A Hundred Thousand Empty Words

write me by mabbink CC-BY

So I’m reading this post about finding lost things and agreeing with it up until the very last few lines. Robin says this:

I bypassed the coat pocket, the kids, even the refrigerator, and came straight to my blog.


It’s the last place I remembered seeing what I thought I’d lost: my voice.

This is true for me too. I first found it a long time ago, on a private page of an unfinished story, but it was here that your encouragement and engagement helped me really sit down and become at home with who and what I am. How I see the world and how I say things.

The only thing that didn’t resonate for me personally in what Robin said was the “500 words a day” challenge from Jeff Goins. Not that it’s wrong. Writing is learning to do by doing, so there’s some sense in which it can’t be avoided or dismissed.

But my partner has this other view, and it’s also very true: It’s better to write six good words, or zero, than 500 empty ones. He’s not talking about the voice or the style, but the heart. The depth of meaning.

Voice and heart are intimately related, but not quite the same thing. I can voice all day long without really getting into the heart of things. And I’ve seen some people, in trying to be literary and experimental, advocate this. Words for their own sake, without storyline or arc, prose for the love of prose.

I guess as a writer that might be fun, and it’s valid as a personal exercise (name me something that isn’t). But as a reader, I don’t know how I’d keep from dying of boredom. Why should I care how someone strings words together, unless there’s some underlying reason to? The world is full of words.

Granted, nothing gets written without stringing it together word by word. But motion and motivation are inextricably linked. I’ve seen strong essayists fail to create a full work because they’re willing to be carried along by the stream rather than dipping the paddle into it with intention. It’s something I struggle with myself.

Writing words only for the sake of their own sound is, I believe, a bit of a dodge.

My lesson for 2014 is that it’s too easy for me to skate by on pretty words that, in the end, ring false. Because I can write any 500 words, any day, while keeping my heart guarded. It’s something I’ve spent a decade training myself to do: Let the words run, and the heart will open. All deadlines can be met, regardless of how one “feels about writing” right then.

That, too, is true; but intermittent gushes and spurts do not a river make.

In December, I hired a dear writer friend, someone who’s a much more accomplished writer and editor than myself, to teach me the next steps I needed to take in order to get my novelist feet under me at a commercial level. My final application of her advice amounted to this (my words, not hers, which are unfailingly supportive):

The heart is missing. And so the flow goes awry. Things don’t hang together. Scene arcs struggle. The bigger picture is muddy. The line by line progression is compromised.

Is it horrible? No. It’s half-decent enough that no one else has been able to put a finger on the pulse of exactly how to make it resonate. Only that it’s not clicking over.

In my instinctive defense of my own most private fears and feelings, I’ve barricaded my main character behind a wall. There was not a single technical aspect to the editorial evaluation that I haven’t got some knowledge of, that I haven’t taught to others successfully, even to the point of helping them earn quite reputable traditional contracts. Technical knowledge — not the problem.

Well, then.

Would it help me to blog 500 words a day all month?


Sometimes it’s possible to write a hundred thousand empty words in all kinds of beautiful voice.

Maybe I’m a coward. Maybe I’m a poser and I’m fooling myself when I say I want to do this writing thing. Maybe I only want to do it because writing things down is a way of avoiding them instead of standing up and facing them.

Maybe writing isn’t so much my way of sorting out life as trying to bury it. And if I don’t want to give my heart away, then writing isn’t the honest way to live. The honest thing is to say, I don’t want to give my heart away and so I won’t.

I don’t know right now. But it doesn’t work to keep drifting. I’ll have to decide what I want, and — with storytelling or without it — leave the prosaic behind.


Image: “Write Me” by mabbink on Flickr. License: CC-BY 2.0

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  1. There is a reason why the saying “Silence is golden” is so revealing. Expression, oral or written or even mediatic, must cary meaning or feeling. Otherwise, why bother. Beware of the diarrhoea of words and the constipation of ideas.

  2. “if I don’t want to give my heart away, then writing isn’t the honest way to live. The honest thing is to say, I don’t want to give my heart away and so I won’t.”

    But I think you just did, as you always do in these pages, quite the achievement in only 805 words. Reading the commentary, I don’t think I’m alone in this assessment. It’s one reason why we completed such a unique novel, I think…

    1. Why thank you, Someone. :) Your point is valid; when I don’t want to give my heart away, I stop blogging for awhile.

      It’s all the more unique a novel, since mine wasn’t the only heart that got poured into it. One for the money. Two for the show. :)

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