During a recent session of my bi-weekly writing group, while commiserating about what a long, rejection-laden road getting published can be, one of our members mentioned the notion that it’s not until you’ve written a million words that you’re even starting to get good.
While that sounded rather daunting, it reminded me of something I’d read in various Kerouac biographies. When Jack Kerouac first met William S. Burroughs in 1944, he apparently told Burroughs that he’d already written a million words. That always caught my imagination, impressing me with the relentless incandescence of his output, the drive to just get it out, out, out, at all costs. It also always made me feel like a big, fat failure, and a lethargic one to boot, since he would have only been 22 at the time.
I wondered if anybody else had an opinion about this “million words” idea. I found several people citing a quote from Henry Miller’s “On Writing” to the effect that it takes writing a million words to find your voice. Crime writer Elmore Leonard, who certainly ought to know a thing or two about good strong writing attributes it to the widely-revered John D. McDonald and says:
John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like. That’s the main thing. I don’t think many writers today begin with that goal: to write a certain way that has a definite sound to it.
Science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, in an essay about how to get his job, helpfully notes that being an author is a really easy job. Unfortunately, nobody pays you to be an author until you first become a writer, which turns out to take work and time. In fact the work is mostly time, according to him:
I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material.
Pushcart prize-winning poet and novelist Ward Kelley had this intriguing wrinkle to contribute:
There’s that old saw about becoming a writer–if you want to be one, you first have to write a million words. While it’s an old saw, I believe it to be true. However, you seldom hear mentioned what should be tagged to the end of it. The axiom should include the reason for the million words: all these practice words put a writer in position to use the best literary advice I ever discovered. That advice is "don’t think."
Where, I wondered, was I against this benchmark? I started to tally up the various things I’ve written since I recommitted to my childhood dream of writing following my divorce in 2002. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, between the manuscript of my novel, a not-yet completed new novel, print and online essays and articles, my short film screenplays, poetry, as-yet unpublished short stories, blog postings, and journals, I am closing in on 800,000 words. At this pace, in another two to three years I’ll reach 1 million and actually be starting to produce something worthwhile. Hooray!
That honestly doesn’t seem so bad now that I’ve come this far. And if I’ll be almost twenty years older at that point than Kerouac was when he reached one million, maybe my remaining creative (not to mention physical) lifespan will at least match the 25 years that lay ahead of him at 22. Not too bad, not too bad…