Sunday, September 16, 2007

Six Thousand Words, One Hundred per Day

OF ALL THINGS, MY carpal tunnel syndrome was flaring up this week. I had a 3-week stretch at the outset of my new job when a new ergonomic keyboard was "on order." In practice, it took some shoe leather to verify that the IT department hadn't received the order, which at least served to point out the uselessness of the person in my office tasked with workstation ergo-issues.

The upshot is that I gave my wrists some time off to recover. Hell, I even missed the anniversary of my blog, which dwells on the Orwellian-named Patriot Day. (For this Boston College graduate, Patriot Day — or rather, Patriot's Day — is the third Monday in April, on which folks in Massachusetts and Maine get the day off and BC students get to cheer those Boston Marathoners challenging Heartbreak Hill.) I actually achieved a major milestone at work, which I will detail in my 3-month mark post. It required a lot of typing and mousing and whatnot, which is why I was feeling a touch worn around the hand-joints. Typing further later that night had less than the usual attraction. Still, the cure for that is a tight, meaningful post, if only to register my own existence in the screaming void of the Internet.

Small ≠ lacking in content. A whopping three-pernt-five years ago, I participated for 2 months in the 100 Words website challenge. The awesome Amy introduced me to this site. The goal: Write exactly 100 words a day for a month. Next month, repeat. My Lenten writing exercise took inspiration from its method. For a long time, it was down due to some sort of crash, and then due to retooling. It is back up now; although I thought my entries were lost, it seems to be reading logins now, so I won't have to resort to Google to read an archive of the two months' worth of entries I'd logged.

I took a look yesterday at the 6,000 words I wrote during that span. Many were quite good. I found the exercise challenging, not as much for confining myself to 100 words per, but for coming up with a topic each day. More than a few times I took inspiration from a tool I'd purchased nearly a decade ago, The Observation Deck, a stack of 50 cards, each bearing an inspirational action to spark writing, plus a book explaining each card and some alternative interpretations. In the manner of a stressed student, some of the entries were written after a quick shuffle and pull of a card, then a sprint through MS Word, at 11:30 p.m. before the day changed and I recorded a skip. But I hit each day, more than a year before taking up the similar challenge of a blog.

I believe constraints aren't all bad when it comes to creativity. Gary Larson mentioned in one of his collections that an artist once opined to him that his choice of format — that same daily box each day — taught him more about his form than formal art training might have. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird of the importance of short assignments. She keeps a 1-inch-square picture frame at her desk, which reminds her that by narrowing one's view of a writing task — by looking through such a small window — even huge assignments become single paragraphs, even single sentences, and lose their ability to daunt. The very title of her book refers to the advice her father gave her brother, who, when panicking in the face of a massive written report on birds, was advised just to take it "bird by bird."

I get satisfaction out of seeing the interface between a creative person's inspiration and the limits of the form he or she has chosen. Larson's panels were a window into a lot of warped perspectives, but he had the challenge of balancing the rendering of the characters, and the technical demands of the form (readability, dialogue, an extremely limited color palette), and — most important — whether anybody would get the joke. Oh, yes, and he had to do that six times a week. Yes, he eventually branched out to the Sunday strips, much larger and in color. Still, when one walked through the halls of my college's academic offices, it was the little daily Far Sides one saw more often on the professors' doors.

Between whatever was going through my head in the still-frozen early months of 2004, and occasional whacks on the side of said head from the Observation Deck, I wrote a diverse selection of complete pieces. Most feel comfortable in their own skin, in the constraint imposed on their length. I feel this is worth remembering, because I now write at work with definite word counts and column lengths in mind, very practical limits — I can even write directly in the Quark document if I want to ensure a perfect fit.

Some folks lose sight of the perfect level of audience commitment for a work. I viewed a short subject at the 2003 CineVagas film festival, a meditation on the vampire from Nosferatu if he gave up his Transylvanian dominion for a mundane life in a Los Angeles suburb. It was witty, sad, and probably about 15 minutes long. During the Q&A, the producer aired his speculation about remaking it at feature length. I immediately said, "No, don't make it longer. It is perfect the way it is." (This, in public, in front of a bunch of strangers, from me, who makes Marianas Trench starfish look social.) Four years later, we have the cavemen from the recent GEICO ads starring in a television series. Even controlling for my natural bias against most of the shit Hollywood produces, I suspect this series will have viewers pining for the perfectly sized 15-second bites we got of these guys in the ads. To quote Krusty the Clown when he was mired in the depths of an interminable and unfunny SNL-style bit, "Uhhhhh . . . this sketch goes on for twelve minutes."

I think there's a balance to be struck between my 500 daily words during Lent and the picture frame of 100 words back in '04. Carpal tunnel be damned. I was doing something very right back then.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Oh, I just sent you a message about doing our own 100 Words, but if they are back up ... perhaps I should do that one. I wonder if I threw out my login?? I might have it still. Or maybe our own would be better ... we'll discuss.