Stories That Matter

By Laura Hilgers

Grant Faulkner says he’s found his professional and creative home in his job as executive director of NaNoWriMo. (Anastasia Blackman)

The advocate behind the annual writing challenge National Novel Writing Month helps folks tap into something we could all use this November: creativity and connection.

Grant Faulkner believes everyone has a story to tell. As executive director of NaNoWriMo, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that sponsors National Novel Writing Month every November, he’s found plenty of reasons to believe this is true. During NaNoWriMo — as the month is known — writers around the world commit to writing 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days. It’s a grueling endeavor, requiring writers to pen more than 1,600 words daily.

The exercise has given birth to thousands of stories. One writer wrote about a high school student with cancer who uses her last months to take revenge on those who’ve wronged her — only to discover she’s in remission. Another wrote of a private investigator whose unique gift was to see dead people. Others found the words in their stories to come out to their parents as gay — or leave an abusive marriage.

All these writers have inspired Faulkner, but perhaps none more than a group of incarcerated men who participated in NaNoWriMo last year as part of PEN America’s Prison Writing Program. One of the writers, Derek Trumbo, wrote an essay about the experience, noting that for 30 days, “We stayed up late and woke early in an effort to be part of something we’d been made to feel apart from: our own lives. We dreamed, composed and had proof of our journey in the form of our delirious scribblings.”

Faulkner talks about these stories as he sits in Berkeley’s Rose Garden, near his home, on one of the rare smoke-free days in September. He removes his mask for a physically distanced interview, revealing a face that is both animated and warm. “I think what inspires me about NaNoWriMo is our mantra that ‘everyone’s story matters,”’ says Faulkner. “Activating people’s creativity so they see themselves as creators is just super powerful.”

It’s also one of Faulkner’s gifts, says Brooke Warner, the co-founder of She Writes Press and his co-host for the weekly podcast Write-minded. “It’s about: Everyone has something meaningful to share. Right?” she says. “Grant embodies that ethos. He just has this very encouraging sensibility and wants people to succeed.”

That would include himself. Growing up in the small town of Oskaloosa, Iowa, Faulkner knew that he was “always destined to be a writer.” His father was the town lawyer and his mother a homemaker. Faulkner says that when his mother would occasionally lose him in the grocery store (when you could still do that), she would inevitably find him in the stationery section, staring longingly at the paper products. In Iowa, he felt restless and was voted by his high school classmates as “most likely to move furthest away.”

After graduating from Grinnell College in 1987, Faulkner followed his brother to San Francisco, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts from San Francisco State University. He worked in corporate communications and then joined the staff of the Berkeley-based National Writing Project, while continuing to work on a novel off and on.

As an MFA grad, he says he held the belief “that one ponders over a novel for years, and lives through all the anguish and preciousness of it all” — even when his friend Jake Strohm told him about NaNoWriMo in 2000. The event was still new. The writer Chris Baty had started it the year before, asking 20 of his friends to join him in writing 50,000 words in a month.

Faulkner finally decided to participate in 2009, “to shake up my creative process,” he admits. He became such a fan of the NaNoWriMo approach that when Baty stepped down as director in 2012, Faulkner happily took his place. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “Somehow, I found my professional and creative home in a job, which is rare for a writer.”

A lifelong insomniac, he now rises at 4 or 4:30 a.m. daily to devote one or two hours to his own writing. In addition to several nonfiction projects he has brewing, he recently put the finishing touches on a novel written in the form of letters never sent, and hopes to find a publisher soon. His collection of flash fiction, Fissures, was published in 2015. In 2017, Chronicle Books published his book Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo.

Faulkner balances his own writing with a heavy workload. At NaNoWriMo, he oversees a number of programs that promote storytelling. In addition to National Novel Writing Month, which drew about 300,000 participants last year, the organization hosts Camp NaNoWriMo every April and July, in which writers tackle any writing project they want. And throughout the year, NaNoWriMo sponsors the Young Writers Program (YWP), a creative writing curriculum offered in nearly 12,000 K-12 classrooms across the country. Last year, about 100,000 kids participated.

This year, after the pandemic began — and everyone decided to finally tackle their novel — NaNoWriMo sponsored StayHomeWriMo, which sent out daily self-care and creative tips to writers. Faulkner is passionate about all these programs, especially YWP, because he wants people to grow up believing they are creators. “I think a lot of people talk themselves out of their creativity,” he says. “I talk to so many people about NaNoWriMo and they’ll say, ‘Oh, but I’m not a creative type.’ But I’ll reply, ‘No, you’re a human being. The definition of a human being is a creative type.’”

As if the NaNoWriMo gig weren’t enough, Faulkner also co-hosts the Write-minded podcast each week with Warner and edits a flash fiction literary journal, 100 Word Story, with writer-editor Lynn Mundell. He sits on the creative council of the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Words. And with his wife, Heather Mackey— author of the middle-grade fantasy novel, Dreamwood — he’s the parent of a college-age son and high school-age daughter.

“He’s really, really hard working,” says Mundell. “And he has a big bold vision: It’s about accessibility and bringing the literary arts to a larger, wider group of people.”

For Faulkner, it all goes back to story. “It’s so easy for people to diminish stories as just entertainment or a way to escape,” he says, “but we are meaning-making creatures, and the way we make meaning in the world is through our stories. At their most basic, stories are the way we connect to ourselves and to other people. They’re our way into the mystery of life.”

Notable Novels Written During NaNoWriMo

Water for Elephants Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, 2006)

This New York Times bestselling novel tells the tale of a down-on-his-luck veterinary student who finds a job caring for a circus menagerie.

Cinder Marissa Meyer (Macmillan Publishers, 2012)

The first book of The Lunar Chronicles series, this young adult novel follows Cinder, a teenage cyborg, in an imaginative retelling of the Cinderella story.

Wool Hugh Howey (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

This New York Times best-seller is a post-apocalyptic novel about a community that lives in a giant silo underground.

Fangirl Rainbow Rowell, (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013)

A New York Times Book Review “Notable Children’s Book,” this tender coming-of-age novel tells the story of a quirky young woman who writes a fan-fiction blog.

A Blade So Black L.L. McKinney (Macmillan Publishers, 2018)

The first book of the Nightmare-Verse series is an urban fantasy retelling of Alice in Wonderland, set in modern-day Atlanta.

The Atlas of Reds and Blues Devi S. Laskar (Counterpoint, 2019)

One of the Washington Post’s “Best Books of the Year,” Laskar’s novel examines what it means to be a second-generation woman of color in America today.

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