NaNoWriMo Week 1: Tom Robbins Gives Me a Pep Talk

It’s been one week since I started my novel attempt and I am stalled out at 6,217 words.

I actually haven’t found the time to write since Monday; life gets in the way. For example, last night I had the choice to write my allotment of 1,667 words or help out a student that had been assigned me for her class (she sent me an e-mail with about half a dozen questions asking me about why the poem–in the current issue of Tinfish, shameless plug for Susan–was the way it was, my influences, and such). Guess what I chose to do?

Anyway, when I started I knew I was going to get the odd pep talk here and there from the people at the Office of Letters and Light. What I did not expect was one from Tom Robbins (I rather like a number of his books, I’d put him on my favorite authors list, but that would look like kissing up now).

Yes, it’s a mass list e-mail, but still I didn’t think that I’d actually recognize any author that would be doing the pep talk. So without further ado, here is the missive in full.

Dear NaNoWriMo participant,

When you sit down to begin that novel of yours, the first thing you might want to do is toss a handful of powdered napalm over both shoulders—so as to dispense with any and all of your old writing teachers, the ones whose ghosts surely will be hovering there, saying such things as, "Adverbs should never be…", or "A novel is supposed to convey…", et cetera. Enough! Ye literary bureaucrats, vamoose!

Rules such as "Write what you know," and "Show, don’t tell," while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.

Ah, but how can you know if it’s working? The truth is, you can’t always know (I nearly burned my first novel a dozen times, and it’s still in print after 35 years), you just have to sense it, feel it, trust it. It’s intu itive, and that peculiar brand of intuition is a gift from the gods. Obviously, most people have received a different package altogether, but until you undo the ribbons you can never be sure.

As the great Nelson Algren once said, “Any writer who knows what he’s doing isn’t doing very much.” Most really good fiction is compelled into being. It comes from a kind of uncalculated innocence. You need not have your ending in mind before you commence. Indeed, you need not be certain of exactly what’s going to transpire on page 2. If you know the whole story in advance, your novel is probably dead before you begin it. Give it some room to breathe, to change direction, to surprise you. Writing a novel is not so much a project as a journey, a voyage, an adventure.

A topic is necessary, of course; a theme, a general sense of the nexus of effects you’d like your narrative to ultimately produce. Beyond that, you simply pack your imagination, your sense of humor, a character or two, and your personal world view into a little canoe, push it out onto the vast dark river, and see where the currents take you. And should you ever think you hear the sound of dangerous rapids around the next bend, hey, hang on, tighten your focus, and keep paddling—because now you’re really writing, baby! This is the best part.

It’s a bit like being out of control and totally in charge, simultaneously. If that seems tricky, well, it’s a tricky business. Try it. It’ll drive you crazy. And you’ll love it.

Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is the author of eight novels, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, and his latest, Villa Incognito.

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