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December 29, 2008

10,000 Hours

I got a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for Christmas and read it in one day. One of the things he talks about in the book  is the idea that, to achieve mastery over any field, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice.

I'd heard theories like this before, but Gladwell unpacked it in a particularly enticing way. So naturally, the first thing I did was to calculate when I would have hit my 10,000 hours. I wasn't the only one.

It's hard to do, because I write, and have always written, everything: fiction, plays, poetry, screenplays, essays, articles, letters, journals, online discussions, and most recently, blogs. And I count all of this together. Although I recognize genre differences, and differences of purpose, as far as mastery of writing -- including the use of the imagination that is so necessary in fiction -- every kind of self-expressive writing that I do contributes equally to my development. I accept that other people may write differently, and may process their different kinds of writing differently. But I don't.

It's also a difficult calculation because I haven't written at a steady rate. There have been years when I would come home and just write for hours every day, and other years when I would write for a few hours maybe once a week ... and to no "productive" purpose. There were years when I wrote nothing "creative" at all, but rather handwrote letter after letter to friends who never received any of them. You know how it goes.

Anyroad, I decided to go conservative and average ten hours of writing per week. Starting at fifteen (the year I bought my first journal -- as opposed to my first "diary" which was bought for me when I was maybe 8 -- realizing that I could write down what I was ACTUALLY thinking rather than some boring YA version of "Dear Diary, this is what happened to me today ...") this would take twenty years; subtract four years (conservatively) for the long stretches when I was writing thirty hours a week, and that would put me at 31 when I hit my 10,000 hours.

I got very excited when I figured this out because 31 was, of course, the age at which I finished the first draft my "breakthrough" story, "Pigs in Space," the one that got me into grad school, got me into Clarion West, and then got published in McSweeney's. (McSweeney's subsequently asked me to record it for an audiobook, which you can download here.) It remains my sole big story publication, (although I'm sure that will change this year ;) ) so take that as you will.

More importantly, though, I remember writing that story, and it took me a while. I wrote the first part and it was a good idea, like a lot of "first parts" I had written before. But this good idea actually brought together a lot of social and political concerns that had been on my plate for a long time, but that I hadn't found a way to put into a story. I couldn't figure out how to end it, though, for a few months. After processing it internally, the solution popped into my head one day and I wrote the rest of the story. I then spent the next two years revising it, putting it through nine drafts, never quite satisfied that it was ready to go.

I turned it in as a writing sample for grad school, got in. Worked on it some more. Workshopped it in class. Wrote 20,000 words of backstory. Used it as a writing sample for Clarion West. Got in. We were supposed to workshop it the first week but I asked to do a new story, since I was sick of "Pigs." Fortunately for me, our first week instructor, Nancy Kress, had read and prepared a critique and gave it to me in our one-on-one session. It was a substantial, but simple, structural rearrangement that she suggested, and she was right about it.

It still took me a few months to see that she was right, but when I went over the story for that last draft, the scales almost literally fell from my eyes and I understood not only what Nancy had said about the structure, but why. It was a small moment that hid a huge transformation. After that, I could actually see story structure in my head: an amorphous, not quite solid, three dimensional shape.

When I look back on it, I think what I was doing was taking the last steps towards understanding story as an integral -- a living -- organism. Not thinking about it as a living thing, which is the same as saying "asking a question," but understanding it a such, which is the same as saying, "having an answer." Just one answer, of course.

That was also the point at which I realized that I had been struggling, without knowing it, toward an end goal which I had reached without ever defining it. And, in reaching it, I realized that it wasn't an "end" goal. The way I explained it to my students at the time was that writing is like running up a steep flight of stairs to a locked door at the top. You bang on and push against the door until it finally gives way ... and then you find yourself on a landing, at the foot of another steep flight of stairs with another locked door at the top.

What changed at that point for me was confidence in what I was doing, and in my ability to do it. This transformation actually took two years, but it started right around the time I would have hit 10,000 hours, and ended in the middle of a four year period where I increased my writing time to over thirty hours a week, adding over 5,000 hours to my total.

Okay, now you: when did you hit your 10,000?

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Comments

Took me three days to finish Outliers, but I was minding the family, cooking the Christmas meal etc. Actually if I hadn't I probably wouldn't have read it so avidly, but maybe not. I also buttonholed everybody about hockey players and rice paddies.

I did a vague mental calculation on the amount of time it takes me to write 1,000 words and the number of words I have written in my lifetime and realized I have done my 10,000 and then some, but didn't get into anything more precise - it would have been impossible.

But what I came out with from the book is something I already knew, and that is, I should treat writing like a job, as I managed to do briefly during Nanowrimo.

yeah, now all i have to do is figure out how to treat writing like a job ;P

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