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Peace, Love, & NaNoWriMo: An Inaka ALT Talks Social Distancing

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Japan, it’s become more important than ever to practice social distancing as much as possible. It can be hard to stay sane when there’s no events, parties, or people to meet up with.

Nobody understands that feeling quite as well as ALTs who’ve been sent into the depths of Japan’s inaka. Maddie Chisum fills that role as one of Gunma’s veteran inaka-dwellers. As the sole ALT living in Kanna-machi with a population of only ~2000 people, Maddie is a third-year JET who makes the most out of life in her small town. GAJET thought Maddie would have some good advice to share for those of us who are feeling a little more alone than usual.

What was your first impression when you learned you’d be living in such a small town while on JET?

It was a bit of a mixed bag of feelings, honestly; I love nature, so I’d hoped to be placed somewhere with access to mountains and trees, but ideally, I’d also hoped for access to a conbini and a grocery store. I was surprised to learn exactly how far I’d be from most of the conveniences I’d come to associate with Japan. Being 40 minutes by car from the nearest supermarket defied my expectations! I was definitely worried about a lot of things at first: the distance to the grocery store, how far I’d be from other ALTs, the language barrier, and how welcoming the community would be, to name a few.

That being said, I was also really excited. I was especially happy about my small schools! I loved the idea of being able to know all my student’s names. And knowing that I was preparing to disappear into the mountains felt like the beginning of a real adventure.

A snowy scene in Kanna. Photo by Maddie Chisum.

How have you dealt with being relatively isolated while living in Japan?

One of the nice things about living in a very small town is that I know quite a few people at least by sight, if not by name. When I’m feeling isolated I like to go for a walk along the river or out to the little grocery stand near me and say hello to a few people. Even just waving hello across the street to my neighbors can lift my spirits if I’ve been feeling lonely. A lot of people walk their dogs along the river, so sometimes I hang out under the bridge and wave at passing dogs like a weird, animal-loving troll.

Social media also makes things easier, of course. I’m constantly in contact with other ALTs through Line, and video calls make it possible for me to hang out with friends even on days when I can’t get out to the city. Online communities like NaNoWriMo help me stay connected with other people who are passionate about writing.

A lot of my contentment in Kanna, though, came from learning to enjoy my own company and finding harmony with myself. Loneliness is only one note in the chord of my life, but loneliness becomes a burden when it is the only note you sing. Turning my attention to drawing and writing, to the natural beauty of Kanna and the kindness of the town community, helps me find a balance so that loneliness isn’t the sole focus of my life here.

Do you have any tips for other people feeling lonely while trying to keep themselves and others safe in this pandemic?

Without other people to help stir things up, it’s really easy to start feeling stuck and stagnant. Look for ways to hit refresh – for me that usually means going for a walk, cleaning, or even just sitting in a different spot than usual while I read or draw (or binge Netflix). Finding something else to focus on is key – ideally something like baking or cleaning that takes a little concentration, gets you moving, and has a positive payoff! It might not make your loneliness disappear completely, but it will distract you a bit, and having a clean house or a tray of cookies at the end might make things brighter.

If it won’t make you homesick or lonelier, write letters! Thinking about what parts of my day my family and friends in the US would find funny or interesting helps me feel connected to them when they’re far away. Exchanging letters with friends closer by who you can’t go out to see is a fun way to stay in touch (and also an excuse to use any cute stickers you’ve been hoarding).

Last, stay invested in things that you’re passionate about by talking to people who share your interests! If you love writing, looking for people to read your work, or who you can discuss storytelling with. Do some baking and send your friends pictures of cookies that they can’t eat!

What hobbies have you focused on since coming to Japan?

Reading, drawing, and writing are probably the big ones. I’ve got a pile of unrevised first drafts of stories which I keep saying I’m going to go back to, but mostly I’ve been neglecting those to pursue new stories. The pile of first drafts is growing. Eventually it will gain sentience and consume me. I’m currently working on a post-apocalyptic fantasy/adventure story, set in a world where magic sprang into being overnight, and dealing with the repercussions of its emergence. I spend a lot of time drawing scenes from that, or drawing the scenery in Kanna.

I also garden, practice the ukulele, and bake. Recently I’ve been learning about tree identification online. I might have too much time on my hands. I can tell a spruce tree apart from a fir tree, now.

Kanna’s summer scenery. Photo by Maddie Chisum.

Writing is a big part of your life! Tell us more about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

During NaNoWriMo writers around the world challenge themselves to write a novel-length manuscript in just 30 days. The word goal (50,000 words in a month, or 1667 words per day) is challenging, but it’s not a mountain that needs to be climbed alone! Throughout the month hundreds of thousands of writers around the world meet up online and in cafes to support each other, exchange ideas, celebrate success and commiserate over road-blocks. NaNoWriMo is all about sharing in the adventure as we each work towards the final goal: the first draft of a novel. It’s chaotic, rewarding, and an incredibly good way to meet other people who are passionate about writing!

What did NaNoWriMo look like in Gunma?

Around 10 of us met in Takasaki every Sunday during November. We crammed ourselves around a café table to discuss story ideas and keep each other motivated. People came to write, outline, draw, and cheerlead!

I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I found having other people to write with really inspiring. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for years but I’d never fully engaged in the community aspect of it until this year. It was a completely different experience—writing a novel takes courage and it’s so much easier when we encourage each other. Even if I didn’t always get too many words onto the page during our weekly meetings, I always came out of them with more ideas than I started with, feeling re-energized and excited to continue my novel.

Most of our meet-ups were in person, but there was also an online aspect – on Gunma is officially part of a larger region called “Japan :: Elsewhere”, which is sort of a catch-all group for all the writers outside of Tokyo and Osaka. We had a discord server dedicated to the entire region where we had writing races called word sprints—five to twenty-minute challenges to see how much you can write within the time limit—and chatted about our novels. It was a great way to connect with people in other rural areas of Japan!


How can people get involved with NaNoWriMo now?

NaNoWriMo has resources available all year long: pep talks from popular authors, word counters, goal trackers, forums where writers can discuss anything from world-building to publishing. There’s a huge community online there! All you have to do is sign up at and then start writing!

The main NaNoWriMo event is in November, but in April and July there’s a smaller event called Camp NaNoWriMo. The idea behind the event is the same: to come together as a community and support each other as we work on our novels. Unlike the November event, during Camp NaNoWriMo writers can set their own word goal. If you don’t want to launch into the full 50k chaos of NaNoWriMo, camp is a great way to test the waters with a smaller word goal (or, if you’re bored and looking for an escape, you could set a higher one!). Participation is completely online. There will be no café meet-ups for the time being, but the recent addition of writing groups in the NaNoWriMo forums means that it’s easier than ever to find people writing the same kinds of things as you.

So, this month, if you don’t have the time or the energy for 50k words, 10k is fine. 1k is fine. Five words is fine. Especially in uncertain times, I think that if you reach the end of the month with even a tiny bit more than you started with, you’ve won. Whether you outline, draw, or just start thinking about the story you would want to tell, maybe, if you ever decided to write a novel, it’s a win. Whether you stick to your goal or not, any time spent dedicated to storytelling and art is a victory!

You can connect with local writers on the Gunma Nanowrimos Facebook page, or check out Camp NaNoWriMo online.

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