One million words

Remember these high school assignments: Write a 500-word essay on _____.

The struggle.  The agony.  Five hundred words?  How many pages is that?  You’d write something, then count the words.  Only three hundred and ten?  How am I going to add another one hundred and ninety words to that?  (Yes, I know.  Today’s word processors have the ability to tell you the word count.  For me, this was back in the day where the electric typewriter was high-tech!)

In high school, being a writer was not on my radar.  But then college happened, and well, getting these kinds of assignments became challenging in a different way.

Write a short story under 2,500 words.

The rough draft would come out to be almost twice that.  How am I suppose to cut all this?  The same would happen in law school and as a law clerk, only with page-count restrictions.

Briefs cannot exceed 25 pages.

When the factual details in the case were intricate, and faced with conflicting legal theories, I wondered how I was going to tighten up the brief in order to make the strong argument within twenty-five pages.  Shrinking the font to an unreadable size was not an option.

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On August 1, 2012, I finished reading Dinty Moore’s little book, The Mindful Writer – Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).  It is something that was written in the Afterword that clings to me today.

It is said that the writer Andre Dubus would end his writing session each day by marking down his word count.  How many words had he managed in those four hours?  After the number, whatever it was, he always wrote the words “thank you.”

So, on August 1, 2012, I took a small spiral notebook, and began tracking.  Fifteen-hundred and twenty-two words were written that day (no “thank you’s” written due to space, but thank-yous were said).

After finishing my writing work today, Thursday, May 28, 2015, adding 2,621 words to the tally, I have hit one million words (1,000,109 to be precise).

Two years, nine months, and twenty-eight days of writing can get you 1,000,000 words.

The thing that surprises me the most is that in order to get to that million words, I averaged writing 970 words per day over the 1,031 days.  Journal entries, writing exercises, blogs, first drafts of short stories and novels, and their revisions, all of it has added up.

The question is, did those one-million words amount to anything?

  • The final revisions of The Y in Life.
  • Two short stories published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Summer, 2013.
  • A finalist in the 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest.
  • Two short stories and an essay published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Autumn 2013.
  • One short story published in Write to Woof 2014 (Grey Wolfe Publishing, 2014)
  • A 50,000 word rough draft novel completed during NaNoWriMo, 2013.
  • The first draft and first revision of the novel I am currently working on (not the NaNoWriMo 2013 novel), at 91,540 words.
  • Four unpublished short stories with one currently entered in the 2015 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, and two others circulating amongst publishers.
  • 2,377 pages of journaling.
  • Everything written on this website, excluding this entry.

Not bad.

Being a writer requires one to write.  It is evident that I do write.  However, I still get stuck in Moore’s Four Noble Truths for Writers:

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.  To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Too often, I focus on writing to be published, because my ego wants that.  As an actor wants to see his or her name in lights on Broadway, I want to see my novels in bookstores, my stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.  This twists me into the self-defeating spiral of questioning whether I’m a writer.

A million words, Mike.  C’mon.  You’re a writer.

I start to argue with myself, that I’m not a published writer, but, there’s a whole page on this website that puts an end to that debate.

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I read The Mindful Writer back in 2012, but it really didn’t sink in until I came across another Four Noble Truths for writers.   I found Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers (Penguin Compass, 1999) just before we left for New York City last summer.  I read it while traveling to and from New York City on the train from our Trenton, NJ hotel.   Her Four Noble Truths provided the key to unlock Moore’s Fourth Noble Truth for me.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

The combination of Sher’s book and visiting New York City for the first time, brought it home for me.  Her short pithy chapters read while in a city where a day’s walking and subway travel can get you to more book stores than are located in Macomb County, had its effect.  The 732 days before the NYC trip, my average words per day was 883.  Since NYC, 1,183 words per day.  I’ve been getting out of my own way, working on the exercise, journal entry, or project for what it is, losing myself to it.

Writer, Nick Hornby felt that his formative years as a writer was hindered by the prescriptive advice that experienced writers gave him.  His advice is the following:

Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever; readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.  (Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books ( McSweeney’s, Believer Books. 2013)

A million words?  The work is getting done.

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