Received wisdom says that you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a writer. If you’re the literal type who’s using Word’s word counter to calculate your output, please forget I ever said that.
If you’re not all that literal — well, there’s something to it. If your writing will teach you all you need to know, it follows that the more you write, the more you’ll know. A million words, give or take a hundred thousand or so — why not?
I have no idea how many words I wrote before I started calling myself a writer. I can tell you that the words were in —
- high school assignments, and poems and stories for the high school literary magazine
- college term papers, and reviews and columns for college newspapers
- the journals I kept whenever I was afraid I was going to kill myself if I couldn’t figure out what was going on in my head
- the three notebooks I filled while hitchhiking around Britain and Ireland in 1975
- press releases, lots of press releases
- book reviews, lots of book reviews
- essays for feminist and/or lesbian publications
Some of the words wound up in print. Many of them didn’t. Among the ones that didn’t were what I call my “desert fantasies.”
Oh dear. I get the shivers just thinking about them.
I was writing slash before I ever heard of slash. Before slash existed, if you date slash to the X-rated fan fiction inspired by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of the original Star Trek TV show. My first stories were inspired by Wagon Train, a TV western of the late 1950s and early ’60s. I had a terrible crush on Robert Horton as Flint McCullough, the wagon train’s scout, so I subjected him to terrible tortures then to homoerotic relief.
Before long, my proto-fanfic was hijacked by Lawrence of Arabia, which I first saw during its first U.S. run in early 1963. From then on it was, as Auda Abu Tayi told Lawrence in the movie, “there was only the desert” for me. I kept the desert fantasies going till the early 1990s.
As a teenager and young adult, I was pretty sure that if anyone, like my parents, discovered my desert fantasies, they’d send me to a shrink or commit me to a loony bin PDQ. So periodically I’d burn them in the fireplace.
Years passed. I became a lesbian feminist and immersed myself in the lesbian community and the feminist Women in Print movement. I was sure I’d be drummed out of the sisterhood if anyone knew what I was writing on the sly, so I’d shred my stories and bury them in the trash.
In early 1985, not long before I left Washington, D.C., to return to my native New England, I attended a weekend workshop in Baltimore led by Maureen Brady. We did a lot of writing exercises. One of them began “I could never tell anybody that . . .” What came flowing out of my cheap ballpoint pen was the story of my desert fantasies. Maureen read some of our “I could never tell” stories, with no names attached. One of the ones she read was mine.
Well! Before half an hour had passed, I was claiming the desert fantasies as mine. The next year Lesbian Contradiction published my essay “‘What’s a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?’ A Few Answers and a Few Questions.” The essay needed heavier editing than it got — it goes off in several different directions and never quite pulls itself together — but it’s not bad. You can read it here.
I swear, those desert fantasies taught me how to write dialogue.
Get going on those million words. If you’ve done a million already, start on the second million. Anything goes, and it’s all good.