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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Malcolm Gladwell and others have been saying, in all their book-promoting zeal, about greatness. Mostly I think about it because I work with some people who, still in that honeymoon phase of writing, expect that they should be writing in the company of their favorite authors, usually from the minute they put their first word on the page.
I’m guilty of this, too. We fall in love with writing as young people; we immerse ourselves in the final drafts of writers who are often mid-to-late career, and we compare ourselves unfavorably (or worse, in my opinion, favorably) to them in a dance of almost willful naïvete. What the experts have found is what Gladwell calls the 10,000 hour rule. If you strip away all of the differences and look at what great achievers have in common (and if you hold aside the infuriating commonality that they’ve all been granted random good luck at one point or another), it’s that they’ve been practicing, with intention, their sport or their music or their art, for at least 10,000 hours.
Writers have to work in a focused way for about four hours a day, five days a week, for at least 10 years to get there. Not that many people I know have made it there yet. The secret could be, and I’m stealing from my friend Tom McNeely here: Write lots of stories. Good ones, bad ones, wildly successful ones, horrifically awful ones. Write lots of poetry. Then write even more. Keep doing it, churning out drafts, revising them like crazy, hating them and then feeling a spark of momentary hope right before it fades again. Even if nothing’s ever truly “finished,” only abandoned (as the overused saying goes), each attempt is teaching us something we need to know about the craft. As the new prez says, “Our writing can’t be perfect, but it can always be perfected.” (All right, he said that about our union, but it applies to writing, too.) And in the process of perfecting, we’ll wake up one day and realize we’ve hit that magic 10K. (Then, I’m sure, it all becomes unbelievably easy…)