NaNoWriMo: Accommodating Your Disability (and Other Limitations)

Dear friends,

Welcome to the first NaNoWriMo bonus post! I asked my Patreon patrons what topics they’d like me to write about, and a couple of folks suggested discussing doing NaNo while disabled. I think this is a brilliant idea—thank you, wise patrons! Writers have all kinds of limitations and the techniques I’m going to discuss here will be broadly applicable to working with and around those limitations, but I really want to focus on disability, because one-size-fits-all goals, like NaNo’s 50k words in 30 days, come with unspoken assumptions about ability that are particularly hard for disabled people to push back against.

I have several intermittent chronic conditions (some physical, some psychological) that flare up and interfere with my writing. I know what it’s like to look at a thing that everyone else is doing and feel miserable because I just can’t do it, or because it looks easy for everyone else and is very hard for me. So the first thing I want to say to anyone who’s disabled and feeling that way around NaNo is that it is not your fault that 50k in 30 days is massively difficult or impossible for you. Like so many things, NaNo is designed for people with a certain level of ability—not just writing skill, but the physical ability to use writing tools or write for long stretches every day, and the mental ability to be organized and disciplined around writing. No one says “you must be this able to ride this ride” but you can very easily see it between the lines. There are also unspoken assumptions about your available time, which is a challenge for many writers but particularly for those whose disabilities slow them down in other ways and eat up all their time just in doing the necessary tasks of day-to-day life. NaNo is, quite bluntly, not made for us.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do it anyway, of course! This post is directed at people who’ve already decided NaNo is something they want to tackle, and I’m not about to tell you to give up. But if it feels inordinately hard to do NaNo while disabled, that’s because it is. You’re not imagining things. It is a real challenge.

Workplaces and schools make accommodations for people with disabilities so that we can reach the same level of achievement as anyone else. When you’re doing NaNo, you’re the one in charge, so it’s up to you to make those accommodations for yourself. Here are some places to start:

