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Dostoevsky totally did NaNoWriMo.

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November 12, 2021, 1:44pm

We’re nearly halfway through National Novel Writing Month, which is just what it sounds like; participants have under three weeks until their 50,000-word drafts should be complete. If you’re participating and feeling depleted—like the work just won’t get done—take inspiration from a surprising NaNoWriMo success story: Fyodor Dostoevsky, novelist, essayist, and Nabokov punching bag, who wrote his novel The Gambler under pressure in only twenty-six days to fulfill a predatory publishing contract.

Dostoevsky himself was a compulsive gambler, starting in the summer of 1862; he lost practically all his money at the roulette table in the following years. That combined with a failed magazine launch and assuming his brother’s debts after his death in 1864 left him in serious financial trouble—and turning to gambling even more frequently. Dostoevsky’s financial hole became dire: he started asking his friends for money, being honest about his gambling problems. In 1865 he wrote to novelist Ivan Turgenev, “I have lost everything already, just everything, including my watch . . . I feel horrible inside (I thought it would be worse) and, above all, I’m ashamed to bother you, but what can you do when you are drowning?”

Finally, desperately, Dostoevsky signed a dangerous contract with publisher Fedor Stellovsky, wagering the publishing rights to all of his past and future works: if he didn’t complete a novel for Stellovsky within a year, by November 1st of 1866, Stellovsky would be able to publish all of Dostoevsky’s works without paying Dostoevsky for the next nine years. (Bad behavior from Stellovsky!)

This contract evidently had very high stakes for Dostoevsky—so, perhaps naturally, he procrastinated out of fear. Instead of using the whole year to write his book, he traveled, played more roulette, and lost more money, all the while Stellovsky’s deadline looming over him. Wrote Dostoevsky to a friend in June, “The thought of Stellovsky torments and disturbs me; it pursues me even in dreams.”

Only a month before the deadline, he dusted off an idea for a gambling novella he’d had in the summer of 1863: he had described it in a letter to N.N. Strakhov in 1863 as the story of “a man of most simple nature, a man who, while developed in many respects, is yet in every way incomplete, who has lost all faith, yet at the same time does not dare to be a sceptic, who revolts against all authority and yet at the same time fears it . . . The whole story is concerned with his playing roulette for full three years.”

For one month, Dostoevsky moved at warp speed. At the advice of a friend, he hired a stenographer, 21-year-old Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, and dictated the book to her. He was stressed, and not at his most charming. In Snitkina’s memoirs, she recalls their first stenography session: “He obviously was irritated and could not collect his thoughts. Now he would ask me my name and immediately forget it, then commence walking around the room, would walk for a long time, as if having forgotten my presence.” And, more simply: “I didn’t like him; he made me feel depressed.” (Understandable!)  At times, he told Snitkina that he should escape to Constantinople and Jerusalem, or simply plunge his entire soul into roulette gambling.

But, by whatever mysterious mental process happens when generating a draft, the novel got done. On October 29th he completed The Gambler and sent it to Stellovsky; on November 8th he proposed to Anna, who accepted. To avoid future predatory publishing deals like Stellovsky’s Anna would end up printing Dostoevsky’s work, becoming the first solo woman publisher in Russia. So, take a little bit of positivity from Dostoevsky’s process: though you of course don’t need to, great work can be produced on a deadline, despite anxious-making circumstances. And maybe get a stenographer.

[Dostoevsky: His Life and Work; Dostoevsky Studies, New Series; Slavic and East European Journal; Cambridge University Press; Johns Hopkins University Press; The Gambler; The New York Times]

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