of effortless. That didn’t take a lot of work, just took the commitment to say that this was what we were going to do with our money and this is what’s important. We retired the program this year, because we’ve become our own non-profit organization with a new direction.

Q: So how has the focus switched now?

CB: Seeing the effect of the Young Writers Program on kids made a big impact, and that is now our philanthropic focus. Basically none of the kids, none of teachers, none of schools are ever asked for a dime. Unlike the main NaNo site where we send out emails asking for help and have a cashometer, the young writers’ program has none of that. Nobody’s ever asked for anything.

That’s really what we’re going to put our money into. Getting these schools free posters, free progress charts, free curriculum for teachers, a forum where teachers can be in touch with each other and exchange lesson plans and ideas on writing. That’s our new focus: helping these schools that definitely don’t have a lot of money put on an event that is going to turn these kids onto writing.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything more the NaNo-curious and NaNo-fearful folk among us should know?

CB: Well, what I’d want people to know is that they can and should write a book. That the bottom line is if you love books you should write one. I don’t care if you’re young or old or still have 19 years of research to do before you think you can begin it. The perfect time to write a novel is now.

Thank you so much, Chris, for a fantastic interview, and best of luck to you, the NaNo staff and the Young Writers Program! If you’d like to contribute to NaNoWriMo, please visit their donation page HERE. (And tell them WU sent you.) Write on, all!

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