So Many Words


When I finished my 40th essay, I did the math. Authors work in word counts not pages. I had written a total of almost 50,000 words. Yikes, that’s a lot of words. I wondered what that really meant. Google told me that a pile of 60,000 words, or more, is a book. What? I have always wanted to write a book.

My essays were a freeform exploration of any topic. At first, the writing was an exercise to free me of the tyranny of writing for someone else. In City Hall, the writing trick was to bury my voice enough to make every piece sound like the commissioner. Besides him, there were other editors. Writing for someone is a fun challenge but I needed to rediscover my voice. When I looked across the essays, what distinguished them was a conscious effort to be authentic.

For almost 6 months, I wrote almost every day. When I wasn’t writing I was in our basement sorting and reading hundreds of pages of my writings and correspondence. I am a packrat. I kept everything. What I didn’t do was date all my writing, so I had to use the correspondence to figure out when and where I wrote those journal entries or notes or little vignettes on the back of napkins. Part of my personal archeology was a few hundred computer files from generations of computers and word processors. I recovered the files, then found an outside service to translate the old word processor files into something I could read. Finally, for the last 17 years, I have dated journal notebooks that I read and chopped into the most meaningful pieces. Like a graduate student, I took notes on myself.

I loved every minute of the work. Always a writer, I reveled in having the time to write day after day. Still, it wasn’t all fun. I discovered that some stories I had been telling myself and others for years were wrong. And in the darkest parts of my life or riding the highs, the emotions sometimes overwhelmed me. I wrote and cried, wrote and laughed. I paused to collect myself, see some live music, spend time away from my little home office and recharge before tackling the next chapter. Committing to honesty comes with a price but as I added layer after layer to my story, I felt my self-understanding grow. I found I was both a better and worse person than I believed. That was hard won enlightenment.

My life story is one of living well with a mental illness. From childhood, there hasn’t been a day that my nervous system hasn’t been a factor. The trick for me was to tell the reader what that was like and the life choices I made, and with grace, allow someone who also suffers mental illness to discover hope. My most important discovery was that I have lived a life seeking a cure to my illness. Relentlessly, sometimes before the science existed, I tried to overcome my limitations. Limits that came only from my own mind. As I wrote, I saw that the word cure was the pivot for the entire memoir.

I write fast. Some days, lost in the clicking of my keyboard, I looked up hours later to see I had just written 3,000 words. The words poured out of me. The old stories gained details and depth.

I wear a Fitbit. One day I looked down after a long blast at the keyboard and saw that my heartrate was down in the same range it is when I sleep or meditate. Sitting or standing at the computer, my body relaxed, and my breathing slowed. Could there be a better sign that I was doing what I was meant to do?

When I typed the last sentence of the 33rdchapter, I looked up and saw I had typed 144,000 words. What? I told a book editor friend of mine and she said I had just written the cathartic draft but now I had to cut away the equivalent of an entire book’s worth of words. Because every bit of the now manuscript was my story, I had to decide what parts of my life to delete. I called it deciding which babies to toss out of the lifeboat. Truly, it sometimes felt that way. Stories I had always seen as essential simply didn’t serve the narrative. Mechanical pencil in hand, I slashed and cut. As an editor, I reveled in the falling word count.

I also discovered something unexpected in my rookie author endeavor. When you write with months between chapters it is hard to remember what you have already written. When I returned to early chapters it was like reading something written by someone else. I simply couldn’t comprehend the work as a whole, keep it in my head. Finally, the 3rd time through, I could see the writing as a coherent whole. For the first time I saw a book.

I love to learn new things and this entire adventure has been one of the Zen beginners mind. People who knew I was writing asked, “How are you going to publish it?” Good question, but never during the writing did I allow myself to divert my attention from the writing itself. Using my freaky discipline, I was able to stay happily focused on the words and the story.

Now, I am learning the intricate mechanics turning a manuscript into a book. I am discovering entire new worlds of editors, Kindle Direct Publishing, cover design, marketing and book layout. When I did open the door on what came next, I crashed a little. It was overwhelming, and unlike the writing, I was now going to have to depend on other people. But I got over that and now I am excited.

Somewhere out there a few trusted souls are reading a very rough draft. Beta readers. It’s a little freaky to let The Beast, as I call it, run. But that is what it was meant to do. I am interviewing editors and designers. Did you know there is a whole subculture of freelance editors hiding out among us? This next phase will take months. I think it reasonable to publish in the fall. However, I was missing just writing, so I will be doing some essays while working on the book. I am also contemplating what larger project may appear next. This work is addictive.

In the midst of the second slash and burn edit, I finally arrived at a title for the tome. Everything just clicked.  And, with a title, the editing got more focused. I look forward to the day when I can finally share: Am I Cured Yet?  My Wonderful Life with PTSD and Panic Disorder.  Stay tuned.

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1 Response to So Many Words

  1. Sally Blackwood says:

    It has been a joy sharing your writing journey, seeing you happy, and seeing you grow in compassion. Congratulations!


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