Pep Talk from Karen Russell

photo of Karen Russel

Let me confess something to you, brave NaNoWriMo writers: As I pull out my bullhorn and pom-poms to cheer on your fiction during this, your month of marathon novel drafting, I am already out of breath myself, winded from the effort of not writing this pep talk. Do you know this pep talk is already a week overdue? This pep talk has had me completely stumped!

And in the process of trying to overcome my own resistance/stage-fright, I only wound up generating more of the same. What went wrong? In fact, I was giving myself the wrong kind of pep talk to write this pep talk. It was actually an abusive gangsterish screed masquerading as a pep talk. Fans of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation know about this mental trap, wherein your self-talk only tightens the noose knots of your writer’s block. It went something like this:

  1. “You promised you would write the good folks at NaNoWriMo a pep talk. And every day for a week, you have been swearing that you’re going to write it, just as soon as you ‘finish up with e-mails.’ You sicken me.”
  2. “Oh-ho! Somebody thinks more coffee is going to help her write the pep talk! Let’s review what happened the last time you drank a pot of gas station coffee—did you magically transmute into Tolstoy? Hell no. You just went to the bathroom a dozen times, and got a migraine that felt like a blinding sunrise inside your mind.”
  3. “Do you even think it matters what you tell people in this pep talk? Do you honestly think it’s going to make a difference?”
  4. “Oh, you want to eat lunch now? It’s ten-thirty AM! What time zone do you think you’re in, Spain? You’re not hungry, you loafer! Go write that freaking pep talk!”
  5. “Wait, that’s your idea? That’s your expert advice? You’re going to tell these novelists to just keep going? You’re going to tell these honest, earnest writers: You gotta have faith? Those are George Michael lyrics, asshole. If they wanted that pep talk, they could just hang out inside a mall elevator.”
  6. “Enough! Get off the web! Get off the NaNoWriMo website! You can’t just plagiarize Dave Eggers! Minimize the Eggers-window and write your own damn pep talk!”
  7. “Put your ass in the seat and write the pep talk!”
  8. Etc.

Does this voice sound familiar to you guys? Perhaps you, too, have a coach of the interior like mine—bald and cruel, shaking his sweaty pate at your sloth, ridiculing your sentences, professionally contemptuous. Extremely foul-mouthed. A definite misogynist. A voice that reads over your shoulder and snorts with derision at your characters’ dialogue. A voice in cahoots with every other voice that has ever criticized your efforts and ambitions and haircut. He pretends to be all kinds of things: the Voice of Reason, the Voice of Tough Love. But he is a tyrant. He is the enemy of fiction writing. His “pep talks” are actually spells of paralysis, designed to rob you of all confidence and happiness. In order to write your novel, you must get rid of this sadist. Do whatever it takes to shut him up. Chloroform him; drag him by his white Reebox behind the dugout; bury his shrill, censorious whistle. Then return to your green, blank, mercifully silent playing field, and write.

One month: that’s the perfect deadline. Just enough time to draw a novel-draft out of the ether, while etherizing the coach. The coach isn’t really a coach at all, but Lucifer in mesh shorts. He’s the internalized voice of anyone who has ever hinted that novel-writing is a silly enterprise, and/or a serious enterprise leagues beyond your intelligence and ability. (There are genuine mentors out there, whose voices you should heed; these voices believe that what you’re dreaming up has merit, and they make you itch to apply pen to paper). Procrastination is the stealth-killer of novels, of course, which is why NaNoWriMo is such a genius challenge—inside the parentheses of (November), you now have permission to write at demoniac speeds, to plunge headlong into the wilderness of draft one. Permission to ignore any obscene, unhelpful “pep talks” your inner critic might be howling at you.

“Pleasure is a great guide to what you should be doing next,” the critic Helen Vendler has said. And, assuming you don’t get your jollies from eating McDonald’s fries in bulk or torturing endangered animals, I think this is fantastic advice. Instead of focusing, preemptively, on the ways you might be failing as a writer, or becoming obsessed with outcomes, your vision of your novel’s cover art and ISBN and ectoplasmic blurb from the exhumed corpse of Gore Vidal, why not make it your goal this NaNoWriMo to take pleasure in the process itself? I can vouch for the efficacy of this approach.

The second I decided it would be OK to write a goofy pep talk, all of my panic dissolved. Self-discipline is necessary, but so is playfulness, flexibility, joy. When you stop demanding perfection of yourself, your writing desk will become a spacious place. You don’t have to listen to the coach when he screams at you that your novel is out of control, that your characters are misbehaving, that the plot has gotten away from you. Slipperiness is good. Sloppiness is OK. Try to cultivate a maternal patience with your own uncertainty and doubt; a tolerance for bad writing; a willingness to let a story develop embryonically.

You will almost definitely have to revise, and likely even fully rewrite, whatever story you are pursuing right this moment. There will be time aplenty to refine your sentences, to smooth out narrative pleats. This month, why not go ahead and follow your pleasure? Now I’m plagiarizing the Magic 8-Ball, but believe me: More will be revealed. Go ahead and give yourself that mystic pep talk. The practice of letting go, of seeing where your own curiosity leads you, can only benefit your novel as a whole.

Good luck and godspeed, Wrimos!


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Karen Russell won the 2012 and the 2018 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, the “5 under 35” prize from the National Book Foundation, the NYPL Young Lions Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and is a former fellow of the Cullman Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She currently holds the Endowed Chair at Texas State University’s MFA program, and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son.