This has been one of my favorite songs for a long time. It’s about everything. Just everything. This isn’t a music video post, so stick with me. I’ve got a lot more to say, but it’s definitely worth letting the words of this one sit with you for a minute, if you can.
Ten thousand hours.
It’s a rule of thumb that’s been applied to artists for nearly 25 years, now, as a definition of expertise. If you haven’t invested ten thousand hours into your art, yet, the theory goes, you’re still working it out, getting there, practicing. You aren’t an expert. The experts are all out there beyond that milestone. Lots of caveats go into this, qualifying the type of practice you have to do – deliberate practice is the term going around here in the last decade – and then there are the conversations about whether or not it’s a rule of thumb for graduation, or kind of a half life – some substantial fraction of people will be experts in their fields by the time they hit ten thousand hours – or if it’s really not even a contributor.
This is mine.
The original study was looking at musicians and how many hours of practice the elite players had accumulated by the time they were twenty. Why twenty, I’ve wondered. I think what they’re looking for is density of practice, rather than an assumption that most experts started young. At any rate.
The highest-ranked elite musicians hit that ten thousand hour mark, with various practice-hours tiers below them for less-accomplished musicians, and this has been used to imply a sort of cause-and-effect ever since. Want to be great? Do the time. All the greats do.
And there’s something sterile and unintuitive about that, to me. Not that I’m saying that writers are born as writers, or that the first piece of work you finally finish (yay!) is at a level that you’re going to be proud of it, in ten years. (Proud that you did it? Every day of the week. Proud of it as a part of your portfolio? Probably not. Unless you quit shortly thereafter.) The number is not quite so much what bothers me as this idea that if you go away and do something enough, you’ll come back and everyone will love you. I much prefer how Macklemore puts it: the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint; the greats were great because they paint a lot. That. That I can get behind.
Want to be a great writer? Do it a lot. Write all kinds of stuff. Stuff that you want to be able to do, but you’re pretty sure you can’t. Long, short, light, dark, heavy, trivial. (I think if you look at something and think, ‘I don’t want to do that’, and it’s really because you don’t like the outcome – I don’t want to write in second person, or first for that matter – there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t want to do it because it’s hard and you’d rather do something more fun? Give that one another look. I’m pushing myself hard to write shorter work because I want to be able to contain a full story in fewer details. It’s something I want to learn. Boy, oh, boy is it hard…) Write. Everything that you write, particularly everything that you finish, is going to contribute to your ability to do the next thing. Everything that you try is going to be a skill that you hone, and with enough attempts, it’s going to get better and then it’s going to get good.
I don’t want to get distracted, here, with the difference between writing and angsting, writing and editing. I think that editing is necessary to finish a piece of fiction. I don’t believe that it’s necessary to create a piece of fiction. Different writers live by different rules, and I’m not going to look you in the eye and tell you you’re wrong so long as you give me the same space. Cool?
What I will nod to is that there are a few different versions of this standard for writers. There’s a ten thousand hour rule that everyone uses, regardless of artistic endeavor. There’s a standard that (I think) Stephen King created called the million words of crap. You’ve gotta write all of them before you can write anything else. So go plow through your million words, because there’s a ton you learn by doing it. If you know, in advance, that your first million words are going to be for practice, you can take the pressure off of them. This was such a relief to me, when I put it into my head. A million words before you should even begin to expect quality out of them. Don’t look at it as a mountain to climb; look at it as a hall pass to create unscored work.
The last one is one I can’t cite a specific source for, but it’s a feeling that ties these other two together. It’s ten years. I think that maturity takes time and that you need to sleep on stuff for enough times in a row before your brain is really going to internalize it and make it part of your personal mythology, your way of experiencing the world. And art is exactly that. You create art out of what you believe about the world, and you tie those together through what you believe about art. If you don’t have an established, mature relationship between art and what you believe, things feel fake. That feels very vague and very circular, even to me, so let me take another swing at it, with more concrete examples.
You write about people. Even if you write about gelatinous, effluvial hermits from the dark side of Pluto, you’re writing about people. And you can’t do a good job at that unless you are able to communicate what you believe about people in a way that is engaging and insightful and elegant and subtle. Allegory is great, but even it has to be careful not to be too much of a sledgehammer or else it’s just propaganda. Art is about capturing reality in a way that is novel and insightful, and you can’t do that if you haven’t yet figured out how to make your gelatinous, effluvial hermits act like real live people.
And I sincerely believe that takes time.
Our world likes to toast the prodigies, the fifteen year olds who beat the chess masters, the seventeen year olds with movie contracts on their four book space operas. If you’ll forgive me, and with all the love in my heart for the creative energy of young writers, I think it’s marketing. I think that a writer who has been pursuing fiction hard for most of their life could very well be creating world-quality fiction in their twenties. And I think seventeen year olds have important things to say. But I think that it takes time to get to the mature work that you’re going to be proud of your entire life. I do.
Maybe, for the right person, I’d walk that back. I don’t know. But I very, very sincerely believe that for most writers, they’re looking at ten thousand hours, a million words, and ten years to get there. Maybe they only need two of those things. Maybe a few of them only need one. I don’t want this idea to be about ‘no’. I don’t want to say that because you’ve only written eight hundred thousand words, your work by definition sucks.
I want this to be about ‘yes’.
“I don’t like my work, and neither does anyone else, but I desperately want to be a writer. Am I ever going to make it?”
Have you put in your ten thousand hours, your million words, your ten years? No? Then don’t sweat it. Keep writing, keep playing, keep learning. There’s no reason to believe that you aren’t some measure of endurance away from things you’re going to shock yourself with.
Ten thousand hours.
A million words.
Line ‘em up. Knock ‘em out.
What I’m reading: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
What I’m watching: The Martian
(Edited to correct typo. I’m shameless.)