The Autoethnography: Ten Examples
NaNoWriMo. I played with the words on my tongue as I rode the One train to 79th Street. I anxiously opened the door to Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, afraid that the write-in group would be very exclusive and unwelcoming to those who do not have the experienced hands that have typed 50,000 words. A calming whiff of coffee beans pulled me into the café and I found myself plopped down at the nearest one-person table. I glanced at my surroundings and felt an odd déjà vu. The wooden tables, red brick walls, and modern lighting designs made the place feel like a cozy café plucked out of a romance movie. “NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month” signs were placed on various tables in the front of the café so participants (and a certain subculture observer) could find each other.
I was not sure what to expect from a subculture of writers, but I looked around and saw some people boot up their laptops while others ordered warm drinks to thaw their insides and get their gears going. I didn’t know it then, but Alexis’s (the municipal liaison for Manhattan) words would hold true: I had chosen the safest and most normal group of people for my subculture essay. There was no specific trait that classified them as the type to partake in this writing event. It seemed like an everyday winter scene with people clad in flannels and sweaters, all enjoying a coffee after a long day. To my surprise, the most common occupation in the group this year was lawyers; however, their determined typing figures gave nothing away.
Other than the normalcy of their attire, everyone seemed to be in their mid twenties to thirties. At eighteen, I couldn’t help but feel like an awkward outlier. Later when I asked if there were any younger participants, Alexis and Clarice (the municipal liaison for Brooklyn) recalled a few teenagers at the Brooklyn write-ins. “One time we had a girl come in and say that her dad thought she was at swim meet right now. And we said ‘oh, you shouldn’t do that!’” Clarice laughed at the memory while Alexis carried on.
As I soaked in my surroundings at my one-person table, two men by my side greeted me with the warmest of smiles. When I asked who was in charge they pointed me to Alexis, who was seated at the end of a large table with other NaNoWriMo writers. She gave a surprised chuckle when I asked if I could sit and observe, and I was swiftly seated beside her. The people around the table noticed me as a new face and they smiled and introduced themselves. I shyly opened up my notebook to begin my observing process, while Alexis supplied me with an incredible amount of information that I didn’t know if I’d have enough paper to jot it all down on. The ladies around me pitched in as well, and I was overall blown away by their kindness. It radiated through the room with a warm and comfortable feeling.
When I tell someone that I observed NaNoWriMo, the question I get asked most is “How intense are the write-ins?” Many assume that the month long event is all work no play, but what I experienced at the café was an unmistakable bond of friendship and chatter. I overheard people talking about how tearful, yet amazing Big Hero 6 was, and other conversations wandered off into methods of getting rid of hand cramps. At another corner of the room I could hear writers exchanging ideas on their stories thus far. A woman exclaimed, “I don’t want to be the arsonist upstairs!” and it made me wonder what her story could possibly be about. So it wasn’t hard to believe when I asked Alexis about the relationships within the group and she proudly mentioned a couple who met through NaNoWriMo and got married, and a group of people who became roommates. “We even join book clubs together,” she added. I realized that the dynamic of this group was welcoming and enthusiastic. It reminded me of a close-knit group of true friends who are genuinely supportive of each other. I asked Alexis to describe NaNoWriMo as a subculture, and she claimed that the group would not be one if it weren’t for the write-ins. “A woman from Denmark moved to New York for a month to participate in this! She wanted to be in a community where people are really engaged and active.” My jaw dropped at the fact that the woman took a leave from work just to participate in NaNoWriMo.