  • Give yourself permission to do NaNo your way. This is fundamental. If your disabilities are such that NaNo is disproportionately difficult for you, allow yourself to acknowledge that and to seek and use accommodations. Also, look at all the ways abled people adjust NaNo to suit themselves; I see people using it as a time to write original work, write fanfic, write blog posts, write poetry, revise existing work, complete unfinished work, do research or outlining on which to base future work, or just practice writing discipline. If Max Gladstone (who, as far as I know, has no official affiliation with NaNoWriMo) can unilaterally tweet out amnesty for the first eight days of NaNo for anyone who does election-related volunteering during those days, you can give yourself whatever parallel amnesty you need.
  • Give yourself the tools and space you need. That means writing instruments you can use with minimal pain; a comfortable place to sit, stand, or otherwise rest your body while you write; freedom from overwhelming distractions; soothing or inspiring music, background noise, white noise, or silence; medications and assistive devices; or whatever else your body and mind require. These are important in general, but especially when you’re writing under pressure.
  • Give yourself a personalized schedule. Just as a student with developmental disabilities might get more time to take a test, you can give yourself more time to write your book. What shape that takes is up to you. Maybe you still want to write 50k words in 30 days, but they can’t be 30 consecutive days because you need to rest your body or your brain; you could do one day on, two days off, and finish by the end of January. Maybe you know that at your writing speed you’ll need to set aside four hours a day to make those 1667 daily words happen; if that’s what you need, make sure you get it.
  • Give yourself time to rest and recharge. Whatever your schedule is, build in as many breaks as possible—real rest breaks, not “breaks” where you go and do other things—and make sure you have time to eat and sleep, too. Writing is hard work and needs fuel.
  • Give yourself a personalized goal. The 50k goal has always puzzled me a bit, because hardly any novels for adults are that length these days. It seems to have been chosen more as a round number and a goal that felt achievable by most people in 30 days than because it has any real-world meaning. If you don’t think you can achieve 50k words in 30 days without wrecking yourself, what’s your equivalent goal? Maybe it’s a poem a day or a story or essay every few days, at the end of which you have enough material for a collection. Maybe it’s the text for a children’s picture book, or a middle grade chapter book. Maybe you can craft a really solid paragraph-per-chapter outline for a novel, or a set of detailed character sketches. There are lots of ways to create a book in 30 days that aren’t about hitting that specific arbitrary 50k mark. Or let go of those goals entirely and focus on developing writing discipline. The time pressure aspect of NaNo is often seen more as a drawback or downside than as an opportunity, but it can help you get in the habit of writing regularly even when the rest of life intervenes. So if that’s something that you want to learn and practice (and it doesn’t have to be), set a goal of writing every day or three times a week or however often works for you.
  • Give yourself a head start. Lots and lots of people do pre-NaNo prep work; you can too! Consider adding 30k to an existing 20k of manuscript, fixing up a bunch of short stories into something novel-like, or otherwise revising something already written. You can also write fanfic for NaNo, and take advantage of all the worldbuilding and character development already being done for you. Or if plotting’s your weak point, retell a fairy tale, Shakespeare play, Austen novel, or other out-of-copyright story in your own words. When I started planning my Persuasion retelling, I literally pulled up the Cliff Notes for the book, copied them into a text file, did a bunch of find-and-replace for character names, and called that the first draft of my outline. You are totally allowed to do this too, or whatever equivalent is useful for you.
  • Give yourself a support team. Hang out on NaNo message boards, get together with other writers in person, or reach out to sympathetic non-writer friends. However you go about it, make sure you have supporters who understand the challenge you’re facing and will help you see it through, without judging you, scorning you, patronizing you, or blithely offering advice that doesn’t fit with your life and your needs.
  • Give yourself permission to change. Your needs may change. Your condition may flare up. The goal that seemed easily achieved on November 1 may seem impossible by November 20. The accommodations that seemed sufficient may fall short. A formerly supportive person may flake out. That’s okay. Make as many adjustments to your accommodations as necessary, and do your best.
  • Give yourself a flexible definition of success. You don’t represent all disabled people everywhere; you don’t have to prove anything by “winning” NaNo and you don’t let anyone down (not even yourself) if you don’t reach your goal. One thing I’ve learned from watching my baby figure out the world is that “you tried and you learned” is a completely fine and very valuable outcome for almost any self-directed effort. You will definitely try doing NaNo, and you will definitely learn from it. (It might be useful to think right now about what you’d like to learn from it, and direct your efforts accordingly.) And regardless of how things go, you can always try again next year, or in any other time period you designate, with a new strategy that takes into account what you learned this time around.

There are lots of ways to keep to the spirit of NaNoWriMo while adapting the details to your own goals and needs and abilities and limitations. Plenty of abled writers do this, and you absolutely get to do it too if you need to or just if you want to. The key is to set yourself up to feel really good about whatever you accomplish—setting yourself up to succeed.

Happy trying, happy learning, and happy writing!


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2016 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

9 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: Accommodating Your Disability (and Other Limitations)

  1. I’d offer the following advice to NaNo’ers in the Antipodes (that is, anyone living in the Southern Hemisphere). Remember that the “Na” in NaNoWriMo stands for “National”, and the nation in question is the USA – which doesn’t run on the same academic calendar as most Southern Hemisphere nations.

    Down here, November is the big “crunch” month – the month when final exams happen for university, or for the end of high school. Up there? November is their equivalent of about March or April – a month which is early in the academic calendar, and where there’s the expectation there will be interruptions from public holidays (Thanksgiving).

    So if you’re not from the USA, and you’re not on the same academic calendar as people in the USA, you shouldn’t hold yourself to the same sorts of standards as people in the USA either. If you have exams to do, give priority to those, rather than worrying about “winning” NaNoWriMo.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post, and much of it can be applied to other factors that make NaNoWriMo difficult (e.g. the day job, social commitments, childcare, etc). Personally I can never decide whether the fact that November is the designated month makes things more difficult because seasonal depression makes everything more difficult, or easier because I wouldn’t be talking to anyone anyway.

    One thing that I noticed after several years of NaNoWriMo and, when that got too much, lower-pressure month-long community writing endeavours at other points of the year, is that my productivity drops off sharply after the first fortnight. I’m working with that now, rather than against it, and I work on a cycle of two weeks writing, two weeks rest, throughout the year.


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