The Magic Words

by Linda Kobert

It was late, after ten at night. I’d just won my first Scrabble game in months, and my friends and I were all relaxing after a typical cutthroat contest. We’d been on the go since early morning that Saturday: graduation at the school where my husband teaches, then making the rounds of student parties. At the end of the day, my husband and I landed at our friend’s house to chat about the new grads as we faced off across the game board, which we do nearly every week. But the competition was over; we were relaxing, finishing up the wine, sorting out our summer plans. And then it hit me: I hadn’t written a word all day. I sprung from my chair with the realization. “We have to go,” I said. “I have to write.”

I’ve been calling myself a writer for decades, but I haven’t always been so committed to the adage that to earn that title a person must write every single day. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been downright lazy about putting words on paper on a regular basis. But that was before I found The Magic Spreadsheet. This deceptive online document is my Stonecoast classmate Tony Pisculli’s Third Semester Project and his answer to what it takes to get writers to, you know, write. It’s not deadlines. It’s not getting paid. It’s points, baby!

Tony invented The Magic Spreadsheet—a game, he calls it—to gives slacker writers such as myself the motivation we need to get something written every day. Like NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, in which writers are challenged to write 50,000 words in the thirty days of November—Tony’s challenge is all about words. They don’t have to be good words (that’s what revising is all about), they just have to be words, at least 250 new ones, every day. Yes, there are points involved, and the more one writes, the more those points become involved (and we do love racking up those points): one point for every day one writes at least 250 words, plus one point for every day in the unbroken chain of days, plus more points for more words. But I swear there’s real magic involved, too…a wand somewhere, an incantation…

Tony writes popular fiction, so magic is something he understands. He’s also been a software engineer, which is all about magic as far as I’m concerned, and he understands game theory. I don’t know a thing about game theory; all I know is this game works…and not just for me. Mur Lafferty, another Stonecoast classmate has been working the Magic for longer than anyone, even Tony. She’s been at it since last December and has written enough words for four books by now. In a podcast post to her blog, Mur says the Magic Spreadsheet is “the only thing in the entire history of history that has gotten me to write every day.” She writes when she’s sick, she writes when she travels, she writes during residencies, she wrote on Christmas and New Years. She even gets up in the middle of the night when she realizes—in a panic, she says—that she hasn’t gotten her words in for the day. Been there, done that.

Because my Scrabble friends know how serious I am about that game, they understood when I explained that I had an unbroken chain of more than five months of writing since Tony turned me on to his game, and that I simply couldn’t break that chain now. It would mean losing points. It would be like starting over. I missed a day early on in working with the Magic; it was another busy day and I just forgot to write! When my chain went to zero, I was so upset I vowed never to miss again. And I haven’t. On that Saturday in June, I was averaging more than 1,500 words a day. I went home that night and, before the stroke of midnight, added another thousand words to the novel I’d been working on for the past semester. If that ain’t magic, I don’t know what is. Now, more than seven months and 230,000 words later, I’m a believer in Tony’s Magic Spreadsheet.

Linda KobertLinda Kobert is in her third semester at Stonecoast, technically in creative nonfiction, though she also writes fiction, catalog copy, and sometimes poetry. She is also on the staff of the Stonecoast Reviewwhose first issue comes out this fall. Her creative work has appeared in Spirituality and Health, Small Spiral Notebook, Annalemmaand Hospital Drive.


5 thoughts on “The Magic Words

  1. Pingback: Can you make Magic? | Jacqui Senn

  2. victoria (vicki) stabile

    Linda, Thank you so much!! (I just saw this email today!)– that is very exciting and inspiring even though I do not have a writing aspiration at the moment. Maybe I could use it to help me do spiritual journaling–I am doing Pathwork, but find it hard to keep a commitment to the writing of a daily review. And thanks for your midsummer letter. Hope we can catch up soon. So psyched for your literary successes! love, Vicki

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