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BATON ROUGE, La. — I worry I won’t recognize author Christee Gabour Atwood in a mall full of soccer moms and sweat-suited octogenarians, but she’s hard to miss. She’s the woman skipping into a Waldenbooks here with an enormous white hairball slung over her shoulder. The orange beak jostling against her ankle is a giveaway, too – the lady who calls herself “The Rubber Chicken” is on the premises, prepared for battle with a keyboard.
The chicken and I are just two of the 79,813 participants in the sixth annual National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, for short – a self-directed, kamikaze approach to writing that embraces quantity over quality. The premise, dreamed up by San Francisco writer Chris Baty, is simple. Everyone says they’ll write a book one day. What if each person wrote a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, setting aside fears and making a mad dash for the impossible? It’s a beautifully insane scheme that appeals to insomniacs, masochists, and – apparently – the would-be writer in thousands of us.
Participants keep track of their own progress online, and in a game where word count is king, the chicken is trouncing most of us. I, in fact, have run into plot snarls and a house so clean – cleaning being my little diversion from writing – that you couldn’t find a mote of dust.
Slipping behind the bookshelves, giggling like a child, Mrs. Atwood dons her suit, affectionately dubbed “Uncle Miltie,” and settles at her table in the bookstore window, where she writes. She could pen her plotlines at home, wearing comfy sweats like the rest of the literati, but there’s a dual purpose. The attention-getting garb plays into a signing spree for her book, “Three Feet Under: Journal of a Midlife Crisis,” and, more important, she says, it keeps writing fun and helps her not take herself so seriously.
That wasn’t the case a few years ago. Struggling with stress, trapped in the upper echelons of corporate management, Atwood was hospitalized for a time. But she has since rediscovered a passion for writing, and the chicken suit helps keep things in perspective.
“I learned it’s OK to take your work seriously but yourself lightly,” Atwood says. “Don’t people enjoy daydreams? That’s what writing is – playing the deity of your own little world.”
The founder of NaNoWriMo believes Atwood’s approach – both clacking keys and clucking – is a fantastic way to embrace the spirit of the project. “What happens is you stop worrying about the perfection of every single sentence and you just dive in,” Mr. Baty says. “The chicken suit is a new twist, but it’s the idea of leaving your expectations and shooting for quantity. You can edit ‘imperfect.’ You can’t edit a blank page.”
Various Baton Rouge writers occasionally join Atwood at the table in the bookstore, including Waldenbooks manager Eric Beaty, but today she’s on her own. Just as well. Stephen King wannabes who sit nearby often grouse about having to pluck chicken feathers from their keyboards. As for Atwood, she carries a lint brush: Uncle Miltie sheds.
Watching her in action, pecking keys, pondering syntax, you have to admire her pluck. Every few minutes, she’s interrupted, but she keeps typing, squeezing self-promotion between sentences. With two business books slated for publication in March, Atwood is an anomaly in the NaNoWriMo world. This is her first year participating, and 45,515 words into “Danger, Deceit, and a Demon Named Myron,” she’s well on her way to completing her 12th book. Though some NaNo’ers have seen their novels published by major houses, only 16 percent cross the 50,000-word threshold in the month time slot.
Dawn O’Bryan, an empty nester who lives in Silicon Valley, found a method in the madness. Taking advantage of her free time, she churned out 50,308 words in 18 days. “NaNoWriMo gave me a great incentive to face daily writing goals and make a habit of them,” she says.
Similarly, Sarah Jane Sprouse, a college student in Richmond, Va., has reached the 50,000-word mark five times – including this year with a novel she’s named “Modern Dialect.” Still, it wasn’t easy. Ms. Sprouse wrote a senior thesis during the same month and also struggled with the Scottish dialect required for her Glasgow-based novel. “I make an effort to do it every year because it’s fun and a great exercise for my writing skills,” she says. “At the end of each NaNoWriMo, I have a new (albeit very rough) manuscript to work with.”
Among the mix of veterans and published authors, there are just as many first-timers who’ve never put pen to paper. Dantrel Robinson, a marketing executive at The Coca-Cola Company, wrote most of his novel while traveling between Alabama and Houston for business. He ended up with 50,867 words and a new sense of discipline. “I wrote half the novel in my hotel room,” he says. “There will always be distractions. You just have to really commit – not answer the phone or respond to that e-mail.”
Atwood, for her part, made good progress on her novel, which isn’t exactly serious fiction. Set in nearby New Orleans, it begins with a rollicking car chase and shifts into gear with a gun-toting immortal bent on saving the world while hiring a personal assistant to schedule appointments and tote AK-47s.
In the end, that’s the point of the exercise – just to write. This isn’t Henry James. Indeed, Dwight Eddins, an English professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, who has spent 40 years teaching students to appreciate Yeats, as well as James, believes the content is not as important as the act itself. “I’m more or less skeptical about the results, but what’s to be lost [by doing it]?” asks Dr. Eddins.
Granted, there are ups and downs. From the time commitment – most participants shoot for 1,500 words a day – to the physical demands, some find NaNoWriMo grueling. For Atwood, writing in the mall bookstore keeps her from feeling isolated, a complaint many writers voice. For Baty, the project founder, it offers an excuse to indulge in the temporary drama of a writer’s life.
Still, beneath the farce lies a very real fact – NaNoWriMo renews a dream for many, and the deadline forces it into reality. Outside Atwood’s temporary writing coop, Brenda Harris, a janitor at the Cortana Mall, harbors her own aspirations. Ms. Harris loves working at the shopping center, but admits she dreamed of writing a book when she was a teen.
Back then, she wanted to write a romance novel, but now she thinks she’d write about the plight of the world. Still, fear holds her back. “I wasn’t that good at English,” she confesses. “I figured I’d probably have to be a lot better at it.”
As this year’s NaNoWriMo draws to a close, my novel is stalled at 13,000 words and Beaty is stuck at 12,000. Atwood, along with 12,948 others, crossed the halcyon 50,000-word mark. The total word count comes to 982,564,701.
Back at my hotel, I wonder if Harris went home, sat down at the kitchen table, and began her novel on the back of an envelope. When we parted, she had said: “You know, I bet everybody’s got a life story to write that would rock the world,” and I had hugged her and replied, “You write yours – I’ll look for it.”
Lost in thought, I pick up the remote, then set it back down. November may be over, but someone’s waiting for my story. Smiling, I open my laptop and begin to type.