When I was a youngster, in my late teens and early twenties, I decided I wanted to “be a writer”. At that time it seemed like a logical conclusion that in order to achieve this goal, I would first have to “become” a writer, as if there were a sort of standardized cocooning process by which this transformation could occur. I looked around for words of advice from the masters, and the best I came up with was from Henry Miller, who said something like this:
“Write two million words and throw them away. Then you can begin.”
I did not find this disheartening, but rather encouraging in a way. I had already written a short novel of sorts, a dreadful thing called ‘The Gospel According to Nobody”, so I added up the words and tossed them all into The Pile of Two Million. I was “on my way”, or so I thought.
From that point on I wrote a lot, mostly with the idea in mind that it was all for The Pile so I needn’t worry about whether any of it was any good or not. It was all to be trashed no matter what. In this way I wrote my first two million words, and with the honor of a samurai-in-training, I did my duty by them. These were all written by hand, in pen, in spiral-bound notebooks. While I never typed them up (this was all before personal computers even existed), I did carry some of their germs with me – germs of the stories – and at some point later on managed to revise and rework some of them, but not until I had accomplished that transformation and had “become” a writer. Or at least I should have, according to the rules and Henry’s instructions.
Along the way I had changed my mind about all that. I came to the conclusion that one is only a writer when one is actually writing, in the same way that one is a bicycle rider only while riding a bicycle, or a reader when reading, or a teacher when teaching, a worker when working, a smoker when smoking, and so on. A person is never some one thing, a definition, an object perpetually trapped in verbal amber. To the extent a person does define themselves in such a manner, they are subjugating all the other facets of their nature to the glory of one meager, transient aspect.
What I had become was someone who writes, sometimes, along with having become a lot of other things besides. Nevertheless, I still think it was good advice. Those first two million words were indeed truly awful and deserved their fate, not that every word since has been golden, not by any means, but I did learn to listen to the voice in my head, to the rhythms and the sounds of the thoughts in my mind, to feel the patterns that my brain naturally follows, to recognize its strengths and especially its weaknesses. It was Harry Callahan who said “a man’s got to know his limitations.” If my journey from Henry to Harry taught me anything, it was this. Sometimes it takes many millions of words to find the right few.