Counting my Words: Thoughts on creating and consuming writing

Earlier this years I wrote a couple of posts on the concept of pursuing peace. One of them appeared on the blog feed for Fellowship of Reconciliation. It had been solicited by my friend Emma, who lives and works and does amazing things in England.

I love the idea of being a guest blogger. Love everything about it. I love the concept of sharing insights, reflections and experiences from my life with the hope that someone somewhere might come across them, might skim them, read them, even enjoy them and possibly take something away.

I know a lot of writers who actually hate writing. They “love having written” as Dorothy Parker quipped, but do anything they can to avoid sitting down and putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys as the case might be). Despite all that, they turn out tremendously good work.

Other writers are the exact opposite. They find the whole writing process itself rather stimulating, claiming they need to write the way they need to breathe, that they just can’t exist without their morning journal entries or their afternoon blogposts. It may not always be their best work. It may not even be good. But the quality of the work is secondary to the fact that it the writer has written, that he or she has spent time in the act of composing.

I land somewhere in the middle. I can avoid writing like nobody’s business. My dishes get washed, my tupperware gets organized, my laundry gets done (there’s actually a load in the dryer right now), even my bathroom gets cleaned when I’m putting off my work. Once I start, though, writing is bliss.

Well, sometimes.

And then sometimes it is not.

But for someone who enjoys writing and hopes to someday make a career of it, I’m actually really bad about consistently working on my blog, much less reading other blogs. Or magazines. Or literary journals. Or articles. Or books. Or newspapers. Or even Twitter feed (which is about as concise as it gets).

I am daunted by the amount of information there is to sift through on a daily basis; the amount of reading I end up doing without really choosing to do it. I sit down to check my e-mail and three hours later I’m still there, deleting advertisements, scheduling appointments, sending text messages and clicking on links that lead to articles, webpages and videos of “inspiring stories.” I end up starring half of the messages I read–the ones I just don’t have the energy to respond to.

Is it just me, or does the data of daily life seem like an awful lot to manage?

As a writer, this concerns me. If I am not making time to read intentionally, how can I expect others to do so? The act of crafting essays, conveying characters and telling stories…I believe it’s valuable. I believe the careful and conscious consumption of it is important as well. But pulling up Netflix is just So. Much. Easier. And by the time I’ve made it through my third episode of the fifth season of “insert popular show here,” there just isn’t time for the consumption of other media. I’ve already filled up.

Now, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of rules–I don’t like saying “no” to ice cream because I’ve just had brownies, leaving early from a party so I can get eight hours of sleep, or staying home on a Saturday because all of my pants are dirty and I still haven’t done my taxes (don’t worry, I did them)–but I do think rules are important. I believe boundaries and limits help us to function more fully as humans, help us to remember that we are more than the summation of what we consume. But I’d never thought about counting my words the way one might count calories.

There is only so much we can take in in a day, especially if we intend to process it. It’s not that different from needing to digest breakfast before you start on lunch (which I have failed to do, on occasion). Your threshold might look different from that of the person sitting next to, behind or across from you, but each of us has our limits and we need to be aware of them. Otherwise we end up stuffed, saturated, metaphorically constipated with information.

When I am more intentional with what I consume, I am also more attentive. I don’t feel like I’m rushing to get through as many Facebook links or Huffington Post articles as possible before my lunch break is over (or the stoplight turns green). I actually finish most of the things I start reading and I’m usually able to articulate what I’ve read.  I may even form an opinion (though finishing the whole article is a good start).

By suggesting that we restrict our intake of information, I may be working myself out of a job as a writer and a blogger. But I’d rather encourage you to really think about what you’re consuming than push you into the spiral of clicking, scrolling, scanning, and linking that led to this post in the first place.

Take a look at where you’re spending your attention span, at what is filling your daily mental capacity. Maybe you need a media detox–a day or two of limited data consumption. I can’t tell you where to set those boundaries, what your intake ought to look like or how you should fill your free hours. But it’s likely your brain would appreciate a break, that a more regular diet would ease up your mind and allow you to ponder. It’s possible you’ll find that the restriction is actually freeing.

But even if that is the case…I hope you’ll make some space for an occasional blog-like snack.

(In the middle of writing this post I watched three episodes of Cheers, read five XKCD comics, skimmed four online articles, replied to eight e-mails and checked Facebook over a dozen times. Clearly, I have a long way to go).