12 Words

You are 12 words away from being a novelist. Just 12 words a day.

Let me explain: I was 17 when I first got the notion to write a novel. I was hanging poolside with friends the summer before my senior year of high school, basking in the glow of laughter and lifelong friends and carefree days known only to adolescents.

I was a voracious reader, and often teased for it. In fact, I was teased that day by the pool about it, as my friends gabbed and splashed and talked of boys and how to use lemon juice to get perfect blond highlights. I floated amongst them reading a novel I’d picked up from the library.

Their teasing wasn’t malicious. It was more of an acknowledgment of who I was: The bookworm. The dreamer. The girl with her head simultaneously between pages and in the clouds. 

“You are ALWAYS reading,” one of the girls laughed. “If you love books so much, why don’t you marry one?”

“If you like them so much, why don’t you write one?” another offered offhandedly.

The idea hit me like a thunderbolt. Why didn’t I? I could write about anything. Even about friends embarking on what was likely the last of their 12 years together before heading out into separate worlds of college and work and family. Embarking on such a venture would mean a full turn from a life I had planned since before I could fully remember to be a visual artist.

So, I did the only thing in the face of such an epiphany that made sense at the time: I ignored it and went on to study art.

But like any good lightning strike, the mark of it never went away. It stayed, nagging, as persistent as an inquisitive toddler. “Why not write a book? Why not? Why?” it insisted daily. It followed me through six years and two different courses of study in college. It stayed when I took a writing job as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s. It continued even after I landed a spot on the editorial page with a regular column that allowed me nearly full creative autonomy. I’m still writing for a living more than two decades later, and the nagging voice remains, always needling. It wants the novel.

In those years, I sat down countless times to heed the voice and write The Great American Novel. Here’s the thing: Writing a novel is not as easy reading a novel would have you think.

I rarely got past the first hopelessly clunky paragraphs before giving up. Translating whatever drama I had in my head into words on a page was an exercise in frustration. 

Turns out, it’s supposed to be. Every writer’s experience is different, but even the best of them count on the process being fraught with obstructions, setbacks, vexation. Trying to find the right words often feels like trying to wring water from a dry cloth. There will be other times the words flow as easy and smooth as melted chocolate. Sure, a rare few swear they’ve thrown down fully-formed masterpieces with little more effort than taking dictation. Faulkner claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks with almost no sleep and not a single word revised. But smart writers know the hard days vastly outweigh the effortless ones.

Most writers will tell you the process entails what feels like endless days of rewrites. You rack your brain and dissect your soul to get the right words, convey the right emotion, shape the right characters, only to throw it all out in the next draft. Yes, Virginia; there’s more than one draft. Read enough authors who expound on the art of writing, and you’ll come away believing they all have reams of discarded manuscripts stuffed into drawers, closets, the space under their beds.

Fear of that process and other daunting suppositions has keep many a wordsmith from trying. It kept me from trying for too long.

Writing is like tunneling out of Shawshank prison: You have to go into it knowing it will be long and hard and tedious, and whether you see any real success will require  timing and good luck. But you tunnel, nonetheless, because something worth tunneling to lies on the other side.

It’s been more than 20 years since I was hit with that first urge to write. When I hit the 20-year mark, I did some calculating. If I’d written 12 words a day in that time _ just 12 new words a day _ I’d have a novel. Or at least the first draft of one. And a first draft is a lot closer to a novel than nothing.

So, that’s your goal: to write 12 words a day. No matter what. No matter how busy you are. No matter how tired you are. No matter how blocked you are. 12 words. And if you end up writing more than 12 words, well, all the better. In the beginning, you might only write 12 words a day. And that’s OK. It’s a dozen words further than you were the day before. But in time, you’ll almost certainly find yourself writing more. So that, instead having a novel in 20 years, you might find you have your book in half that time. Or a quarter. Or one or two years. Who knows? Maybe you’re another Faulkner.

I’ve been writing at least 12 words a day for more than a year. And I have a blog, half a novel, a novella and the start of three others to show for it. Some days are harder than others, but all the days since I began are better than the days before I started. I think you’ll find that to be the case, too.

Because whatever fear is holding you back _ fear of failure or of ridicule or of mediocrity _ none of that can feel worse than seeing 20 years go by without trying.

Now, go write your 12 words.

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So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years _ twenty years largely wasted … Trying to learn to use words …”

T. S. Eliot

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