Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Writing Things Down

Mead Composition Notebook

Remember the mercifully brief “Post #363?” It had started growing protrusions and unsightly hairs, but I hacked it short for greater contrast with the decidedly lumpy and unkempt knot post that preceded it.

(And I wanted to post something before I went to work that day.)

This one may be more garrulous. Similar to “Tied Up In Knots,” it requires some persistence to reach the “real” subject of the post. Or you can quit now and bank your time money. Choose your own adventure.

I took the trimmings from lab sample #363 and put them in a petri dish. Let’s examine the resulting (free) culture.

Post #363 had me thinking about reading — how I mostly read online now, which means at the computer in my office. Reading in here, I feel neglectful of and cut off from my family.

I grew up in a family of readers and never felt neglected that way. I loved to read, and I didn’t consider my parents’ reading as an abandonment of their parental duties. I saw it as a positive thing, and later appreciated their reading as great role modeling. (Even if they read trashy, escapist stuff like science fiction and romance novels. I didn’t know any better.) But when I’m in here, I feel like I’m neglecting my daughter. I don’t think of myself as being a good role model. I’m not “there.”

Maybe it’s time to get a tablet. The Kindle Fire sounds enticing, even if my church says it’s an instrument of the devil. But it seems like it would be better to do my reading on a tablet while hanging out with the family. This could have the added benefit of helping me to better focus on writing when officially sitting down to write.

Although I don’t just read when online. I often cut and paste snippets of what I’m reading into my journal and add some commentary. Deep thought and analysis, like… “good stuff” for an inspirational excerpt, or “creepy” for the grisly details of an axe murder culled from the StarTribune.

I suppose I can still do this with a tablet. I could capture something like:


Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones:

~<

My rule is to finish a notebook a month. (I’m always making up writing guidelines for myself.) Simply to fill it. That is the practice. […]

In my notebooks I don’t bother with the side margin or the one at the top. I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and I don’t have to stay within my limits, or even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser.

[…]

Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with “this moment” and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.

>~

Yes. I should do that. (This is my pithy value-added remark in the journal.)


(I don’t actually use blockquote formatting; it’s just a plain text file. But I do use my own ~< excerpt markers. >~ More about these later.)

That’s a made-up example. I didn’t pull it from my journal, but it finally brings us to the topic of this post!

Writing Things Down

I read Natalie’s book in 1994 and responded to her encouragement. I kept a journal for writing practice. I filled up a paper notebook between September of ’94 and February of ’95. I remember writing a lot of the pages at the bowling alley, sitting behind the machines with the sound of crashing pins filling the air. That notebook tells the story of a significant time of change in my life.

It ends with a comment about starting another, but this is the only paper one I have. I must have gone digital about that time, because the next thing I have is an MS Word doc labeled “1995-96 Journal.” It’s password protected and I’ve forgotten the password. The size of the file allows for at most 17 to 18 thousand words.

Then there’s a break of a couple of years while I was busy finishing school, bringing me to 1998 when I started a journal that I’ve maintained continuously ever since. I probably shouldn’t be so quantitative about this, but since it’s too late for that, I’ll share my journal word counts with you.

year

“regular”
words*
excerpt
words*

1998

34

1999

37

2000

33

2001

133

16

2002

435

31

2003

447

57

2004

234

62

2005

610

254

2006

208

85

2007

74

14

2008

377

35

2009

430

60

2010

402

91

2011**

465

100

total

3,919

805

* in thousands
** through October

Regular” words are those that I write myself — or are handed down to me by God, or whispered into my ear by Calliope, or whatever — and excerpt words are things I copy and paste from other sources.

So there you have it. Fourteen years of an intensely personal activity reduced to a few cold numbers.

But I like it. I like this table.

The numbers tell me something I want to believe. Maybe I do want to write. Maybe I even like it. Why else would I write a thousand words a day over the past ten years?

I hadn’t thought about the total much before this, but, holy shit, I might pass four million words by the end of the year. Looking at it in terms of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and conservatively estimating 2,000 words per hour, I’ve clocked 2,000 of the hours in this one activity!

But then, it’s hard to believe that the words I write down — all the mundane, tedious, whining, self-indulgent words — are making me a better writer. All that retching and kvetching… Do those words really count for anything positive?

It’s all crap.

Except, like Natalie, I have to trust the process, and believe it’s only mostly crap. There are gems among the turds.

Natalie talks about writing practice as a source of “compost.” I put away the paper journal for several years and was pleased by the quality of the rotting vegetable matter I later uncovered — fascinated by what a stranger had written so long ago. Among other things, it was a story about a guy who finally kicked a dreary addiction to pot. He had so many things to say from that painful place and difficult time.

The MS Word journal doc was password protected because of the awkward and excruciating angst in its pages — words prompted by a doomed relationship.

And the current journal? All fourteen years and four million words of it? It tells many stories, of course. It’s much more about recounting events than I’d like. Simple memory. There is a place for that and I do enjoy recalling things through it, but it records too much tedium. Transient states of fear and anxiety, or just idle observations on whatever I’m doing.

I think to myself, if I’m going to do this I should be writing stuff that future me will find interesting to read. And judging by present me, future me will care about me. What kind of person was I? How did I see the world? Of course, I’m sure my day to day words reveal this all too clearly and unflatteringly. But still, I can make it more enjoyable for myself to read.

It will help if I follow more of Goldberg’s rules about writing practice, like, “lose control,” and “don’t think; don’t get logical,” and: “Go for the jugular. If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.”

And I think it’s time to write more — much more — for publication.

Like this.

I’ll try my best to treat you as well as I’d treat future me, but it may take a million or more published words to get closer to where I want to be. I’m hoping for quality through quantity.

A million words? Published? That would take 550 words every day for the next five years. That seems like a lot. Halving the words and doubling the time still seems like a lot, considering my past output. But maybe that’s what I’ll shoot for. Let’s say two thousand words per week.

I won’t share something every day — at least not at first — although I was recently inspired by this Seth Godin post:

If you know you have to write something every single day, even a paragraph, you will improve your writing. If you’re concerned with quality, of course, then not writing is not a problem, because zero is perfect and without defects. Shipping nothing is safe.

The second best thing to zero is something better than bad. So if you know you have to write tomorrow, your brain will start working on something better than bad. And then you’ll inevitably redefine bad and tomorrow will be better than that. And on and on.

I think he has something there, and I think that thing you write needs to be meant for publication, and not just be so many transient, masturbatory words for your own private gratification.

Wait — I don’t mean that you (or I) have to publish. We don’t have to share our words. Of course not. I’m fine with private gratification. But to go where I want to go, I think I finally have to start putting it out there more. (And by “it,” I simply mean the published words. I’m sorry but I won’t extend the metaphor any further.)

Postscript: Journal Mechanics

If you keep a journal, you may not be as obsessive as me in counting your words and “excerpt” words, but I think you should clearly mark where you’re quoting somebody else. When I looked back at my paper journal, I found that I had quoted a fair amount of material and was surprised at how often I had trouble identifying the source of the words: whether they came from my own brilliance or someone else’s.

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” — Samuel Johnson

'Writing Down the Bones' by Natalie Goldberg

As my electronic journal took off and it became easy to count the words, I formalized the use of ~< excerpt markers >~ and wrote a Python script for tallying things up.

I’m not totally compulsive about it. Sometimes I’ll quote a sentence or three with plain old quotation marks. But I’m compulsive enough to use that script, which also catches when I’ve forgotten to close or open an excerpt, and it complains and then I have to fix it.

I’m sure Natalie would be horrified by my submission to the machine’s logic.