By Colorado Review Associate Editor Michelle LaCrosse
I, myself, had no idea what it was until fall of last year. As my evening workshop ended, one of the other students, a high school English teacher by day, asked the group if any of us were interested in helping a small section of her class during NaNoWriMo.
My first thought was: Teaching experience and something for my CV? Why not? And I figured I’d simply misheard a normal word instead of that jumble. Turns out, the jumble is correct and it’s actually a mashup of National Novel Writing Month and happens every November. Who knew? Many people, I’m sure, but not me.
A group of bright students in her class wanted to write a novel, or at least start one. The school had secured a grant which, among other things, would pay someone a little to come to class once a week during the month as a guest writer and help the high school students navigate the different aspects of writing a novel.
Now, I have no experience as a high school teacher. My degree will be in nonfiction, and I’ve never written anything book length before. But! I did take a short story writing class once, and once listened to a visiting published writer, so I’m fine, right?
No, it wasn’t a disaster. Spoiler—it was actually fun, and I had a great time. I hope the kids did too. Two of them seemed excited, at least a handful smiled at my jokes, and only one student sneered at my suggestions, which I’m pretty sure is par for the course with high school. Any teachers want to weigh in?
The best and most helpful thing for me was that NaNoWriMo had a well-established dedicated young adult page. There were workbooks, progress sheets, and suggestions for teachers. It was amazing. I went home the first day and rabbit-holed for hours.
So, first day: I dressed nicely, but not too nicely. Luckily my hair is blue, so as I walked to the main office to sign in, several students called out, “Hey, I like your hair.” And they seemed sincere! Perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad after all. Certainly, the experience was already better than the four years I spent in my own high school.
I gathered my small group and we moved to the library to work. I had prepared some remarks the evening before but had forgotten to take my notebook out. I stammered something about how much I love to write and talked about working for the Center for Literary Publishing at CSU. We talked about what graduate school is like and then I brought out my gem.
I forget how I came across it, but I have a book with 365 creative writing prompts. This is pretty much the one thing I remember from my short story writing class, and my favorite—getting a prompt every time. I oozed nonchalance as I flipped through the pages looking for a prompt, having forgotten to do this beforehand. I finally landed on one that basically said: Go into a pet store to buy fish food and encounter something unexpected. Something along those lines.
They wrote, I sweated, we talked about writing, and then I spent the remainder of the day explaining over and over how to create an account on NaNoWriMo’s webpage, and how to get started. Honestly, I probably repeated myself thirty times (there were eight of them). And inside I danced a little jig, “I’m like a real teacher!” Obviously, I am not a real teacher.
The rest of the month they just wrote. These kids were so motivated, and the website had all these milestone markers and challenge points and gold stars, which made my job simple. I just had to be there and answer their questions. We talked about how to describe a character through scene and dialogue, how to create suspense, how to eliminate adjectives. And they looked at me like I had all the answers. It was awesome.
Best of all, about halfway through the month, I asked them what inspired their stories and what they were about, and one kid said, “That prompt you had us do gave me the idea for my story, so I’m just continuing it.” What?! I totally played it cool and just said, “Well, I’m glad I was able to help you think of a story.”
I encouraged the students to keep going after the month was over. If they want to be writers, the habit of writing every day cannot come soon enough. This is something I still struggle with, as well whether I’m doing everything right in general. And that’s really the best thing and what I love most about NaNoWriMo: it’s really for everyone, at every stage and level of writing.
On the main website they have a page full of pep talks from published writers, and my favorite is from Roxane Gay: “Finally there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing.”
So now, I have a nice little entry for my CV. I also had a great time, and now I have a source of support for my own writing that I can use anytime I want. Maybe one day, I’ll even be included in some acknowledgement somewhere: That one lady who came to my school that time and gave us a writing prompt.