Cynthia’s Column January 2009
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, has a new book out called Outliers. Like his first two books this one blows up assumptions we have about things we thought we understood. In The Tipping Point he made us rethink the way the world works and with Blink he made us rethink, well, the way we think.
Now in his new book, Outliers, he takes on success and makes us see that many of our beliefs about success are faulty. Particularly relevant to writers, (and all artists) is the question of what makes greatness? Is it a matter of innate talent or is it primarily hard work? It’s the equivalent of the “nature v.s. nurture” question regarding raising children. For us the question has always been “inspiration or perspiration?” Which is the most important factor for success as a creative artist?
Guess what? It turns out to be perspiration. Hard work is what creates mastery. Innate natural born talent? Almost not even a factor.
Gladwell has done a huge amount of research and he was also surprised at this discovery. He explores this question in many arenas and came up with an actual numeric quantitative formula for success in virtually any field. His formula is 10,000 hours equals mastery.
Billionaire geniuses like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had unusual opportunities as teens to spend thousands of hours working on computers at a time when almost no one had access to the equipment.
The Beatles? They got a gig in Germany which consisted of playing many times a day, seven days a week. By the time they left Hamburg for the last time, they had many times more experience than almost any other band anywhere. They had played hundreds and hundreds of hours for live audiences, for whose attention, by the way, they had to compete with scantily clad women. This school of hard rock and heavy practice made them the most successful band ever.
Even Mozart, the one guy we totally believe was a born genius, was actually a late bloomer. By the time he composed his first masterpiece that wasn’t adapted from anyone else’s theme, he’d already been composing for 20 years. In all Gladwell’s research how many naturally born talented artists did he find who did not have thousands of hours of experience? Zero.
I recommend you read this book. Okay, I’ll go so far as to recommend that you buy this book. We’re writers. We need to be book buyers, especially now that publishers are scrambling to stay afloat. (Plus at Costco, it’s half the cover price.)
I have always contended that Talent as a concept was overrated, because of my own experience and of students I have taught. It’s why none of us really wants to go back and read the early stuff we’ve written. Because we know it’s not good. It’s actually the equivalent of all those scales that pianists have to play. (Also one of the reasons some of us stopped taking piano lessons.) For writers, our scales are hundreds of pages trying to hit all the write notes and missing a lot of them. It is hard work and only occasionally fun. But it turns out to be the price of a ticket in to the Big Top of the circus that is the professional writer’s life.
Writers don’t like to think in terms of hours spent writing. If we even began to do the math, we’d be horrified to realize how far below minimum wage almost all of us actually make. A fifty thousand dollar advance for a novel is pretty good. It’s something most novelists would be thrilled with. We don’t want to remember that it was for five years of work. Which is $10,000 per year. Which is, let’s just say, pretty far below the poverty line.
A friend of mine bragged about her $200,000 advance on a non-fiction book, which sounds fantastic, right? Until you realize she had a co-author who got half, and paid her agent 15% and it took three years working full time. So this comes to $28, 333. per year.
It makes me angry that our society doesn’t appreciate our authors enough. It seems that for the amount of work book writers put in for the wages they make, publishers should at least pay them in a timely manner. I have dear and brilliant friends who knock themselves out to meet book deadlines, then wait weeks and months to get paid. Other businesses pay their employees on time. Why should writers be treated worse than waiters?
Okay, I went off the track here. I’ll stop ranting. Back to the 10,000 hours contention. Let’s look around close to home and see if we can validate or repudiate this thesis. Chelsea Cain, a local writer, recently broke out as a novelist in the last couple of years, into a seven figure income, N.Y. Times list career. Chelsea has been writing full time for decades. She’s had books published of memoir and humor and written a column in The Oregonian. And during those years she also had a day job and a working husband. And now, after more than ten thousand hours of writing, she is an overnight huge success.
Laura, my sister the novelist, has her second novel The Fetch coming out February 2 and another Writers Digest book, Novel Shortcuts, (on how to get second or third draft quality in a first draft) will be published in April. Many of you know that she wrote twenty novels before she became an overnight success. Critics love her style and librarians adore her. She put in her ten thousand hours.
Holidazed, (our play at Artists Rep through 12/28) has been a critical success and our writing praised in all the reviews. “Talk Back” audiences who stay afterwards to ask questions of the authors, love the writing. And we are basking in those accolades. Between us, my co-author Marc Acito and I have more than forty years of full time writing under our belts.
I have seen students who I thought had minimal talent turn into good writers and successful ones. They are the ones who had the passion and intention to put in the time. To write the thousands of hours.
Ray Bradbury talks about this in terms of pages, but the idea is the same as Gladwell’s. His contention is that a writer has to write 10,000 pages to achieve mastery. He himself wrote 3 million words before he sold anything. (In eight years from the age of 12 to 20. He was an early achiever.) Three million words. I have to break this down to get my head around it. Three million words, is around 12,000 pages, divided by eight years would be 1,500 pages per year or roughly 4 pages a day. Okay, that I get. This is do-able, right boys and girls? It’s less than Stephen King’s legendary 10 pages a day.
Let’s do the same for Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. How long would it take if you started today? If you wrote ten hours a week, it would take nineteen years. Give yourself credit for all the hours you have already written. When I started out, I was writing full time, 40 hours a week and it took me three years after college to break in. That’s 6,240 hours. But you know what? While I was still in college I wrote two novels, dozens of papers and a few plays and screenplays. When I was “discovered” by Hollywood at the age of 24, I had already written ten thousand hours.
Whether you count it in hours or in pages, the point is what makes great writers is a lot of writing. It doesn’t even matter much if your pounded-out drafts are great or even good, as long as you pound them out and keep revising, rewriting and polishing until you make them as good as you can. And then move on to the next project. Because it has been scientifically proven that we get better and better. The more we write the better writers we become. This may be daunting, but it’s also exciting.
I have also noticed that it is not that hard for writers, once they’ve achieved a level of mastery of the craft, to move between genres. Fiction to non-fiction. Screen to stage. Essayist to T.V. writer/host. I am seeing this happen all over the place. Being good at writing, mastering this particular skill, has legs. You can take it anywhere and it is recognized and rewarded.