Assignments are an important factor for my writing process. I need to have deadlines, even if it means that I have to wait till the last minute to meet the deadline. Word counts help a lot, too. Between 300 and 500 is a good goal to shoot for, in general for me. My friend Jason and I once did an assignment where we had to write an 83-word piece and send it to one another. We gave ourselves a deadline, too. Here is one of my 83 word pieces.
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I used to drive a copper-colored 810 Maxima Datsun. I drove it cross the desert with my dad to get to Houston. We stopped in Arizona to buy ice cold Lone Star Beer. We drank it in New Mexico between our bouts of fear of what it was we had the chance to do to one another. I wonder when he leaves his life if I will feel relief. I bet I won’t. I bet I won’t feel any of the ordinary grief.
* * * * * *
I like to figure out how to get the most breath, the clearest ambiguity I can, into 500 words. It requires making some painstaking choices, for sure. One wants to choose words wisely. I used to give my high school students an essay assignment where the topic was their choice but the word count had to be 500 words exactly. EXACTLY. In order to get at least a C, they had to meet the word count requirement. They were livid! "It's so hard!! Ms. Forster," they cried.
"Yes," I said, "It is."
"But it's not fair! What if I can't come up with 500 words?"
"Then you're not working hard enough."
"What if I have like 2500 words?" a star student asked.
"Then you're REALLY not working hard enough," I said.
The Sunday before this assignment was due, one of my student’s mothers called me, worried that her daughter was driving herself crazy trying to meet the 500 word requirement.
“She’s been working on the ending for 5 hours. I’m worried that she’s taking this too far. I told her that I’m sure Ms. Forster would understand if it were 439 words or 512 words,” she said.
“Actually, I want the essay to be 500 words exactly. That is the assignment, in fact.”
“It’s just that having to meet that kind of requirement teaches a person how to use economy of expression, how to capitalize upon diction.”
In general, her daughter consistently worked harder than the other students in class. I didn’t even have to read her paper. I gave her an A without hesitation.
Ultimately, word counts and deadlines create of me a better writer; that is, they make me show up and set something in writing on the page, a something I care about, so that I can call myself a writer.
After all, as the saying goes: a writer writes.