Issue 28: The power of check marks
5 min read

Issue 28: The power of check marks

Issue 28: The power of check marks

This was my second year participating in #1000wordsofsummer and I wrote 16,543 words over the last two weeks. The challenge was a lot less daunting this time around, but more importantly, it helped me start (and sustain) a regular writing practice around a big project.

Last year, I went into #1000wordsofsummer with a rough idea for a novel and mostly wrote by the seat of my pants. This time, I wanted to make better use of the writing sprint. In the weeks leading up to it, I turned my initial braindump of an outline into a more structured beat sheet, worked on developing my characters, and revised the draft so plot-wise it followed the beat sheet.

I was inspired by this writing advice from Amitava Kumar, who set a daily instruction for his college students to “write 150 words and engage in mindful walking for 10 minutes.” He took up the goal himself, partially to reclaim the ordinary check mark from apps and social media, which have co-opted it as a signifier of status:

I used a composition notebook, with those black-and-white marbled covers. Having written my daily quota, I would note the date on the notebook’s last page and make a small check mark next to it. [...] I don’t think I skipped a day, and when the year ended, I had completed a short book. The method worked; I wasn’t going to give it up. In the minutes between classes, or on trains, or in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s, I would write my daily words and then count them to make sure I hit the target. Once I had done the work and drawn that small mark, it seemed OK to assume I would spend my life writing.
A small Field Notes notebook noting each day I wrote with a checkmark and the word count.

I started this lo-fi experiment by drawing columns in a notebook—finally, an excuse to use one of the many notebooks I’ve hoarded! There was the date, whether I wrote that day, and any notes like word count and what I worked on (novel, newsletter, or some other project). A solid check mark was for when I added new words, and a check mark with a tick was for when I edited.

The check mark was freeing. It didn’t demand perfection, only a small daily commitment. Word counts were a rough guide for pushing the work the tiniest bit forward, but the point was just to maintain what Mila Jaroniec calls “steady interaction.” Jaroniec writes, “If a work is yours, you have to keep putting heat on it. Like love.”

The check marks turned a daunting replotting of 38,000 words into smaller, manageable pieces. Rather than going into each day with dread about making a word count, I was able to get excited about specific things, adding a conversation here or adjusting the pacing of a scene there. I felt a momentum for the writing that I thought I’d lost.

Aside from the two week writing challenge, I found my ideal range to be between 200-400 words, which was enough to eke out between when I got off work and before I started dinner. (Seriously, no matter how hard I try, I'm just not a morning person.) The important thing for me was to realize how much incremental progress adds up—and how much can be accomplished in even Kumar’s prescribed 150 words.

This realization crystallized for me with one of Jami Attenberg’s newsletters where she explained how she arrived at one thousand words for her challenge:

I think it got easier for me once I began to understand that the word count was just a measure of the time and space available to me on the page. And in that time and space, a shift was possible every day.

Even if it’s just one beautiful scene. One thousand words offered enough room to describe a place or a person, maybe there’d be some chit-chat, and for something else to happen. A choice to be made, possibly. An entrance, an exit. For someone to lift a large object over their head and decide which direction they want to throw it. For someone to see someone else – or themselves – in a new light. For someone to decide they didn’t love somebody anymore. If they ever did in the first place.

Kumar describes check marks as “the visible symbol of my realization that who I am is defined by what I do.” I personally like the analog recording of a spine of check marks. Each one represents a shift in the writing, evidence that I’ve put heat where it needs to be, even if it’s just a simmer.

A meme that says: "when someone asks me about my writing strategy" followed by a picture of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers saying "It's the 'vibe'."

Creative resources

  • “What Matters Most Is Showing Up” by Mila Jaroniec
  • Apply for The Resort’s Fall 2021 fellowship for New York-based BIPOC LGBTQ+ writers. This four month fellowship includes complimentary membership in The Resort’s online community, in-person gatherings with guest writers, exclusive craft and publishing talks, one-on-one coaching calls, query letter reviews, and more.
  • Amitava Kumar on the simple power of the check mark: “The check mark is more important than whatever comes of the daily work whose completion you’re marking. The first represents actual living; the second, merely a life.”
  • Yanyi, author and writer of The Reading, will be hosting a workshop on Building an Independent Paid Newsletter in July. Tuition is sliding scale and limited scholarship seats are available.
  • Apply for Epiphany’s Fresh Voices Fellowship, a year-long fellowship supporting one emerging writer of color who does not have an MFA and is not currently enrolled in a degree-granting creative writing program.

Recent reads & other media

I haven’t been reading much because of #1000wordsofsummer, but I’m halfway through Stephen King’s Misery. It’s my first Stephen King (and horror) novel, and E and I are doing a mini book/movie club with it. I was curious to read it after seeing its plot analysis in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Because it’s about an author held captive by his “number one fan,” it also has all kinds of great (and slightly fucked up) meta things to say about the craft and business of writing.

Some friends and I watched Inside, Bo Burnham’s Netflix musical comedy special which gives Ben Wyatt “could a depressed person make this??” vibes. Its production is impressive and as Rachel Syme writes, it explores “what it means to be a performer when you are stuck to a screen but also stuck inside your head."

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

Reheating food in the microwave. Ira Glass talking to a baby and Michael Barbaro breaking down a TikTok trend. Egg hack! When the cat is sick of the dog. Hey, aren’t you that artist everyone keeps talking about? I felt very seen by this impression of people at bookstores.

A picture from Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books. Frog leans against the window, asking, "Remember people? Remember places?" Toad responds, "No."