On Writing A Lot

On Writing A Lot

Unusually for Potblack, but usually for me (Zac), this piece is not fiction. Enjoy anyway.

The goal here is not to be short but to go long and to get to the new word count. Hello there, everyone. What follows will be a public-facing version of the kinds of documents that I write to get my word count up every day. Journals, in their function, and private by default but they’ve been read in the past by audiences unintended and they’ve been destructive like fire burning down the way I came but freshening and reseeding new ground to which I should not return but from which comes new life and new opportunities and chances to not make the same mistakes so many times. Too honest, maybe, and this is just the same if you know the whole thing. Sometimes I don’t feel like I know the whole thing either. Like I’m here not by accident but not strictly, not entirely, by design.

What else this document will try to do is limit my adverbs. Adjectives that end in -ly.

What I have is a compulsion to start sentences that way when I’m otherwise pushing through ideas without putting words down with any kind of effort. It’s a useful way to start. What I have is, how I feel is, why I’m doing this is because… I am in what I describe as the part before the wall. At 600 words there’s something that unlocks and you cross it with something to say just by grinding out through the ideas that don’t yet exist. But let’s start at the beginning.

For the uninitiated: for the last few years, I’ve kept a Google Sheet inside of which I track how many words I write every day. I started it during 2020’s infamous lockdowns, from the flat we had in Balham, in London’s southwest, where we endured the first two of Britain’s many COVID lockdowns.

To digress:

What I had there in the gap between sentences in the paragraphs above was a call with my PT. I thought through that sentence a few times on my walk from the office to the train down the concrete with the early summer heat radiating off the walls beneath the overpass. About how I wouldn’t write out the words ‘personal trainer’ because I didn’t need the extra words in cheap ways like that before backflipping because writing about how I didn’t do that would just cancel the whole thing out. So here I am explaining it in some sardonic, disconnected way like that makes it any better. But what I have to do is snack on nuts because they’re calorie dense and what I need is to get back to decent level of calories. I lost a kilogram in about three weeks because I stopped noticing and my eating fell off and I don’t have a lot of kilograms to lose — both in general and with a view to some kind of summer shreddedness. Sure, it’s vain but I’ve never not been. Why would you do anything if you’re not trying to like how you look doing it? Not everything altogether because there are some things done in private that feel better than they look but the point remains. Cameras always watching or something else paranoid.

To come back:

A note here about the empty achievement of short paragraphs and lists that break up the page to create a fake volume that always lets you down in the examination of it when I copy the whole document and paste it into Wordcounter.net and see where I’m up to. To address the exercise at hand: in the Google Sheet I track the number of words I write every day from pieces of writing that derive from active thought. Scheduling emails don’t count but replies to campaign pitches where I have to reply with criticism and forward plans and notes on amendments do. Ad copy doesn’t as a general rule but if I was to write headlines in batches as a creative experiment — which it is likely time to for me to do, priding myself on my writing the way I do — then that would count. And so on. A batch write of 36 meta descriptions last week counts, for example, but writing one on its own would not.

So the spreadsheet’s been keeping track for a few years. Last year I set the arbitrary goal of 1,000 words a day and I hit it a few days before Christmas and, from 365,000 words, I chose to stretch myself to 500,000 this year. It turns out that a great way to get your word count up for the year is to detonate your whole life all in one go while you have a major creative project in the works and what happens is, like Hemingway said, that you just bleed all over the keyboard and it feels like there’s nothing to it. I am due a Papa reread. The Sun Also Rises, maybe, to go back to the start. I always tend to start over at A Farewell to Arms but there’s less to learn from that than there is from where he began or For Whom The Bell Tolls for a better, similar story. The point: that 500,000 words is 1,370 a day. I’ve hit — and in many occasions exceeded — that target every month so far this year but August was bloody close and I was tallying things that don’t normally count, like long strings of text messages, just to cross the line drunk in the earliest hours of September 1 after TradeMutt’s first million four hours before. But we’ve done it. And if I keep writing to that schedule I’ll hit 500,000 words in about mid-October which is good timing for the back half of the year, for the summer, but what would it have become after that?

