Dinting Not Daunting

Daily Diary for December

This column was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

By Ben S. Pollock
NSNC Director of Media

Ben Pollock

Ben Pollock

I lost in “NaNoWriMo” this past month. The goal of National Novel Writing Month, held every November, is to craft at least 50,000 words of a new novel (not revising a draft nor picking up an abandoned manuscript) in those 30 days. This was my fourth try, beginning in 2007. I “won” in 2009. Alas, 2013 will go down with my having written 29,001 words.

Having my MacBook in the shop six days mid-month did stall my momentum, but I won’t blame that. I could’ve written longhand on a letter pad  or tapped on an iPad then moved the copy over. No, my heart wasn’t in it this fall.

But the attempt got me thinking about writing goals.

• • •

pencilsWriting as a freelancer is one thing. You find projects, and, when lucky, projects find you. As work, these head the queue of to-dos. Now, writing as an artistic goal — a blog, a poem or two for an upcoming “open mic,” a long-term project like a novel — these require all sorts of tricks for motivation.

Ever since we met in 1991, my wife of 20 years has been disturbed by a series of signs posted near my writing desks, such as “The Writing Comes First,” “Write Daily,” “Butt in Chair” — familiar to many of us in NSNC. She wants to come first in my life. My assurances never have persuaded her, and I am told this eight or nine times a year.

That may have changed last month. She is satisfied from a response I figured out after reading Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Shapiro’s extended essay is the latest in such volumes that shows even eloquent, popular writers have similar issues.

1) I need NO reminders of the most important matters in my life: wife, home and family. They’re obvious. They’re constant.

2) For writing, even though I claim to enjoy the practice, I need reminders. Writing is so easy to duck that any gimmick that gets me back to a pad must be given a shot. My wife seems to accept this. For now.

Reading writing tips of others I respect also inspires. Just in late November, Salon.com posted “Nicholson Baker’s Best Advice: Writers Must Write Every Day.”

My latest desk sign has been to copy the screensaver of the fictional mystery writer Richard Castle, which appears on the eponymous, Monday night ABC series. My laptop now reads “You Should Be Writing” after a minute of inactivity. It beckons me and makes me laugh.

• • •

Since 1998, I’ve aimed to write three pages of free writing, longhand, first thing every day. The practice is called Morning Pages, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I was consistent the first couple of years. Until last month, I have done the Pages once or twice a week, at most iIt’s a great warm-up on NaNoWriMo days).

One help has been to move this journal habit to the keyboard. A fellow coded up 750words.com as that was his length estimate of the average pen-and-paper Morning Pages. Besides counting words and some interesting features, 750words.com serves as a “cloud” back-up. It is not entirely secure, but what is, anymore?

• • •

NaNoWriMo is a daunting but achievable goal, 1,667 words on each of 30 days comes to 50,010. Daunting is fine every once in a while, unless one actually is a novelist.

But instead of daunting goals, how about dinting ones? As in by dint of labor, meaning “force or power,” achievable with just a little extra effort.

So beginning in December, I have set up in my word processor Scrivener a monthly target of 20,000 words. They’ll come from any original writing, including copy for hire.

Here’s the arithmetic: The easy goal would be to write from my heart whenever I feel like it — so zero words a month and above that anything is gravy.

That doesn’t work well.

Coming up with 750 words a day times an average of 20 weekdays a month is a target of 15,000 words. That’s just a hair too easy, but 750 words times 30 days equals 22,500. Month in and month out I would fail.

What about 20,000 words every month? That would come from the Morning Pages of four weekdays and either Saturday or Sunday, plus one or two articles or blog posts per week. Besides, by the time I hit 750 words in Pages, I’m on a roll and find 1,000 takes just another few minutes.

• • •

Dude, where’s my etymology? My favorite Web story of the month comes from Slate.com. The word “dude,” as in a laid-back but very hip fellow turns out to have begun in the 1880s and was a nod to Yankee Doodle, the easygoing “dude” of the previous century.

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