On Quantity

Title-page-Quantity-Word-WarOnce every semester my students perform what I call the Molly Bloom exercise in class. We read aloud the first page of Molly’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses and I proffer my completely invented notion of Joyce’s technique. He decided, I say, to set down as closely as possible the contents of Molly’s mind as she lay in bed. He determined that thought never stops, and most of us think in words. He decided that Molly did not “think” punctuation. And he figured that Molly had a word, or phrase, that she was apt to use and that suggested something about her personality: the word, in Molly’s case, was Yes. I then instruct the students to choose a person they know very well, picture that person engaged in some activity during which they can think to their heart’s content, and choose that person’s word or phrase (common choices: like, dude, I dunno, seriously, OK, this is the thing, and various curse words). My students then write for 20 minutes, without punctuation and without stopping, trying to capture whatever’s spilling through this person’s mind and using the word or phrase whenever they get stuck or tempted to stop writing.

The result, not surprisingly, is a much larger outpouring of writing than any other prompt produces—usually something in the neighborhood of 500 words. Whether they can use any of what they’ve written for narration or dialogue is an open question, but students are always amazed at their ability to produce more than 100 words of any kind in 20 minutes.

I thought about this exercise when I learned about the Grafton Line, a contest begun when the Princeton history professor Anthony Grafton told The Daily Beast that he writes about 3,500 words every morning. L.D. Burnett, a Ph.D. candidate who keeps the blog Saved by History, was not so much blown away by this claim as inspired. She offered to “race” Prof. Grafton—“my dissertation v. your next project”—by completing 555 words every day, which she established as her “Grafton line.” Even though she qualified this goal, noting that “dissertations are not a matter of hitting a word count, but of crafting an argument,” she found that her challenge inspired a legion of “Grafton liners,” including the Chronicle‘s Tenured Radical blogger Claire Potter, who are now racing to post their daily results on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s a fun game, surely, and many, like my students, must find that setting a goal of sheer output helps them break through some sort of writing block. When I was in grad school, I had my own Grafton line: a thousand words before breakfast. Since I didn’t count coffee as breakfast, I was often nothing but a jittery mess at my 10:30 class.

But along with all the other ways in which computers have changed the writing process, this obsession with word count may be blinding us to the many ways of skinning the writing cat. Yes, we can delete whole swaths of bad writing. We can move text around willy-nilly; we can run global searches for annoying words and phrases that crop up, like my Joycean grab bag, in our early drafts; we are devoted to the tradition of writing as rewriting, so getting text onto the page must be the first step in a long process.

But consider the old story about Joyce—that he worked an entire day on a sentence, not in order to find the right words for the sentence, but to be sure those words were in the right order. Reynolds Price purportedly wrote one double-spaced typed page per day and then stopped. But he never rewrote anything, and with that kind of output you have about a book every year. Pascal “would have written a shorter letter, but did not have the time.”

I am addicted to rewriting myself. I spew out 10 pages in order to discover the paragraph or two that really belong in what I’m writing. In this way I’m like the now-eponymous Grafton, who says, “I always start by rapidly revising what I wrote the day before. So it’s very quick writing, and it takes a lot of revision, but this is the way I write chapters of my books.” But ours is not a superior way of going about things, and neither is the Grafton challenge. The greatest danger, in fact, of thinking in terms of word quantity when we are working on the computer is how neat and clean and spell-checked it all appears. When my students write their Molly-ish soliloquies, they write by hand (and discover how much strength it took, in the olden days, to produce a true manuscript). They will have to rewrite any portion of their initial output simply in order to get it onto the computer. But for those working the Grafton line, either ruthlessness or genius is essential. Perhaps we should start a new contest, and call it #KillYourDarlings.

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