For reference, we’re at 971 words now. It’s 8.46pm and my call finished at 8.22 and I was writing this for about 10 minutes too before that. Nine minutes before. Refer to the above. So Cameron Topping, housemate extraordinaire, one of the last two housemates I intend to have, then challenged me to persist with what I’ve been describing all year as the “weird intensity.” To stoke it, encourage it, continue with it in the wake of the marathon training, of the house settlements now two in number for the year — of the financial year even, would you believe? — of the marriage I didn’t have. I’ll digress again here because I’ve not written about that in any way publicly except for Steakhouse, a piece I wrote before the collapse, a piece that was rewritten during the fall, and rewritten again to adhere to the three drafts rule in the aftermath, in the settling dust, and it became something else each time. A shifting sense of self there in the prose and some truth to it that I’ve been unable to bottle again. Except maybe for Road Running. But maybe the trick there is that it’s public. So. 

To get to 750,000 words for 2023, I’ll have to write a volume of 2,800 words a day every day through to December 31. This number will change as the days pass, growing when I fall short and shrinking when I pass by on the way through some idea I can’t close out, but that’s just about the number for which I’ve set a blue cell background and a bold white text inside the sheet’s conditional formatting. These are arbitrary targets and that feels like the trick. To create habits just for me, not for anyone else — though how I am at all other times is downstream of the word count. A clarity of private thought here that doesn’t and cannot exist elsewhere and so when the hulls are breached, for reasons fair enough but destructive because I laid the mines, it all bursts into heat and light and kinetic energy that destroys what’s around. And here we are. Tired despite a good night’s sleep, aware of the need to fire on all cylinders, using these documents to make sure I do just that. And soon an early night if I can get this over the line and then to you in time. Lights out, head on the pillow, eyes shut, deep breathing before midnight usually the trick because I am not a morning person so I’ve never been able to enjoy that early routine. But what I’m working through now is breaking out of my defaults and turning myself into what I need to be to be able to be who I want to be. And who that is is someone who writes and the rest of it is downstream. All of it. And I don’t know how to better describe that to people who don’t know.

A physical restlessness when this is undone, when the words don’t come, some itch scratched by just knowing how to start myself out of a rut and how to keep going. Murakami writes that running a marathon and writing a novel are the same thing. You just start and you don’t stop and past a certain point it’s not even mechanical anymore. It’s emotional regulation and it’s discipline. And that’s what I’m looking to find from this exercise. From all exercise and all exercises. From the half-marathons every Sunday to the three lifts a week to the public transport instead of driving — or, God forbid, Ubering — to the buying not renting to the freelance client on the side. Some innate idea insatiable with respect to what is enough. I don’t know if I had that before I was supposed to be married or if that’s something I learned in between the last time I was single in the Paddington catchment and now. If I learned it I know where I got it from — who I got it from — and in hindsight we were as bad as each other about that. But I don’t think I’m hard to please. Though you do need to have standards.

In my increasing age, god, I am aware that I’m wrong from time to time. Picking my battles a strength, I think, but I still need to practice that good judgment that comes from disciplines around things that create good judgment. Like thinking your way through hard things and coming to decisions that you can defend with thought and reason. Not that reason is the bedrock of all things because we’re a soft, squishy species driven more by emotional than by the cold hard and it’s that softer things I’m better at than the hard ones. Soft email hands.

1,769. 9.05pm. See what I mean about how it comes after the wall? If I’m in bed in the next 55 minutes we’ll call it a success but I’d be surprised. Washing to bring in, a shower to have, leftovers to pack up and put away for dinner again tomorrow. Andor begun over the weekend and uncontinued, videogames unplayed, everything else put aside just for this because what I need are the green cells and more than that the blue ones because if I can do that I can do anything. Well, provided it doesn’t also require the time in which I would otherwise do this.

That’s what I have to say about writing a lot. That I do it and that I feel like I am better than most people at it because I have a record of having done a lot of it but what I don’t have is the record of the words themselves because it’s easy to get caught in loops of bad habits and adverbs and run-on sentences so long they’re of drinking age. Music through the speakers and dinner nearly done and a light on outside where Cameron rests in the hammock he’s strung across the side of the balcony I reminded him we don’t really use and my washing still on the line against the wall, cool and dry, me warm and filling with calories like I need but not with much — or any — understanding of actual nutrition. Calories in, calories out, and I burn through another full day’s worth every Sunday in two hours so I have to eat eight days worth of it in seven. Plus strength training, plus walking, plus the stream of black coffee down my throat keeping my heart rate high and my stress at a level and my appetite suppressed.

