In my sophomore year of college, I took an intermediate writing class. I thought it was going to be like my introductory course. That is, write a story utilizing expanded concepts.
I was wrong.
My instructor, the great Perry Glasser smiled like an executioner about to start the warm-up torture before the crown pleasing beheading. “I want you to write six stories and I want you to write them in the next six weeks. Your first story is due next week.”
After class, I went to work on stories. I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. But the sheer amount of work forced me to write.
Halfway through the exercise, my roommate, also in the writing program, declared the exercise to be futile. “Yes, I get that the point is to write, but what we end up doing is writing lots of crap.”
At the time, I thought Perry was right and my roommate was wrong. It’s critical that a writer write to find their voice. Writing is a muscle. It must be exercised through daily practice. Or does it?
Last year, I joined a writer’s group on Facebook called My 500 Words that challenged each group member to write five hundred words a day for thirty days.
I completed this goal, writing every day for almost the entire year until I wrote myself into a corner in my current project. That’s a tale for another post.
Reflecting on last year, I discovered I wrote for the word counter. My goal was five hundred words a day, but my eyes were always fixed on my daily count. Everything was subservient to it.
Sure, the piece might be crap, but I’ll fix it in revision.
The revisions never arrived.
I grew a large slush pile of malformed stories; stories that I had no desire ever to return to. But writing for the word count made me “feel” like a genuine writer even though I was just “wasting time” .
FYI – I hate using the phrase “wasting time” but I can’t think of anything comparable. That’s probably my immaturity as a writer speaking, but at this stage in my career, I find equal value in discovering new doorways as well as dead ends. Or as Ray Bradbury once said:
“If you write a hundred short stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You fail only if you stop writing.”Ray Bradbury
What I’ve come to learn was that both Perry and my roommate were right. I need to keep writing, but I need to focus on the content and not on the word count.
Recently, I started a writing session and I turned off the word counter. In fact, I turned off the word processor and put on some music. I closed my eyes and imagined the story I was going to write. I watched it play out in my head.
I observed my characters in motion and found myself enjoying the story. At the end of my “writing” session, I knew I was watching backstory but it was the foundation for conflict. My writing was done even though I hadn’t written a word.
I continued doing this for a week until I opened up my word processer, created a file called backstory, and wrote everything down as I had seen it. It was messy writing; all tell, no show. It did feature short snippets of dialogue and character sketches.
On a productivity level, this was pointless. I wasn’t ever going to revise it. In fact, I’d be lucky to incorporate any of it into my story, yet I knew it was critical.
I was pouring the foundation for my story. Now I know the true beginning of my story far before my character ever arrives on the scene. I know the names of the scientists. I know why the heroic captain has his wings clipped and why the sociopathic director of research is given a promotion. I now know how my chief antagonist gets involved in my story and why is a true bastard to fear.
I plan to keep doing this until I have a good semblance of the situation and a grasp of all the players.
And then I’ll write every day. Not for the word count but for the story and when I’m done, I’ll start the rewrite.
Thank you, Perry. Thank you Andrew. I think I’m finally on the right track. It only took me twenty-six years to get here.