How can I measure writing progress? I try not to, to be honest, because I then become inevitably obsessed with volume which is something I despise. It goes back to my days as a newspaper reporter.
I was often criticized by newspaper editors for not producing x-amount of news copy per week. Their argument: the news "hole" had to be filled and I had to contribute my share. I earned a paycheck, I was told, for the number of column inches I spat out each week. I was chronically below the mark, and was called into my editor's offices frequently. I had one such editor say I wasn't a "self-starter". Another said I was a "good writer" but a poor reporter.
I would agree with the latter. In fact, I once got into an argument with a fellow reporter who had just been hired and whose weekly output soon became the newspaper's benchmark for success and against which all reporters were measured. This guy wrote five to six stories a day. He was the immediate darling of the paper.
At a conference one weekend we all sat around the lunch table chatting about - what else - the news. He continually tried bringing the conversation around to the latest glowing remarks he received from our editors about the fine job he was doing. (He was a notorious self-aggrandizer) We ignored him. At least, we tried. But after awhile, you just can't ignore a pile of dog shit sitting in front of you.
"I'm surprised the guy before me complained of nothing to write about," the pile said. "It's really his own fault he got fired. He just wasn't a self-starter."
Now, the rest of us around the table liked the former reporter covering the northern beat. He was a good kid, smart, fun to hang around. His firing had shaken us all up.
The pile had crossed a line.
"I mean, come on. How hard is it to produce three stories a day up there? I do five in my sleep," he said.
"And it reads like it, too," I quipped.
"You heard me," I said. "Your stories read like you wrote them in your sleep."
"This coming from the guy with the worst production in the entire newspaper," Mr. Pile said, smugly. Apparently the editors had been busy sharing their frustration with me to anyone who would listen, and Pile thought he had something on me.
Now, before I say anything else, let me be clear. I don't have an overinflated view of myself as a writer. I believe I was a solid reporter. I was not prolific, and I was not the best writer either. (Read Dan Snapp's column here. I worked with him at a newspaper and I feel he's the best writer I've worked with.)
I've moved to fiction and feel the same way: I've got talent, but I'm not the best. I stopped trying to be the best when I realized that it's about improving yourself, and not a competition.
So, back to the Pile.
The Pile was one of those types of reporters who bought into the notion that more was better, and therefore measured ability on the amount of words he wrote, not on the quality. He was the type who would go to selectmen's meetings and squeeze five stories from it when one average-sized story would suffice. His articles were about road salt purchasing or how to deal with mailbox vandalism or where to put the new public ice rink. Important to about a hundred readers, but not worthy of five anemic, cliche-dripping articles.
I call these types of reporters "shit spreaders" because they're obviously trying to fill a daily quota, not trying to write quality stories people can really benefit from. I covered a selectmen's meeting once in which an hour was spent arguing about a local farmer's manure-spreading activities. The selectmen used the term 'shit-spreader' no fewer than 20 times. It was the biggest waste of an hour of my life. My editors insisted I write the story separately, however, to my utter astonishment. I kept the term shit-spreader in the article, out of protest, forcing the editor to have to read every word so that the profanity didn't make it into print.
Since then, any article I read about the mundane, the inane, the insanely irrelevant, I call a shit-spreader. A story written to fill a quota. Read your local paper. I know you know what I'm talking about.
So back to Pile. He was a real shit-spreader. He wrote 20 to 30 articles a week, and maybe one or two were legitimately worthy of print.
So what does this have to do with my writing today?
Well, I've noticed I keep falling into the habit of checking my daily output as some sort of indication of how well I am doing. It gets me down, I become dejected, and inevitably depressed.
I need to stop shit-spreading. Writing to meet a 5-page quota, because when I re-read those five pages, they really stink. But when I go over the half-page that I struggled to produce, it's flawed, but it rings true.
I can fix flawed. I cannot do anything with a pile of shit except flush it.