Thursday, June 3, 2010

How To Write Two Million Words…or so

Several months ago, in his farewell column in ESPN The Magazine, Rick Reilly noted that “My math says this column puts me over one million published words. And that doesn't count books (No. 11 coming up in May), screenplays (two), sonnets, ransom notes and quilts. This is one million too many for many citizens, but the fact remains.”

When I was younger this kind of statement that would send me into deep depression. When one wants to be a writer there is nothing more depressing than having someone quantify what you have not done. I recall being particularly dismayed when I learned that Jack Kerouac had written a million words by the age of thirty. When one has not written anything of merit - or at least published it – one million words seems like, well, one million words, a task so daunting as to be unachievable, like running around the world. One imagines that the writer of a million words must have the discipline of a monk, the typing skills of a graduate of Katie Gibbs, the supple imagination of a jazz musician, the stamina of a marathoner… and either a vow of poverty or a trust fund, because how would it ever be possible to both work and write?

I looked at myself and saw none of those qualities. I liked to have too much fun, laughing and hanging out in bars, and a small nerve problem in my hands made it impossible for me to touch type. The only thing I did every day – beyond the physical necessities - was wake up and read, probably so I would not have to confront the fact that I was not writing very much.

Despite this, in 1986 when I was in my late twenties, after writing in camera for years - mostly poetry - through some kind of dumb luck I finally started writing and publishing non-fiction. In an instant I went from “wanting to be a writer” to “being a writer” and a certain floodgate fell open.

It was not too many years later – I had just turned thirty, hence the accounting - when I sat down and discovered that, rather incredibly, almost accidentally, even I had written a million words. Now this was not a million published words, mind you – there were probably only about 100,000 of those at the time - but if I started in college and counted all the papers I had written and the notebooks I had filled up and scratched over, despite what I saw as my utter lack of discipline, a common imagination, questionable stamina, lack of a trust fund and a regular job that kept me nominally above the poverty line, even I had written a million words.

The realization was liberating beyond measure. Writers were not mysteries, and the act of writing was not some kind of secret sect to which I had no access. It did not entail following a schedule carved in stone, a muse, the ability to work until one fell asleep at the typewriter (a quaint thought…) or the proper pedigree.

No, I realized that most of writing entailed putting my ass in a chair, hitting deadlines and, most important of all, not being intimidated by the process. If I had written a million words by age thirty – and felt that I was just getting started at that – well, writing couldn’t be that hard.* This was something I could do.

I had also started running, and at about this time also realized that running around the world was also achievable as long as I did it in increments and did not let the goal overwhelm the process. For about ten years or so I probably averaged about forty miles a week, which totaled about 20,000 miles and put me on the brink of the running around the world total. And although I no longer run as far or as often, I have still kept it up for more than thirty years and at this point am probably closing in on my second global circumnavigation.

I only bring this up to underscore the point that even while writing a million words one need not stop doing everything else. In fact, I think it helps to do other things, to help turn the act of writing from something so precious that you freeze with anticipation in front of the keyboard into something as normal as brushing your teeth, a part of the daily fabric, not subject to any excuses. At the same time I continued to work full-time until 1993, helped raise my daughter from infancy (and with minimal daycare before school while my wife worked), played nearly 400 games of amateur baseball over nine seasons, learned to skate, ski, and kayak, cut my own wood, built my office, held public office, etc., etc., etc. This does not even include the vast amount of reading I have to do as part of my duties as Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing. And I won’t even get into the amount of time I’ve spent watching baseball or sitting in bars. I still feel completely undisciplined and think I should be much more productive than I am, but now, after nearly twenty-five years as a professional writer, including the last seventeen on a full time basis, when I add up my published output since 1986, I am closing in one two and a half million words. And that doesn't even include all those poems in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.

When I write that, it does not seem possible, yet there it is. And I hope at least one young writer might find some solace in the fact that if a stiff like me could write a couple million words, well, so can you.

So sit down and get cracking. As long as you start now, there is plenty of time.

Meanwhile, I think I'll take a nap.

P.S. And I still cannot touch type. I only use my thumbs, index fingers and, occasionally, middle fingers on each hand. But I do type at the speed I think.

Word Count:

Illustrated Biographies

Ted Williams: 40,000
Joe DiMaggio: 50,000
Jackie Robinson: 40,000

Red Sox Century: 200,000
Yankees Century: 225,000
The Dodgers: 225,000
The Cubs: 225,000

Nine Months at Ground Zero: 110,000

Young Woman and the Sea: 125,000

Fenway 1912: 140,000

Matt Christopher titles (39): 720,000

Good Sports titles (2): 36,000

BASW Forewords (21): 40,000

Misc work for hire books: 100,000

Articles: 100,000

Boston Baseball Columns: 80,000

TOTAL: 2,456,000

*Understand, I am not equating quantity with quality here. Rick Reilly is not Jack Kerouac and neither am I. All we have of Sappho are a few scant fragments, a few thousand words at most, and I would gladly trade my millions for her few. Believe me, I get that. But there was a time when Sappho was probably intimidated by the act of writing as well.

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