The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Tenth Commandment of Writing

The Tenth Commandment of Writing

Thou shalt write a million words.

Starting today, count out the next million words of your writing.  And you lose the right to even CONSIDER quitting until you have done it.  Everyone, (it is said) has a million words of crap in them that they have to write out before they get to the core.  The trouble is that people quit far too soon.  They don’t get the career success, or the critical acknowledgement, or whatever, after their first or second book…and they quit.  They aren’t “talented” enough, or the market is “closed” to them because of their age, race, subject matter, whatever.

NO! NO! NO!  Lifewriting does not believe in talent.  We believe in hard work and honesty, over time.  Lifewriting understands that there are life situations, political points of view and subject matters that diminish your statistical chances of “making it”…but statistics have very little to do with what an individual can achieve, if that individual is willing to go the extra mile.

One million words is a thousand words a day for three years.  Or five hundred words a day for six years.  In other words, it will take you as long to become a professional-level writer as it would to become a doctor or lawyer.  And why shouldn’t it?  What in the world were you thinking, if you assumed that you could just walk in and be cheered for your innate genius?

I can think of few concepts that have contributed to failure more than that of “innate genius.”  You know what?  Every single time I’ve gotten close to one of these supposedly “gifted” men and women, all I’ve ever seen is a lifetime of grueling hard work and focus.  It has led me to the conclusion that if there is a core “gift” it is the “gift” of being able to focus for long periods of time, with no apparent reward.

This is why your writing must come from your heart—each day’s work must be its own reward, or the little nasty voices in your head will stop you. 

This applies to far more than writing, of course.  “Walk the thousand mile road” Musashi said to the aspiring swordsman.  Strengthening your body is a daily war with our animal urges to be lazy and eat everything in sight.  Relationships with our spouses, children, and friends are built one day at a time.  A meditation practise is built on endless days of sitting silently, while our minds chatter that there are better things to do…until one day they quiet, and release the power of our true nature.

One million words.  If you commit to this, and also to finding ways to improve your work every day, every week.  Learning new things about the business of writing as well as the art.  Learning more about how to research, focus, drive, polish…

Learn more about how to tell the truth about your own existence—every failure, every embarrassment, every scar, as well as your triumphs and acclaim.  To take humble responsibility for all of it, with the perspective that says we are all just human beings, doing the best we can…neither egotistical about our victories nor self-denigrating in our losses…

That is the Lifewriter’s Thousand Mile Road.  One million words.  Anyone willing to postpone satisfaction that long will simply outlast those who crave immediate success.  Long after the flakes and A ”geniuses” have grown bitter and taken their toys home, you will be standing tall, with a body of work to make you proud.  And if at every step you have written to the best of your ability, you have done all it is humanly possible to do.

And you, my friend, will be a writer.

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