Spread the Alarm

As I hammer away on my little keyboard, keeping myself out of therapy, composing characters and trying to keep straight my beginnings from my middles and my ends, I keep stumbling over challenges, issued by online writing types, that encourage people to write to a goal, like 5000 words in a day. Sometimes they suggest writing 5000 words, biking 50 km., and running 5 km. 

Like a triathlon, vomiting included. 

Now, I CAN do all of that. But why would I? I get lots of exercise every day. And any 5000 words that I write in a day will have to be revised to a point where the original is scarcely recognizable. So the only reason to do it would be to say that I had, and the only point of that is … what?

And there are other, baser goals, challenges of shadowy, unsavoury origins. Every November, just as we in the north begin bracing for what is always a long winter, there is a call to get an early start on seasonal affective disorder. November is home to National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for writers to give premature birth, by virtue of a Caesarian section I presume, to 50,000 words before the month is over.

 “Ye Gods!” I might blurt, repulsed by my own metaphor.

Why would anyone ever do that? That’s 1666.666 words every day. That’s a lot, even for fully flushable words to say nothing of recyclable ones. To do that with any sort of creative purpose there has to be something else going on. (And I’m sure all those sixes did not go unnoticed for you any more than they did for me.)

The point is now we no longer just have to wonder why anyone would do that, but how.

I think we all know what it is. The explanation.

The rules have changed.

P.G. Wodehouse identified a similarly chilling issue more than a hundred years ago. In his essay, “The Alarming Spread of Poetry,” he precisely and definitively revealed the greatest peril of the time. 

Free verse. 

We forget now, in the haze of streaming, sampling, and montage, that many years ago the civilized order of the poet’s prerogative had been tainted by the idea that one no longer had to rhyme. And rhythm, meter? Out the window with the bath water as well. The thing was that the market was paying a buck a line for poetry. It attracted the attention of many youths in search of a vocation. The socio-economic consequences by themselves were staggering. As Plum Wodehouse wrote, before the new poetic order,

… there was just one thing which, like a salient fortress in the midst of an enemy’s advancing army, acted as a barrier to the youth of the country. When one’s son came to one and said, “Father, I shall not be able to fulfill your dearest wish and start work in the fertilizer department. I have decided to become a poet,” although one could no longer frighten him from his purpose by talking of garrets and starvation, there was still one weapon left. “What about the rhymes, Willie?” you replied, and the eager light died out of the boy’s face, as he perceived the catch in what he had taken for a good thing. You pressed your advantage. “Think of having to spend your life making one line rhyme with another! Think of the bleak future, when you have used up ‘moon’ and ‘June,’ ‘love’ and ‘dove,’ ‘May’ and ‘gay’! Think of the moment when you have ended the last line but one of your poem with ‘windows’ or ‘warmth’ and have to buckle to, trying to make the thing couple up in accordance with the rules! What then, Willie?”

Next day a new hand had signed on in the fertilizer department.

Nowadays, the rhymers and the rhyme-me-nots have an undeclared, and, to be frank, unsteady truce. Contemporary poets avoid rhymes. As far as songwriters go, some rhyme, but they either make no sense at all or are as lyrical as,” My my hey hey, Rock and roll is here to stay.” Aack.

Similar to issues like fluoridation, and integrity in politics, no one pays much attention anymore. The danger today is from an altogether different place.

Beware the tools. The online ones.

The spell-check, the online thesaurus, the grammar check. It’s no wonder the modern Willie, if I may borrow him, can pound out 50,000 words in thirty days. He doesn’t have to work out “barked” for “shouted,” as there are 527 choices waiting for him only seven keystrokes and two clicks away. He doesn’t have to know that he could use “abstruse” for “obscure,” as his online thesaurus has 3,293 options for that one. Willie’s got definitions popping up in a sidebar a mile long. A little red line tells him that the word “own” is almost always redundant. And spelling is a skill Willie lost decades ago, about the same time as he forgot how to do short division. 

The result? Writing is faster now. The “finished” word count goes up. And up.

Fortunately for us, the economic implications are minor. Income for writers has diminished so precipitously that our Willie could never give up his fertilizer job even if he sold his writing, so he must write his 50,000 words on his phone, maybe on the bus to work, perhaps between fertilizer customers, or later at home while streaming reality TV.

But he can shout his accomplishment to the world on social media. #WellDoneWillie.

P.G. Wodehouse was prophetic when he concluded his essay. Saving the world from bad poetry wasn’t necessary. He said,

Probably the only hope lies in the fact that poets never buy other poets’ stuff. Once we have all become poets, the sale of verse will cease or be limited to the few copies which individual poets will buy to give to their friends.

It has already happened. By and large, the only people who make money from the 50,000 words-a-month club are the people who get paid to read, comment, revise, and edit.

It’s the economy of writing today that the best way to make money is to be one of the clever tool developers, or on the teams of M.F.A.s who earn income by encouraging the notion that if you follow their rules-based advice, you’ll get published. They are not always wrong.

P.G Wodehouse, if I may, is probably the writer whose works bring me the most joy. Every once in a while, I have to dive back in and drink it in again. And it all still works. Hilariously.

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