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Review for The Office of Letters and Light, Berkeley, CA, USA

Rating: 4 stars  

National Novel Writing Month is a wonderful community initiative that encourages those who have never written much before -- perhaps those who have never dared to think of themselves as a writer before -- to take up the literal pen and finally write that dreamt-of novel. A lot of people see NaNoWriMo as a fun thing to do in November, but I think it's much more than that -- it's a powerful literacy tool to empower people of all ages to reach beyond what they think they're capable of.

Good writers learn by reading; great writers learn by writing. Participate in NaNoWriMo, give it a go one November, and you will find yourself tapping into creative juices you had no idea were there. Take what you've learned from NaNoWriMo and harness these energies outside of November, and a writer you are (because a writer writes!).

Participants write fantasies, literary fiction, personal memoirs -- whether or not participants go on to edit and try to publish (and many do not), an important event has taken place simply in the act of picking up that pen, turning on that laptop, firing up that AlphaSmart. The act says 'I can do this.' It says 'My dreams are worth it.' It says 'Maybe I won't get to 50k, but I will try my hardest, and I will be proud of whatever I achieve if I've put an honest and solid effort in.'

NaNoWriMo is an important project and is especially effective at targeting teens and youth (through the Young Writers Program as well as the general NaNoWriMo challenge). It deserves and will make good use of any funding it receives.

Constructive feedback:

- After four years of ML-ing, I have found that the 50k goal, while integral to the event, is a deterrent and frustration to many participants year after year. I repeatedly tell my wrimos that any new writing in November is more than they would have written otherwise, and is an achievement to be celebrated. But too often I find people unnecessarily focused on the goal of 50,000 words rather than the simple fact that they're trying their best amidst family, work, and other demands. I find it disheartening when someone who wrote 35,000 words in November talks about themselves as though they and their efforts are a failure. I am not suggesting we do away with the 50k goal, but I think it would be worthwhile to consider ways to get across the message that 35,000 -- or 5,000 -- words is a worthy achievement, too, even if it may not qualify as a "win."

- I know that NaNoWriMo has had the plans (but not the money) to launch a year-round NaNoWriMo-type challenge for a couple of years now. I think it's very important to take this step. I find, and have found personally, that it's difficult to keep up the writing momentum after the frenzied month of November, and extra motivation throughout the year (or at least a website where we can continue to update our word count and find support from other writers in the forums) would be invaluable -- and very necessary. To keep the benefits of what I described above, the ways NaNoWriMo helps with literacy, I believe that the event must have a year-round component in order to help the new and burgeoning writers keep themselves on track. For this, NaNoWriMo needs and would make good use of any funding monies. Also, if a year-round NaNoWriMo event were to be launched, my following point is even more important.

- NaNoWriMo organizers need to seriously consider adding the genre of "autobiographical fiction" to their list of accepted genres (preferably with it's own forum). After a slow but steady increase in acceptance of "rebel" memoir and autobiography writers over the last 5 years that I have been involved with NaNo, this past year the official stand was that memoir and autobiography writers are well within the rules *as long as* they believe they are writing fiction (since that is the cardinal rule of the NaNoWriMo event: one must write fiction, and this makes sense when non-fiction is things like cookbooks and legal texts).

In my experience, a vast majority of memoir/autobiography writers (who post on the NaNo forums, at least) fictionalize their writings in some way (name changes, merging of events, writing stories vaguely based on their lives but changing anything they see fit -- hmm, that sounds like fiction to me). But as of now, these writers are still relegated to the "rebels" forum, the place for people who choose not to play by the rules (such as writers choose to start writing before the Nov. 1 challenge begins). I would suggest adding an "autobiographical fiction" (which is a fictional story loosely based on the author's life) section to the forums to make it clear that this genre is part of the "allowed" NaNoWriMo genres. The non-fiction memoir and autobiography writers will still be rebels, of course, and that's fine. But I think this would be an ideal compromise, letting these writers know that if they are willing to fictionalize their stories, or if they consider their stories fiction, then they will be playing by the rules.

(Why is this more important if NaNoWriMo were active year-round? Because it's hard enough being a "rebel" for one month of the year; feeling like you're not a legitimate participant in a full-year event would be so much harder. I feel strongly that the "fiction/non-fiction -- where does memoir fit in?" question needs to be resolved before the NaNo challenge launches year-round. I also think resolution of this question would bring in more donation dollars from participants -- participants who feel validate and supported donate more, after all.)

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

encouraging me to produce four 50k+ manuscripts that I can now edit (and have published one story based on these). NaNoWriMo introduced me to the world of more serious writing, and introduced me to an effective method of combating writer's block (just write!). Through NaNo I've also met numerous writers locally, and joined local writing groups.

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

consider the changes I described above under "constructive feedback."

Would you volunteer for this group again?


For the time you spent, how much of an impact did you feel your work or activity had?

A lot

Did the organization use your time wisely?

Quite well

Would you recommend this group to a friend?


What one change could this group make that would improve your volunteer experience?

More instruction and clarity about how co-municipal liaisons can best work together and share/split the workload.

Did your volunteer experience have an effect on you? (teaching you a new skill, or introducing new friends, etc.)

Yes, I have gained many things from my experience volunteering here. I have learned many new skills (including interviewing with the media) and I have met most of my circle of friends through NaNo!

How did this volunteer experience make you feel?

Very positive.

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?


Role:  Volunteer & I was a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo.