This Writer's Life

Thousands of Words

Q: What happens when a poet attempts to write a full-length book of prose?

A: She learns to count words.

On January 2, 2023, I started writing my first memoir. I’d spent October, November and December going over notebooks, journals, photo albums, and emails from the last ten years, recovering memories, reconstructing scenes, and asking myself how I would shape this book. I also read a dozen books of memoir, as well as books about writing memoir, and every other resource I could find regarding the subject. I watched films based on memoirs and biographies. I took Marion Roach’s memoir class. I drilled my family on their recollections. I asked myself, over and over, what is this book about? No, what’s it really about?

When I first started this project, I told myself that I would write one thousand words every day, five days a week, until I finished the book. I plugged numbers into my calculator with glee: look how fast I would get it done! The average memoir is about 85,000 words. Doing some simple math, I estimated that I’d have the first draft completed by the end of April. Then I planned to take a couple of weeks off before diving into the editing process, which I imagined would take another couple of months. (I’ll let you know how that goes when I get to it.)

I started on January 2 with a ton of energy. My ambition knew no bounds. Ideas flowed from my fingers so quickly I could hardly type fast enough. For some reason, I found it freeing to just dump as many words as I could as fast as I could, without worrying about whether they made sense or not. Does this mean that I was writing one thousand shitty words a day? Amazingly, no. Or, less amazingly, not always.

As I racked up the words, I found that thinking in terms of quantity vs. quality was incredibly liberating. I took Anne Lamott’s words, from the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” in Bird By Bird, to heart: “All good writers write them {shitty first drafts}. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” I didn’t have to write one thousand great words a day, just one thousand words. As Lamott writes later in that same chapter, “Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”

I started a spreadsheet where I keep track of the number of words I write every day. Adding up my daily word count and entering it into the spreadsheet is like looking at my garden after I’ve spent the day weeding, pruning, planting and mulching. There’s an order to the process that keeps me motivated. I rarely think about word count when writing poems, but with a project this big, at least for me, it really keeps me going.

So I’m doing my best to stop being a rational grownup and just write. So far, so good.

Categories: This Writer's Life

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