I’ll confess I thought this would be more personal. Like I’d just bleed all over this thing through some sort of hemophiliac divination but it is after all a routine. A habit. Some kind of professionalisation of the craft that I love and some days I’ve turned it into something foreign to me, something I have to force to fruition. Some days I do zero, sure, but anything is better than zero. 100. 200. Anything short of 100 is worse than zero because that does mean that I didn’t try. I can get to 400 with a kind of muscle memory but after that it becomes work. Focus, discipline, energy aimed and directed and expelled through fast index finger keystrokes because even though I did learn to five-finger type in school I’ve become some kind of lazy about it. Maybe too many games of League of Legends ruining my right hand, to look at how its working now, but keeping my left still available with more than one finger because there are four spells but only one right click. That’s reinstalled, by the way, if you wanted to know. One win two losses since. But mostly single player games and mostly work and mostly writing though there are worlds again not far away where my sleep is again destroyed but I have to choose, every time, my way away from it.

There’s another piece inside of me somewhere about vice. The curious discovery of and the easy journey through and then, on the other side through the unendurable destruction of something else that its taken the place of without the same strength to bear the load, the endless, persistent choices away. Replacements not removals. From one to another to another and maybe that is all there is and it’s just a case of choosing what haunts us. And my demons are, thankfully, my own. To my parents’ credit: I have caused all of my own problems. And yet.

It’s good. It is all good. Far from perfect, permanently removed from it, but good. Here on the edge of a series of chances and opportunities and goals with stable, sturdy, stubborn even, posts fixed to the ground and the next four months at the least even just loosely planned and some forward momentum behind me and that same funny feeling I get at 16 kilometres through when I’m tired but coming down that soft hill between the Kangaroo Point Cliffs and River Quay where it becomes the pebbly South Bank promenade. I run at night a lot because it is a long way and it’s a long time and I tend to put it off until I’ve done everything else first and I’ve run out of excuses but on a good, warm, bright day there’s nothing like carving your way through the crowds and even three-quarters of the way through half a marathon still overtaking people and staying overtaken past them. The only time I’ve been overtaken and stayed that way was during marathon training, on the day of the longest run at 33 kilometres, from Bardon to Newstead House and back down Ann Street over the Story Bridge before flanking the Cliffs and coming down that social stretch at the stupideth mile and I was passed by someone, fit, clean, together, dry, beautiful, and I tried to keep up with her but I couldn’t. I passed her and then she passed me and I was beaten.

And then the marathon sold out and I nearly missed out. Idiot. Maybe another piece. Forward planning would solve a lot of things for me and I’m taking advice from a few different places and people on how to use my calendars. But this, crucially, is unscheduled. Yesterday I hit target from almost 0 — from 330 — to 3,000 between the platform at Richlands and the platform at Toombul. Something about the rocking train turning my monkey brain alive and active, facing backwards, the world passing by through the windows and helping me put it all down as a surprise and not as plan.

But maybe it’s because the target is fresh and I have not yet had the dry days where I’ve spent myself on the rest of it and left nothing behind for whatever this has to be. Tomorrow — maybe. Not today. Weekends the real test. 9.23pm. 26% of my laptop battery left, uncharged since the office. Food before me cold but made of kilojoules. 2,832, including the title, not including the subheading. 

Originally I was going to leave this here but 3,000 is not far off and I could maybe paint some kind of a picture. 20% left now, dinner away but uncleaned for now. The dishwasher clean and ready to empty and unpack and to inspire the tail end of a piece I’ve begun like Timetable and a bit too close to Whitebads for me to like it initially. But it’s come good in the process, like these things always tend to do. The ways that pushing through reminds you that things only happen at the millstone, at the coal face, with the rubber on the road rather than in here. This is not an active place. It is an active process. Everything else a result of what’s here but nothing done in here except maybe some decisions made and/or reinforced. Rarely do I talk myself back from things. That vice piece again, maybe, the compulsion towards myself. So what?


2.78% of the 500,000 word count target left to go. 13,897 words left. Here, look at the spreadsheet yourself if you’ve made it this far. Today, 26.03% of the year remains.

35% of the 750,000 word count target left to go. 263,897 words to go. 2,778 words every day. Ooft. We’ll get there. A friend wants to talk to me about it after I’ve done it. And I’d like to have that conversation.

Thanks for reading.

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