Thursday, June 18, 2009


When you Google the average number of words a person speaks in a lifetime, this is the number that comes up. To my surprise, this number did not stagger me. Seems a little modest.

(That's a sign of the New Age, isn't it? That a number so high as 370,110,001.3 wouldn't shatter perceptions of time and space? My Nephew R., can barely count to fifty and the very IDEA that there can be a number so high as fifty, FIFTY, causes his soul to cry out just a little bit. I remember how high one hundred seemed at that age and how, if I ever made one hundred dollars, I would make sure everyone in my family was taken care of for the rest of their lives. What opulence we would enjoy. Some day, by God, I WILL make one hundred dollars.)

Some time between the ages of seven and ten, I came up with a theory that every human being has an allotment of words to use in a lifetime, and with every remark, death inches closer. It was a flash theory and could in no way withstand the slightest scrutiny. For one, does this include pre-verbal man? Does the allotment change with varying definitions of language? What about non-English speaking peoples whose word counts may, on average, be higher or lower than the Anglos? What about Dogs? Does everyone have the same word count or does it vary? It must…what about Preachers or Salesmen who spend most of their time talking? Once they reach maturation, they’d be dead in a matter of weeks.

(This is far more articulate than my ten-year-old brain could muster. I think my process must have been “Wouldn’t it be cool it…? Nah, that doesn’t make any sense.)

I had all but forgotten about this idea. Until a couple of nights ago, while I was lying in bed.

I’ve been reading and coaching a lot of writing. Most of my students are young and don’t have much of a grasp of “How people speak”. They understand the text of it, the actual words – I am going to the store. - but when it comes to layering the text with metaphor, subtext or emotion – I am GOING. TO. THE. STORE. – they are baffled. What could someone mean beyond the simple fact that they are going to the store?

This is not uncommon. I doubt anyone without a background in dramatic writing could navigate tone with ease or understand that how a person speaks is just as important as what they say. Or apprehend the economy of metaphor.

The result in this is a lot of overwriting and on-the-nose dialogue. Sure, their characters announce their feelings and intentions, but without the layers of subtext and metaphor their creations are doomed to an eternity of trying to explain themselves using only the blunt instrument of literal syntax.

Imagine a seven-layer bean dip, unlayered and spread out on the table. It will take you quadruple the time to eat it and it won’t be nearly as satisfying.

Which is why I encourage them to use metaphors in their writing. You only have two hours to get your point across. Don’t waste it with over-explanatory dialogue. You don’t have time!

And this brings me to the word allotment theory. I was mulling all this over in bed (this and worrying over the fact that I had been talking full stop all day. When did I become such a bigmouth?) and wondering, do we, in real life, layer our speech? Do we economize our “scenes” with other people? We don’t just have two hours, we have a lifetime - a lifetime to suffer through our own on-the-nose dialogue and unconcealed explanations that lead absolutely nowhere. What does all that get us?

And if we lived in a world in which we only had a certain amount of words we could say before our strings are cut, would we waste so much time on this useless talking?

Probably. None of us humans are much good at abstinence in any regard. We’d find a loophole.

Like blogging.

I’ve wasted a lot of my word allotment on useless chatter. Chatter to impress. Chatter to fill the silence. Chatter to avoid.

I used:

987 words hurting Jennifer Murphy’s feelings.

1, 894 words lying to my parents about who I was with and when.

10, 473 words speaking on subjects about which I knew zero.

14,406 words fighting over my fair share.

20,987 words complaining.

8,123 words breaking up with someone under false pretenses.

65,999 words talking smack.

These, I’m sure, are conservative estimates.

I wonder if I’m coming to the end of my word ration.

(I will read this out loud and see if anything happens.)

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