On a cold and rainy Sunday night in November, under the soft light of cut-glass globe chandeliers and the watchful eye of an owl on the mantel, two hundred plus writers scribble on notepads and tap away on computers. Jazz music slinks through the room, interspersed occasionally with an upbeat dose of electronica or a melody from the Muppets. Every so often, the clarion ring of a bell sounds, and the writers look up from their laptops and notepads to clap and cheer. They’ve braved rain, delayed flights, and seasonal colds to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously at the Julia Morgan ballroom in San Francisco, a spirited extravaganza best described as part writing-fest, part community-builder, and part fundraiser (individuals must raise at least $250 to attend). The ring of the bell celebrates another scribe who has written 50,000 words, the audacious goal of writers who participate in National Novel Writing Month, or, as it’s fondly known, NaNoWriMo.
Writers come to the NOWD in swanky dress reminiscent of an earlier era. To fuel writers for the 7-hour writing marathon, lots of treats are on hand: drinks, cookies, donuts, and candy – lots of candy. “The candy buffet always attracts a lot of people,” jokes Sarah Mackey of the Office of Letters and Light, the tiny but mighty Berkeley nonprofit organization that puts on National Novel Writing Month in November and ScriptFrenzy in April, in addition to the Young Writers Program in the schools and other writing programs throughout the year.
This year’s NaNoWriMo is bittersweet. At the end of 2011, executive director Chris Baty, who started NaNoWriMo in 1999, steps down from the Office of Letters and Light to pursue full-time writing. Asked how he is experiencing this final Night of Writing Dangerously, the articulate and affable Baty seems almost at a loss for words. “I was always caught up with the administrative tasks,” he says. “I’m finally getting a chance to step back and see the impact that this has had on people. It’s overwhelming.”
The impact of NaNoWriMo on the world of writing is profound and widespread. This year, 300,000 writers worldwide participate in the month-long endeavor to write a 50,000-word novel. Writers have flown in from Southern California, Atlanta, Kansas City, Pennsylvania, and even Canada to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously; a contingent from Edmonton filled an entire table. One dedicated writer came from Stockholm, Sweden. Birgitta Persson, 64, loves the idea of supporting a program that gets people to write. “I think it’s fantastic,” she said, gesturing to the room full of writers, “that people can work together to accomplish something like this.” In Sweden, Persson explains, most money for arts and culture projects are funded by the state. Persson says she will take the energy of the NOWD with her and look at what similar programs can be started in her home country.
For Bay Area residents Penny Edwards and Katina Johnson, both second-year NOWD attendees, the comfort of being around other writers is what draws them to NaNoWriMo. “Whether you’re a seasoned writer or beginning writer,” says Johnson, “the struggles are the same.” Both speak of the incredible energy found in a room full of people writing at the same time, an energy that NaNoWriMo has harnessed with eye-opening results. Sunday’s fundraiser brought in $50,000 for the nonprofit, funds that will go to the Young Writers Program in Bay Area schools. Baty explains that 50% of the Office of Letters and Light’s budget comes from individual fundraisers, so NaNoWriMo and the NOWD are their biggest fundraising events of the year.
But raising money seems to be the last thing on Chris Baty’s mind as he circulates through the ballroom, taking time to talk to nearly each and every attendee, humbly asking for their advice as he prepares to embark on his own novel writing adventure. “We never make time for our own creative endeavors,” says Baty, who has devoted the past twelve years of his life to helping others achieve their novel-writing dreams. Writing a novel requires a tremendous degree of commitment, stamina, and faith, and the act of doing so opens the mind to even more creative possibilities. Baty has learned that anyone who wins NaNoWriMo – who reaches the 50,000 word goal – is left with a deep sense of satisfaction. “People are able to say, now that I’ve done this, what else is in me? What other amazing things can I accomplish?” That is the true intangible value of NaNoWriMo. It enables individuals to realize and celebrate the massive creative potential that exists in us all.