One fall night in 1885, Mrs. Fanny Stevenson was awakened by the terrified screams of her dreaming husband. Concerned, she quickly roused him, to which he responded, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.”
What Scottish-born writer Robert Louis Stevenson had been conjuring in his dream was the transformation of the upstanding Dr. Jekyll into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. When he put pen to paper to tell the story, his wife claimed it took him just six days to complete it.
Probably suffering from undiagnosed tuberculosis for most of his life, Stevenson was quite ill when The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came tumbling out of him. Some have suggested the feverish pace with which he wrote the novella came from a cocaine binge, but his family insisted that it was simply the frustrated workings of bedridden genius.
Whatever spurred him, Stevenson seems to have mirrored his characters, stepping outside of himself for those six days to indulge the part of him that had a story to tell, maybe a brilliant allegory of addiction, and certainly a classic story of the capacity for both good and evil inside each of us.
I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with the story, but even so, it’s a quick read and well worth it if you’ve never opened it up. Maybe knowing that the initial draft was written in only six Hyde-like days makes it all the more chilling. And maybe inspiring.
Because it’s November, which means that it’s that time of year when writers of all walks of life, some experienced and some not, step outside of themselves and write a novel.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began in 1999 with the decision of 21 friends in the San Francisco Bay Area to set themselves a ridiculous goal to each write a novel within a month. It sounds crazy at first, because, well, we’re talking about a novel here. It’s a long project full of research and imagination. Some of the greatest novels ever written took years or even decades to complete. And some of the worst novels did, too. Snoopy wrote for fifty years and never made it past his opening line.
But it turned out there was purpose in the madness of the plan, even if the original participants didn’t realize it at first. The group had such a good time with the challenge, they opened it up to a wider community the next year and 140 people participated. The year after that it was around 5,000. In November of last year, 310,000 adult writers and 89,000 young writers, from all over the world, participated in NaNoWriMo.
Not all of them completed the 50,000-word goal, but 400,000 people stepped outside of themselves to indulge that part of them that had a story to tell. What started as a silly little writing challenge has blossomed now into a huge network of encouragement, with resources for writers at every stage of the game before, during, and long after that initial, probably terrible, first 50,000-word draft.
I heard about NaNoWriMo for the first time a few years ago through my local library that was sponsoring a series of “write-in” events in conjunction with it. I’ve since had lots of friends participate in the event. So, this year, I’m finally doing it. I’ve researched, planned, and outlined what I hope will be become 50,000 revision-worthy words. In December, I’ll have to drink my potion and let Dr. Jekyll take back over to do the real work of revision, revision, and still more revision. But for now, I am stepping outside of myself and indulging my Mr. Hyde (minus the cocaine) because he’s got a story to tell.
Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMos out there! Obviously I’m glad you stopped by, but seriously, stop reading blog posts and get to work. You have a novel to write!