Tuesday, February 7, 2012

800 Words: Back to 800 Words

It’s been an amazing six or seven months as I’ve written these semi-daily 800 Word posts that invariably tended to be 2-5000 words. The activity was - without a doubt - my highlight of 2011(don’t judge). At my most productive, I must have churned out as much as 15,000 words a week, and that doesn’t count all the pieces I didn’t finish. As I started writing, I realized that there was more to say about more subjects than I ever thought possible, and I followed my thoughts to whatever length it found me going - occasionally churning out a 10-12,000 word essay over the course of a week. And it would seem that a good two to four dozen of you seemed reliably willing to follow me to wherever I found myself going, and there are another four-dozen who would check in when things caught there interest. I’m glad you’ve found enjoyment in what I’ve written.

In one sense, and only one, I’m the victim of my own success. This attempt to create consistent writing was never supposed to be so extensive. My plan was to have 800 words of sharply defined commentary about any subject about which I would think of over the course of the day - an endeavor that should never take more than 90 minutes and can usually be wrapped up in less than an hour. The problem is, as most newspaper columnists should know - that there is no way to cover a subject in 800 words without sticking to base generalizations. Any real analysis of a subject requires tons more critical thought, digestion, background, and statistics than even the most fleet-footed essayist (Malcolm Gladwell? Tom Wolfe?) could give in 800 words. There was simply too much to say. How can you sum up Jon Stewart, Johnny Cash, or Disney in so little space?

For more than a hundred years, the 800 Worder was almost the exclusive province of newspaper columnists. 800 words is just enough space to endow the newspaper with a double purpose. On the one hand, a newspaper columnist functions as a filter through which the reader can interpret all the facts with which the rest of the newspaper inundates him every day. Whether the subject was politics, movies, books, or sports, newspaper columnists were people who taught hundreds of millions in the newly literate middle class how to think critically about the information you process every day. On the other, a newspaper columnist is a personality, selling not only her point of view but also himself. Whereas straight reporting should be anonymous, the newspaper columnist’s persona is a juxtaposition to the bland profusion of facts, figures, and events that make up our daily intake of news.

In the heyday of the columnist, it was something incredibly new and exciting - a combination of educator and entertainer who allowed millions more of people to be better informed and engaged. But in today’s world, the 800 worder is almost obsolete. Think of how many columnists in today’s mainstream publications are writers who encourage us to think deeper? Now think of how many encourage us to simplify our thinking. If your list of #1 outnumbers your #2, I’m envious of you, because you’ve wasted less time than the rest of us reading newspaper columns.

And yet, that’s precisely the appeal of the 800-worder. It’s so simple to write - any child can form a coherent opinion on a simple subject. Imagine that your 3rd grade class were the New York Times op-ed page asked to come in tomorrow with an assignment based on the value of homework: you’d have a Thomas Friedman explaining why homework is essential to help us compete with his pen-pal in Bangalore; you’d have a David Brooks longing for the days of 1st grade when everybody thought homework was fun; you’d have a Paul Krugman who uses it as an excuse mounting weekly assaults on the mendacious inefficiency of the teacher’s homework assignments, and a Maureen Dowd speculating about the teacher’s affair with the after school janitor.

My purpose in calling this series ‘800 words’ was neither to parlay this into a bad newspaper column (where would anybody do that in today’s world?) nor to pay homage to newspaper columns of any sort. It was to create an easily digestible way to force myself to write every day. I hoped to find a rhythm that would enable me to write more rather than less. But once I started these 800 words posts, 800 words became grossly inadequate. I wanted 7 new 800 word posts a week, but I was lucky in even my most productive weeks to put up three or four. The reason was all too simple - I got carried away every time. There’s simply too much to write about. If the subject grew too extensive, I broke up the essay into parts. But I rarely ever finished those multi-part essays, because there was usually another subject that ‘required’ my attention. By month 3 or 4, I found myself obsessed by this venture to the point that it came to the exclusion of most non-work related activities. I used to play music, remember?....

So now that I’m back to playing music, I have to curb the excess verbiage. For now until whenever, these blogposts will now be leaner. If I get past 800 words, I know that it’s time to wrap it up. If I get to 1000 words, I will simply stop. If I really have something so important that it can neither remain unsaid nor be fit into 800 words, I will resume speaking of it in the next day’s post.

Furthermore, tomorrow I will begin the process of retooling, and for a while the blog will resemble a construction site - with lots of links that don’t work. There will be lots of posts taken down (and saved) because I’m not particularly satisfied with them, for whatever reason. Some of those links will reappear over time, some of them probably won’t.

Aaaaand, we’re past 1000 words...

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