In the first lines of Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, one of the central myths of artistic production is offered when the narrator speaks, “Sing to me, oh Muse…Launch out on his story, Muse…start from where you will…” These words construct the trope of the inspired storyteller — that is, the empty vessel waiting for the signal, and then the content, to convey. This notion, that artistic inspiration comes from an ethereal apparition — The Muse — has likely stunted the literary potential of many who have waited for an external creative catalyst to strike, instead of putting pen to paper or hands to keyboard.
Writing is work. And writing well, amidst all of our available distractions, online and otherwise, can be hard work. But this summer, one writer found a way to turn a potential distraction — the internet — into a motivational force and an affirming pop-up literary community in only two weeks.
On May 22, novelist Jami Attenberg posted online: “So I’m going to do a thing with a friend where we write at least 1000 words a day from June 15-29 and I will probably post word counts and if you want to play along and post yours let me know. Also maybe I will come up with a hashtag for it.”
Almost instantly, there was an enthusiastic response. Attenberg told me that she had originally posted the call on Instagram and since people started connecting so quickly, she decided to try another platform: Twitter. “I cross-posted…to see what would happen, and it was the same thing, just an instant enthusiasm for it. I was just excited to make something cool on the internet that would be helpful to people, and give them a comforting online experience, because so many of us have to sit in front of a computer all day, and it’s obviously such a hellscape right now.”
Many writers, in fact, lament over the number of their words that are “wasted” responding to the latest Twitter-drama instead of focusing on their own creative projects. “If you took all the time and all the words you used on Twitter… you could have written a book by now. #sadfacts,” observes one user.
But instead of perpetuating this regret, Attenberg turned her attention to creative empowerment. Within days, there was a hashtag: #1000wordsofsummer, and within weeks, a newsletter with almost 3000 subscribers. Once June 15 arrived, the daily emails from Attenberg commenced — some featuring guest commentary from other writers like Meg Wolitzer, Alissa Nutting, and Ada Limón. I printed out the newsletters each day and highlighted the words that resonated most with me; from novelist Laura van den Berg: “Here is the bottom line: I think often of what a painter said to me at a residency: ‘work makes more work.’ Indeed it does. Let’s do what we can.”;
From Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin: “The hardest part is getting it down the first time. I’m able to be productive because I don’t think of writing as something that happens in my head. It’s a physical act. It’s building a shelf. It’s work. It’s making something that didn’t exist before. Get out of your head. Fill the box. Go make shit.”
There were thousands of #1000wordsofsummer Tweets with writers (some famous, some aspiring) sharing their word counts, challenges, and triumphs.
Eventually, what Attenberg began on a lark showed how positive and encouraging online communities can be.
“While it wasn’t necessarily my original intention,” she reflects, “it became clear quite quickly that the people participating in it had created their own corner of the internet. I hadn’t been part of something like that before…And I actually found myself looking forward to going on the internet each day, instead of being full of dread about the news. Because I could check in on how people were doing and seeing their progress and say supportive things to them. For two weeks, I was able to be positive in that space, and experience the joy of others as they made progress in their work.”
In a world with automated labor and optimized performance, it may seem like our writing should be effortless. And when we hear about neural networks “writing” novels and artificial intelligence technology “grading” student writing, it can make us question the value of our individual humanity and our connection with others as essential ingredients in the writing process. Attenberg’s online community proves that other people can be vital to our work.
While in the thick of my own #1000wordsofsummer project, I listened to an interview that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did with Oprah Winfrey. (Yes, at the same time I was trying to increase my writing word counts, I endeavored to optimize my health and fitness à la the TB12 Method.) Brady described how much the team dynamic is fundamental to his success as a professional athlete because there are people constantly working alongside you and motivating you. It got me thinking about how as writers, so much of what we do is independent in terms of actually sitting down and writing. I wondered what Attenberg thought about the value of a “team” or writing network in one’s life.
While she acknowledges that every writer’s process is different, “some writers just squirrel away when they are writing…and they just sort of live their lives and do their work and are self-contained,” she notes that her writing friendships are an important part of her life and that her advice for burgeoning writers is always to join a writer’s group.
She considers her own experience as a recent New Orleans transplant. “I left behind a big community of writers in New York City, and it’s been interesting to see how some of those relationships have been strengthened now that I’ve left, where I text and chat more with some writers than I did when I lived there. And I’ve worked hard over the last decade to build up relationships across America and around the world, too. I have great writer friends here…don’t get me wrong. But it’s definitely the talking that happens online and on the phone that keeps me bolstered.”
When I was doing my own 1000 words, it was usually late at night, after my family was asleep and the house was quiet. I would write in 25-minute bursts (yay Pomodoro method!) and during my breaks I would check in on Twitter. No matter the hour, I would search the hashtag and there were always other writers there posting their word counts or offering encouragement. That virtual connection with people was a real motivator. People — virtual strangers turned community members — would be so quick to affirm accomplishments, which often doesn’t happen on Twitter or in real life, for that matter. It felt like a supportive bubble that one could carry in their pocket to deploy at any time.
The second weekend of the cycle, in search of IRL accountability, I took a weekend workshop at a local writing collective. During our initial introductions, I learned that three other writers were also participating in #1000wordsofsummer. When I told Attenberg about this, she was surprised, yet pleased.
“Oh my god really? That’s amazing that you met people who were doing it! You know, I have no real sense of how many people were doing it, but it seemed like a lot — though not all, of course — of people were having a fun time with it, and that pleased me. Let’s stop making it feel torturous, and let’s not have so much guilt around it. A first draft should be somewhat freeing and fun, at least most of the time. I get so much out of my writing, and truly enjoy it, and I wanted people to just feel good about it.”
For thousands of writers this summer, the encouragement and accountability to get to work may be credited to a fellow writer’s offhanded tweet.
Many are still doing #1000wordsofsummer — some in their second, or even third cycles now, and Attenberg has sent the draft of her next novel off to her agent. She stresses how much the community experience buoyed her own work. “I need to emphasize that I got so much out of this. I had to show up every day for myself as much as for everyone else.”
At the end of June, one writer posted this report: “Last day of #1000wordsofsummer and I’ve gotten 2,453 words done and want to keep going but I had to stop myself because I’ve got to get ready to leave for Paris (!!!). I started this challenge with 19,746 words, and 14 days later, I have 41,748, which is quite frankly, astounding.”
“I love stories like these,” says Attenberg. “I’m obviously extremely touched that one small thing I did could motivate people. But look, half of the battle of writing is just giving yourself permission to be a writer. In my last letter I talked about hoping people realized they didn’t need me, or this project, that they can do this whenever they like. The writing is always going to be right there waiting for you.”
Yesterday, I started my third cycle of #1000words of summer (I’ve written more than 40 thousand words since June 15, thank you Jami!), and I am thankful to report that I am not alone. Search the hashtag on Twitter and you will find many others doing the same: “Joining @KaylaCagan for #1000wordsofsummer reboot today! Should you care to join us in crushing it, welcome. #amwriting #wegotthis.” Writer Kayla Cagan chimed in as well: “Just wrote my 1,000+ words for Day 1, Round 3 of #1000wordsofsummer. I’m starting Chapter 30 of this draft tomorrow. #Book3”
A postscript: this year, Emily Wilson’s much anticipated translation of The Odyssey — the first in English by a woman — reworks the epic’s opening lines, and in doing so, separates the work of the source and the storyteller, acknowledging the work inherent in both telling and retelling stories.
Tell me about a complicated man. Muse tell me how he wandered and was lost…tell me the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.