I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.
The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in. I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’ But you know what I did worry about? For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style. I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it. I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it. But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.
For writers style is everything. Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes. Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth. Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers. Imitation is fine. It has its place and time. Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.
I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it. I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing. Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style. This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice. Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality. But style, I mean style. That comes from somewhere else.
For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words. A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words. She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!
As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself. Why hadn’t I gotten the message before? All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling. I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.
Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently. This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry. This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written. It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical. Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience. I like the unusual, the weird. Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston. But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious. At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.
I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice. Write your million words – and I do mean a million. Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did. Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript? Remember how I edited it down to 330? It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!
Have I actually written a million words? Honestly I don’t know. A million words is around 3,000 pages. Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time. Probably almost three times that. But I don’t think all of those words count. Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments. A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry. A serious writer can do it in a few short years. This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings. But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.
Enjoy the process, my friends. There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft. Read a million words. Write a million words.
And then write a million more.