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Measuring Progress

Twenty-seven thousand, five hundred—that’s my estimate for how many words I’ve written six months into my time at the WROB and nearing the halfway point of my fellowship. I’m not sure if that’s a little or a lot, but I know it doesn’t tell the whole story.

As a freelancer, I interact with word counts daily. I hit them. I miss them. I surpass one, and avoid another. I lament the existence of some, and crave the confines of others. I don’t believe word counts indicate completion of a project or literary merit, but they are often the tools we or editors use to tell us to “STOP” and move on to the next part of the process. Many of the words will never see the light of day. Does that mean they are wasted? The sum total of words does not make good writing, but I believe the act of writing more (more frequently, more words, even) can still indicate a type of headway in writing, especially if trial-and-error is your go-to expression of progress, as it is for me.

So what can I actually learn from those 27,500 words? It’s about half the length of a novel, but I don’t write those. For me the words don’t represent completion or perfection, but they do show movement.

For starters, the words I’ve written in the last six months belong to many projects, not one. Some are WFM (words for money), meaning I wrote them specifically for assignments unrelated to passion projects and creative interests. WFM are not to be confused with getting paid for the latter. They often feel uninspired, like a chore keeping me from playing outside with the other children. WFM can feel too easy or too difficult to write, and tangential to my true purpose. In reality, without the former, I can’t sustain the latter, not in any stress-free manner. I’m grateful for WFM and when they go missing, I desperately seek them out. Every so often, WFM can even trigger unforeseen passions, forcing me to acquire new skills or taking me somewhere unexpected in the best possible way. I have to believe that the WFM are also bringing me closer to writing better and more of the things I want to write.

For example, many of the WFM have sustained me while I focused on a single large creative piece over the last three months. In the end, more than half of the words I’ve written of the 27,500 belong to this long-form narrative nonfiction piece. If and when it comes out, it will be the longest thing I’ve ever published, so in that sense, a word count can show a kind of high-water mark for individual projects and WFM can also contribute to that progress.

This narrative of my word count is also shaped by what it leaves out. Not included in 27,500—the pitches I’ve written (yes, emails), the applications I’ve worked on, all those transcribed interviews, and the hours of research I’ve spent on all of these projects—passionate and WFM.

All of these words have one thing in common (other than their author)—I wrote them here, in the Writers’ Room. Whether they were for a combination of research, money, pleasure, or art, they were all welcomed with open armchairs into the silence of the Room. It conforms to my rituals and my ever-changing freelance schedule, supporting and sheltering these words, even when my other havens cafes and libraries have closed for the day. Unlike all of the other places I write, the Room has allowed me personal sovereignty in an environment of collective creativity.

The result has been words.

The fact that these words—good or bad—now exist, especially when there are large chunks of time when words are hard to come by, indicates progress. They are collectively working towards my life as a writer. So while the count of 27,500 words doesn’t tell the whole story, it does mean good things are happening here, and I’m looking forward to my next six months, and all the words to come.

 

—Gabriella Gage, 2018 WROB Fellow