Writing Around Numbers

Design a Writing Formula that Works for You

By Barbara Abercrombie | Updated 9/8/20

I'm writing this in Twin Bridges, Montana. It's 32 degrees outside and I'm 90 miles away from the big city, Bozeman. This morning I've been reading a book of poems, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison by Ted Kooser.

Each poem is about a morning walk he takes from November 9th to March 20th. The day's date becomes the title of the poem and then there's a line about the weather before the poem begins: "Windy and at the freezing point" or "Thirty-two degrees at sunrise." It's one of those books that seems to mirror your own life. (But he comes up with better words and images for what I'm seeing and experiencing.)

Even the cover looks like the path I take when I walk in the morning. I'm inspired by the idea of Ted Kooser's 100 postcards. I suddenly want to copy it. I want to write haiku everyday for 100 days. Or a poem every morning for 30 days. Or 25 pages every week.

I realize there's comfort in numbers for writers. Carolyn See tells writers to write 1,000 words five days a week and one "charming note". Ray Bradbury says to write 1,000 to 2,000 words everyday for the next twenty years. Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer advises getting up one hour earlier every morning and writing whatever comes to you.

There's a Web site called One Hundred Words. I'm always pushing five minute exercises. We all have a magic number, a formula for you. A poem every morning for 100 days, or 1,000 words every day. Beginning to write can feel like such chaos in the beginning that these numbers are like little rooms for organizing the chaos.

To Do:

Write your own formula, your own numbers. A page a day? A poem a week? Ten minutes every morning for your journal? A chapter every month? Give yourself assignments and deadlines. I like giving myself 400 word assignments and often give it in class as homework.

I chose 400 words because I once had a writing job for that number of words and a one day deadline. I hyperventilated for about an hour, then I wrote some very sloppy dreadful stuff. Finally I pulled it together and it worked. Try it: 400 words. It might be the short version of an essay, or part of a chapter in a book you're writing. (This article so far is exactly 400 words.)

Next: Personal Essays: Short Takes

©2006 Barbara Abercrombie. All rights reserved.