I was reading some chapters from Malcom Gladwell’s Outlier. Gladwell cites research that indicates that more than talent, what it takes to become truly competent at a complex skill like, say, concert violin, is practice. Researchers couldn’t find evidence of people who became symphony orchestra level competent who hadn’t put in horrendous amounts of practice, no matter how talented. In fact, the magic number seems to be about 10,000 hours of practice. This is, apparently, a necessary but not sufficient thing. That is, you won’t attain true competency without the 10,000 hours of practice, but you can put in the ten thousand and not attain competency. Although apparently, that’s pretty rare. He has a lot of complex and interesting things to say about this phenomena and the book is a really fun read. What it got me thinking about, of course, is my area of interest, fiction writing.
In fiction writing, there seems to be a sense that on average it takes about ten years to get published. This turns out to be pretty accurate in my case. I got really serious about writing when I was nineteen. I published my first story when I was 29. Last night I was lying in bed thinking about my writing habits and I figure I wrote about twenty hours a week, much of that time. Most of it on weekends. I didn’t have a real job. I didn’t have a serious relationship. I didn’t even have a couch. I had a series of temp jobs and a typewriter. Eventually, a computer. When I crunch the numbers, it comes out somewhere around 10,000 hours. That, for me, was just to get competent.
There are other ways that writing people say this. I was told that everyone has 100,000 words of crap in them that they have to write first. I explain to my students that in my case this was not true. I had about a million words of crap. But probably, what I had was 10,000 hours.
There are lots of exceptions to this, people who publish at seventeen. But my sense is that publishing too early is not actually a good thing. I’ve had people at Clarion who published fairly early in their practice of writing (which is different than their age) and it often seems to me that they wrote a story that was something of a fluke. They have the sense, rightly, that there was something about the story, a kind of gimmick, that got it published. They are often looking for more of the same, trying to find the twist, the idea, the ‘thing’ that makes the story publishable. Flukes are a hard way to sustain a career. I think that an early publication and years of failing to follow up can actually be soul destroying.
This also explains to me why some of my older students, who have so many things I think are important to being a writer—something to say, a strong sense of story and a large depth of reading—still struggle. Intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient. They also need 10,000 hours of practice to get to the point where they are competent to solve the hundred little problems a page that a piece of fiction demands of the writer. Things like, how much to explain, how much to explain in the narrative, how much from the character, how to get the character out of the kitchen and to the scene of the fire. For a competent writer, the way they do these things is intuitive. I don’t tend to think about how much of the narrative is from the narrator and how much from the character. I’m not even aware that I’m making those decisions. Neither is the unpracticed writer. The difference is that after years of practice, I have a set of unconscious skills that tell me what is more likely to be successful. I know when it ‘feels right.’ For me, only after 10,000 hours could I actually start to think about a lot of the decisions I made to solve those problems. Before that, like learning to ride a bicycle, if I thought too much, I fell off. The prose got stiff, overly self-conscious, mannered in a bad way.
I’m wondering now what a second 10,000 hours does. And a third. Does it make a difference that I started writing seriously at nineteen? Would I be able to start writing seriously now, at fifty, and at sixty produce something competent? I think so, although I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure it, and I, would be different than what I will produce at sixty now. The practice shapes me as much as I shape the practice.
What does it take to lose competency? At some point, most of us begin to decline. Can that 10,000 hours of practice be wasted, lost, misplaced? Certainly by things like a stroke. What does disuse do?
It is a strange life, the life of someone, a programmer, a physician, a pilot, whose job depends on just this kind of practice. A race between getting in the hours and the lose of capacity.
10,000 hours. Had I known what it would take, I don’t know that I’d have ever made it.