1000 Words of Summer: How an Accountability Project Opened Up My Writing Life

by
Jami Attenberg
4.13.22

In 2018 my friend Anne Gisleson and I decided to write a thousand words a day, every day, for two weeks straight. We were enjoying a glass of wine early on a spring evening, talking about our work. Anne is a high school teacher and a writer who had recently published her first book, a memoir titled The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading (Little, Brown, 2017), and she was trying to finish a new nonfiction proposal. She also has two children and was closing in on the end of another school year, with all the pressures and challenges that went along with it. I had my seventh book in thirteen years to complete. We were sixteen months into the Trump presidency and had been writing through all the chaos of that time. I don’t know if we were burned-out, but we were really tired. We both needed a push to the other side.

We brainstormed for a bit. I remembered an actor friend who had recently done an exercise boot camp to get in shape for a movie. Every morning in a park in Los Angeles, for two weeks straight, he did an intense cardio workout in the southern California sun. It sounded grueling, but it had been effective. Two weeks seemed like a doable amount. A month felt like a job, and a week felt like not enough work would get done. “What if we did our own boot camp?” I asked Anne. 

Since I began writing books in earnest I have used a thousand words as a marker of a good day’s work. Two weeks would equal about two chapters for me. For Anne it would help her make a dent on the first draft of her proposal. But really what it would do is give us enough momentum to get going on our summer. It would direct our energy in one location—our projects. We would shut out the noise, slough off the distractions, and push through the bad vibes for a finite amount of time. “I’m in,” she said immediately. 

We picked a date that worked for her after the school year ended. Then I casually posted on social media that I was doing a two-week intensive writing push with an accountability partner. Within an hour hundreds of people had chimed in that they wanted to do it too. The response was so enthusiastic that I decided to set up a mailing list and send out e-mails to encourage people who signed up. I asked some writer friends to share words of wisdom with me for the e-mails. During that first year, writers like Lauren Groff, Andrew Sean Greer, and Meg Wolitzer all contributed inspirational words.

“Sometimes you get lucky, and your work stalks you like a tiger, and all you have to do is to stand there and let it leap on you,” Groff wrote in an especially encouraging message. “Most of the time, though, the work is shy. You have to show up day after day, in silence and patience and hope, and try your best, and it will only show a twitching nose or a whisker before fleeing away from your hand. You’ll be left a bunch of words that you know you’ll destroy the next day. Don’t worry. The fact that you show up is enough. Your faith and gentleness will coax that brilliant piece out someday, and when it arrives it will give back to you all the love that you’ve given to it.”

By the end of those first two weeks of my sending out e-mails, two thousand people had signed up, all of them writing with a renewed commitment to their craft, often posting their word count to social media every day and connecting with other writers in the process—all of us becoming one another’s accountability partners. Someone had suggested I call it “1000 Words of Summer,” a play on the 2009 movie title (500) Days of Summer. As with everything about this project, if it sounded like a good and simple solution, I ran with it. We adopted the #1000WordsOfSummer hashtag to track our work and support one another, and it grew from there.

The 1000 Words of Summer project takes place in the summertime to honor my teacher friends more than anything else. I didn’t choose the path of being an educator, but so many of my peers did, teaching in high schools and colleges or offering private instruction and even online courses. There are a lot of teachers out there working on developing the writers of tomorrow, offering their knowledge and time often in stressful working conditions and for very little pay, and in turn they get summers off to do more work, not always their own. All this time they spend taking care of the future of others. The least we can do is lend a little support and inspiration to them.

It is now five years later and there are more than 15,000 people from all over the world signed up for the annual 1000 Words of Summer project, with even more than that likely participating. Every year more wonderful authors contribute their thoughts on creativity, productivity, and inspiration. There is a popular Slack channel where people check in daily and post their word count for the day and root for one another’s success. And so much good has come out of it: Participants have written and sold books they have begun during the annual session. People have formed writers groups—and friendships—out of it. There are some folks who return year after year just to have that moment of connection. Even if what we write isn’t usable in the future, there’s something important about showing up for one another—and ourselves. It’s the definition of community and what our peers will do for us when it feels like we just can’t. How if we reach out to others admitting our challenges while also cheering one another on, we’re all capable of more than we expected.

While I find that writing itself is usually not easy, the choice to do the writing is. The choice, essentially, is of myself. Do I choose to create my own path? Do I choose to listen to my voice and express it to others in the best and most beautiful way I know how? Do I choose to shut out all the noise that is distracting me or telling me I can’t? Do I choose to create the opportunity to engage with the people in the world, entertain them, educate them, empathize with them, all through my words? I do. Writing is my North Star. And how much easier it is to see that North Star when there are other people pointing at it too.

Anne continues to be my accountability partner, and we keep each other motivated. Every year we have different energy levels. Last year she was on fire with a novel she had been writing for a while. She would blaze through her pages in the mornings and text me when she was done. I had just finished an intense round of copy edits on my memoir and was also recovering from a broken ankle—I was hobbled in so many ways. I barely made my word count every day while working on a new novel. But I saw a speeding ray of light coming from her direction. I hopped a ride on the back of it and rode it all the way to the end of the page. 

 

Jami Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction, including The Middlesteins (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and All Grown Up (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), as well as a memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home (Ecco, 2022).