Suddenly a man in a red and white gingham button up yelled from behind, “We’re starting a ten minute sprint…NOW!” A tremendous hush fell over the group and all I could hear was ferocious taps on the keyboard. It dominated the clamor of customers at the back of the room, to the point where even the café music became a dull hum. A few sighs escaped the lips of those who were frustrated at either their writer’s block or their fingers that would not move fast enough. “It’s a writing group. They do this every year or something.” A barista clarified to a curious customer. “It’s so quiet,” a few passerby’s whispered as they made their way to the door. I looked at the faces of those around me and was appalled at their level of concentration. Knowing that I was clearly a little lost, Alexis leaned over and explained what a word sprint is. “Basically everyone starts typing whatever they can during a certain amount of time, and at the end we shout out our word counts. Back when the group was smaller, we used to give prizes for the winner, like buy them a cup of coffee or give them all the change we have in our pockets.” I nodded in understanding and was surprised by the activities that the group did to motivate each other to write. I also found out that there is a Twitter account for NaNoWriMo word sprints, and topics and times are tweeted on a daily basis. It seemed intricate and well-thought-out so that everyone could join in no matter where their location. When the timer rung, everyone went back to their normal chitchat mode. The average word count seemed to be around 320. Then one woman shouted, “1195!” I couldn’t believe my ears until people around me explained that she always had the highest counts, to which she chuckled and said, “At this point I think we agree that I don’t count. I’m not here, I’m the NaNoWriMo ghost.”
I realized that a great part of this subculture has to do with technology, whether it is in the form of a smartphone or a laptop. One observation is all it takes to show that it is an obvious artifact in this subculture. Almost everyone types his or her novels—although, I was told a funny story about those who brought typewriters to quiet write-in locations and were forced to move to somewhere else and type—and the 50,000 word count happens online, as well. The website is really a collective source of useful devices and information. There they have a forum where participants can communicate, a chart that graphs how much they have written so far and how much they have left, and a calendar where people can add their own write-in days with or without a municipal liaison present. Without the Internet and technology, NaNoWriMo would be a desolate event with no sense of community at all whatsoever. I also noted how the forums are used on a frequent basis, and many receive feedback and ideas through them. One exemplary situation is when the woman sitting diagonal to me asked if anyone had a different word for “volunteer.” She read her sentence out loud as people pulled out their smartphones and searched on their thesaurus apps. “How about ‘missionary?’ What about ‘helper?’” The options flew around the table and she nodded or shook her head at each one. After a while her fellow writers told her to move on. “Don’t get stuck on one sentence. It’ll probably come to you when you’re in bed at 2 a.m. and you’ll have to fly out of bed and write it down before you forget.” This advice was given in a silly tone, but I personally took a lot from it too. Had the smartphones not been around, these NaNoWriMo writers would have had to lug around an actual thesaurus and hope for the best. Technology has certainly made life easier, and for participants, much faster too. Many of the people there found out about NaNoWriMo through the Internet, specifically LiveJournal. I interviewed those around me, and they giggled as they remembered the fan fiction they started off with on that site in their younger years.
Towards 9 p.m. the write-in began to come to a close, and many started to pack their laptops and say their goodbyes. “Email me your drafts” and “I’ll see you at the next write-ins,” were exchanged and slowly the front of the café became empty again, excluding some of the few writers who stayed behind to continue their writing journey.
A week after my observation, I attended another write-in at Whole Foods where I spoke to Alexis more in-depth about herself. When I got there another girl was already interviewing her, so I sat beside them and listened in. Alexis has been a municipal liaison for eight years, and her role is essentially a cheerleader and event planner. She and the other municipal liaisons send out pep talks through email and motivate others around them. She works as a writing tutor so she’s constantly around writing regardless of NaNoWriMo. It was evident that she was great at both roles when she talked me through a lot of what I could write about for my observation and the ways I could steer my essay, all while educating me on the basics of the group. I asked her to describe a moment when she felt most accomplished through NaNoWriMo. Alexis replied, “When I wrote my zombie apocalypse novel. I reached 75,000 words and that’s when I knew what I was capable of.” 75,000 words felt like an impossible milestone, but seeing her beaming face made me realize that she was a good representation of the subculture. She was outgoing, friendly, and she had a real knack for writing. It encompassed her life even while she taught writing to others. NaNoWriMo is more than just reaching an end goal of 50,000. The subculture is a welcoming force that develops writers, novels, and the meaning of community.
- Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
- Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
- How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
- Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
- Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
- Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
- How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
- How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
- Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
- Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
- Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?