by Robert P. Kaye
Conventional wisdom attributes artistic achievement to the possession of innate talent, as if Mozart, the Beatles, and Picasso shared some mutant gene enabling them to produce works of a caliber we mortals cannot hope to approach with our own paltry doodling. Believing this takes the pressure off those of us not blessed with native genius. It lets us non-prodigies off the hook.
I’m one of those legions of undergrad English majors who wrote in school, but lost the thread while chasing gainful employment. I continued to scribble fitfully, suspecting I suffered from a talent deficit.
Eventually, I picked up a book on the science behind creativity and discovered that the Beatles were old pros by the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan, honing their skills by playing gigs in Hamburg strip clubs eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month at a time. Mozart’s father, the ultimate showbiz dad, had little Amadeus playing from the time he could sit. Examples of precocious genius are typically revealed to be the result of vast quantities of practice.
Research on creativity, as recapped by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, indicates that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a skill. Cello? 10,000. Hockey? 10K. Writing? Go ahead, take a guess. All those without mutant genes are required to pay their dues—and that turns out to be everybody. The conventional wisdom’s idea of “talent” becomes virtually meaningless.
Realizing that ability is a matter of practice somehow puts the goal in reach, or it did for me. But writing three hours a day for ten years, or its equivalent, is a daunting prospect, especially when staring at a blank page probably doesn’t count. Through a series of incremental steps I developed a writing practice that works for me and maybe the basics will be of use to others. Here it is in five not-so-easy pieces.
Make writing a habit. Writing is only possible for me if I don’t have to decide “if” or “when.” This means making it part of a daily routine like brushing my teeth. The first step involved getting up early to journal or write or stare at that blank page. Psychology shows that doing something 21 days in a row tends to cement a habit (again with the numbers). Starting was the hardest part. Thanks to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones for this.
Things go better with flow. Ten thousand hours better not feel the equivalent of watching paint dry. Flow is the experience of total engagement which causes an hour to feel like ten minutes, according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist famous for researching the concept. One technique for achieving flow is bait and switch, starting with a journal entry (for instance) to get rolling then switching to fiction. After some practice, flow becomes second nature, time flies past like nothing and you’re late for work. A side benefit is that flow seems to be a key ingredient in general happiness.
Revise endlessly. I’ve recently had several stories published that have been ‘in work’ for a decade or more, reclaimed repeatedly from my On Hold or Dead Junk subdirectories. Revisions go better with feedback and moral support, so seek out or organize a writing group, preferably with more advanced writers and/or join an online writing community (I recommend Zoetrope). Read work out loud for a different perspective. For me, the most important ingredient in a good revision is time in the drawer, where my subconscious (a much better writer) can do its thing.
Submit work, even when yet another form rejection threatens to drive you to violence. Publishing isn’t everything—maybe they’ll issue your work posthumously and you’ll be famous. Won’t that be fun? Having a story see ink (or electrons) is one of the best legal thrills and there is no better source of motivation. Submit a lot and often— success at publishing has much in common with being a spammer. Sure, rejection hurts, but we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and heroes must suffer. Best of all, submitting means you have to finish something first.
Learn to trust that you will be a better writer tomorrow. Perhaps the greatest thing about the 10,000 hours concept is that YOU IMPROVE. Ability is a continuum, not a destination. This explains why all my old stuff tends to read like crap to me now, but also why I have a shot at working the current crop of stories into something good.
I expect that all the accomplished writers out there will find these things obvious, but I wish I’d known them when I was sixteen or even thirty. Loopholes may exist in the 10,000 hour rule, and if you find one, I would appreciate an immediate email. If not, buckle up, because it’s a long, bumpy ride.
Robert P. Kaye has published a couple dozen stories and counting (again with the numbers) in magazines like Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, decomP, Cicada, Danse Macabre and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links to all appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about literature’s bipolar relationship with technology.