NaNoWriMo -- aka National Novel Writing Month -- dawns once again. This is the now-international phenomenon that challenges ordinary citizens to pen an original 50,000-word novel entirely in the month of November. Since its humble 1999 origins, freelance journalist Chris Baty's vision has ballooned into a cultural juggernaut, with 42,000-plus participants last year.
The vast majority of these scribes, however, hide their masterpieces from the world -- even close friends and lovers are forbidden to read them, whether out of embarrassment or merely a desire for privacy. Oregon-based rock critic and blogger Douglas Wolk counts himself among this throng. His 2001 tome was entitled Monkey Wire. "The novel was really, really awful, and I never let anyone else see it," he admits. "But it was a hell of a lot of fun to write."
And that, ideally, is the point -- private satisfaction, as opposed to public praise for writing the Great American Novel. It's a fantastic idea, one that has inspired numerous spinoffs, of which Wolk's 2004 brainchild is the latest: National Solo Album Month.
You see where this is going. Employing any style of music, any instrumentation, and any recording method, NaSoAlMo troopers craft their very own solo album, entirely in November. Wolk has chosen the first Ramones album as a length-requirement benchmark, clocking in at 29:09; as the record features one cover song ("Let's Dance"), you may do the same.
Wolk is not the first to issue this challenge -- investigate February Album Writing Month at FAWM.org -- but he's a prominent, charismatic dude who writes for Spin, Slate, and The New York Times, in addition to having penned a 33 1/3 book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo. He has also inspired 60-plus folks to sign up for the feat at Lacunae.com/nasoalmo. Far from fuming over copyright infringement, NaNoWriMo's Baty approves of Wolk's effort: "Any event that uses the Ramones as a creative benchmark is clearly doing good work," he says.
And the race is on. This is, of course, a smaller, more peculiar beast than NaNoWriMo. For one thing, Baty organizes write-ins where authors can gather to feed off the collective enthusiasm, whereas it's not feasible for several people to lay down searing clarinet solos in the same room. But come December 1, the outcome will be similar: a horde of proud artists hoisting novels and albums they're perfectly happy to conceal forever. Wolk invites folks to send in their results, and the audioblog SaidtheGramophone.com will host them. But that ain't the point.
"There's a sense I get too often that people feel like they're not even allowed to make any kind of art unless they have mass culture in mind," Wolk says -- "that unless you're a talented professional, your task is only to consume, and that making stuff is the painful task that artists have to put up with to reap the benefits of public exposure. That is pretty high up there on the list of the stupidest things I've ever heard. Making art for yourself -- and not necessarily for anyone else -- is about as much fun as anything can be."
Thus, it's no surprise that one prominent jazz-classical luminary participating in NaSoAlMo prefers to remain unnamed and unknown. "Part of the reason I signed up for the thing with the stupid acronym is because it felt really anonymous," she says. "I like the idea of delivering music to total strangers, people who have never heard a peep out of me. I make my living as a musician for hire. I sing other people's music for money . . . I am basically a high-priced hooker in the field of music. Okay, a medium-priced hooker plus heart of gold, or something like that.
"I often think about the word 'amateur,' which comes from the Latin amator, meaning 'lover,'" she continues. "Someone who makes art for the love of it and does not get paid is an amateur. I am a professional who is attracted to the idea of being an amateur. But if I am going to do it for love, I want it to be with a stranger."
So don't get offended if your friends won't share their novels and debut albums with you -- it's not about you, after all, and perhaps that's for your own good. "What if my original songs are just complete crap?" asks the Masked NaSoAlMo-er. "Derivative, boring, older, balder versions of the artist that I might have been at age 14, if I had not been so practical and so hell-bent on getting paid? If it turns out I have no tacos, I don't want to annoy my friends and colleagues. I would rather annoy total strangers on the internet. Isn't that what the internet is for?"