One million words

One of the most discouraging things I ever read while learning to write was the common statement: “You have to write every day to be able to call yourself a writer.” I’ve heard other variations of this. I heard someone else say, “You have to have written a million words before you can be called a writer.” Julianna Baggott, my teacher and mentor in the Writers at Work workshop in summer 2009, stated: “You need to write xxx words (I don’t remember the exact number) every day for 10 years before you are a serious writer.

What’s discouraging for me is that being consistent–doing ANYTHING day after day after day–is not my strong suit. I have a hard time remembering to brush my teeth every day. Of course, my mouth tries to remind me. I do believe the part about the  million words though. I am close to a million as we speak, but that’s taken me close to 40 years. That. if anything, is a good reason to write every day. But writing that much has not only taught me how to write; it has taught me how to teach others how to write (my day job).

But here’s the bottom line. What matters–the ONLY thing that matters–is getting those words down. Any way you can. Putting words on paper is how I used to put it, although in this day and age it’s more about putting words on a screen somewhere.

Here’s another thing to consider. It’s easy to be a writer. Anyone can be a writer. You just have to put words on paper. What’s hard is being a GOOD writer. And even that is hard to measure. There’s get-an-A-on-my-essay good. And then there’s Pulitzer Prize good. What’s the difference? Innate talent. Dedication. And a million words or so.

So how do I write? I do what I call binge writing. In the process of learning to write, I worked several jobs, got a master’s and then a PhD and supported a family. Because as important to me as writing is, family is more important. And in the rare quiet moments, I continued to hone my skills as a writer. When I got the chance, I wrote as much as I could. Binge writing. As a college professor, I have free time at Christmas and during the summer, although that seems to be changing. And that’s when I do my serious writing.

One of the big reasons for this is my inability to focus on more than one creative endeavor at a time. While I am trying to make my classes as interesting and stimulating as possible, while I am researching and writing articles for the school’s alumni magazine or writing press releases (my other day job), it’s hard for me to concentrate on what will happen next in the magnum opus that I am trying to write. Some people can do it. I can’t.

The bottom line is finding out what works for you. And then do it. And patience. Lots and lots of patience.

A million words doesn’t come overnight.