Saturday, 30 November 2013

3 Things NaNoWriMo has taught me...

...About myself, about writing, and maybe even about being a vicar

1. Accountability and score-keeping work, even when they are explicitly notional. By the end of Day 2, I was hooked on the little graph that the NaNoWriMo website produces for you, showing your daily and cumulative word count alongside the target line of 1667 daily words. I know my children will behave better (sometimes) to get a star on a star chart, and I have discovered over the years that giving a reward - sweets, or a film - for winning so many stars adds nothing to its effectiveness. The stars are their own reward. This November, I discovered the power of that for myself. I felt I owed it to that graph to keep it going up (and I felt it looking at me reproachfully when I got off track one day!).

2. I am even more competitive and driven than I had realised, but only against myself. I love to win, but I was to discover this November that this drive is nothing at all to do with beating others. One of the lovely things about NaNoWriMo is that you are never competing against the other participants, you are competing with them. We all cheer each other on, meet up to write together, and it is perfectly possible for all to be winners. You don't win by beating others, you win by beating your own sloth, fear and despondence to produce 50,000 words. It's not 'all shall have prizes' - you only win by writing those words - but there is no reason why everyone couldn't be a winner. I like that.

3. Perfectionism is the enemy of achievement. When I stopped worrying about whether the words I was writing were any good, I found it much easier to get my daily word count written. My mantra for November was 'you're not writing a novel, you are just writing a first draft'. Much easier, much more achievable, and much less rabbit-in-headlights. I actually planned this novel in outline back in the first half of the year. But when I had finished planning, and the time came to write, I froze. Having an achievable and not quality-driven goal defrosted me. then, because I'm an endlessly reflective practitioner (read, hopelessly over-analytical!) I started wondering if any of these lessons could be applied to my 'day job' of being a vicar.

Given the inescapability of the current Church Growth agenda - which I generally think of as a good thing - star charts and graphs seem immediately applicable. A new convert? have a gold star! Keep that Usual Sunday Attendance graph going steadily up!

However. When I think back over my experience in my first year in my current post, and compare it with my NaNoWriMo experience, the 'rabbit in headlights' panic is what resonates most strongly.

 I must get church growth! And just numbers aren't enough, it has to be good quality too! They have to be real converts, not transfer growth! And they have to be properly discipled! And start giving sacrificially as soon as possible so the diocese doesn't go bankrupt!

Panic. Freeze.

What might defrost this panic? Could something, like NaNoWriMo did for my embryonic novel, stop us staring into the headlights in terror and get us moving, slowly and steadily, in the right direction?

If the 3 things I learned about writing a novel are more generally applicable, then things I am wondering about are:

1. What about a star chart or graph? We collect attendance figures each week: I would be fascinated to find out what it would do to people's behaviour if that was graphed publicly, at the back of church. Would people feel more accountable to coming more regularly, to keep the graph looking happy? Or what about the PCC? We look at the state of our bank balance each month, but only rarely at our attendance figures. Maybe we should have the graph as a standing item on the agenda?

Or maybe this is more personal? I remember as a child getting a sticker each week in Sunday School, to go in my personal book: and now I have loyalty cards for Waterstones, Costa etc in my wallet, that get stamped each time I go...I would be wary of creating a consumer attitude to churchgoing, but I wonder if there is any way this sort of thing could be used to assist in habit-forming?

2. Church and diocesan culture can make the difference between whether church growth is seen as a game of winners and losers, or a shared endeavour. It is well known that the church has a very flat structure, with very few 'senior' positions with which to reward success, though, and this can encourage a sense of jockeying for position. Big churches throwing their weight around and threatening to take their people and money elsewhere doesn't help. How could a diocese, or the church centrally, use something like the NaNoWriMo structure to reward everyone's successes? Another thought experiment: what if the CofE website, when we enter our church statistics, sent everyone a certificate congratulating them?

3. Perfectionism. Hmm. This is a biggie. In all the Church Growth conferences I've been to and books I've read, people are always at pains to point out that quality is as important as quantity. Sometimes, this is an excuse not to bother with numbers: more often it is due to a genuine desire to make disciples, and a genuine concern to deepen the faith of those already in church. However. I wonder if this 'of course, quality matters just as much or more' rhetoric in fact stifles conscious efforts to grow the church by inadvertently causing a 'rabbit in the headlights' reaction? Maybe if we just concentrated on the numbers for a bit, without worrying about quality initially, we'd actually get some material to work on? Just a thought...

(Post edited slightly, 3.12.13)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post Miranda, love how you seek lessons to be learnt from your NaNoWriMo experience. Thanks for reminding me of the thrill my 9 year old self got from receiving little green church stamps on a card each time I took a friend to
    the church's holiday club!
    Your question about quality/quantity is a definite discussion starter! My first thought is that you weren't just writing random words to make up the numbers, or One Direction fan-fiction (were you??) but something true to yourself. Imperfect because a first draft. So getting the numbers into church is fine, but the first draft of religion they encounter, as it were, needs to be a true one, however incomplete?