“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. ”
~Daniel Levitin, as qtd by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
Since I started becoming serious about my writing goals, I’ve allowed myself to experiment and play, knowing that I have many more hours of work ahead of me before I will ever feel comfortable bearing the label “writer.” So far, I’ve learned to prioritize my time and focus on my goal (which in my case was to write a novel). I’ve learned to turn off my internal editor and push through obstacles, like feelings of inadequacy, to finish a novel no matter what (thanks, mostly to NaNoWriMo). And, I learned that Stephen King’s rule of “write first with the door closed…” definitely applied to me. I needed to play with my ideas alone so that I can hope, dream, and fear without self-consciousness (read: embarrassment).
My favorite A-ha! moment, though, actually came from unlearning a habit. Let me explain.
If you’ve read my “About” section, you’ll know that I majored in English in college. My favorite classes were those in literary theory, and to this day, I can’t read any text without thinking about it from post-colonial, deconstructionist, Marxist, feminist perspectives (my favorites!). Criticizing and analyzing texts became instinctive to me, which is great when I had to churn out 20-30+ page papers or critique a writing partner’s work. Not so much when I have to write primary text, and my brain is full of meta text and distancing language.
It took me a long time to refrain from or cut out all the non story that I was prone to writing (back story, character studies, culture studies, whatever) before I was able to write real text, like narrative and dialogue…basically a story that a reader can expect from a novel. It was a hard shift in my mindset since my primary instinct was to dissect, and not create. But, with each new novel attempt and failure, I have slowly progressed from being a writer about books to becoming a writer of books.
I’ve begun to develop and trust my instincts for creating worlds. I’m still a sketcher and I’ll always need a big picture goal for direction. But, I will write a scene with more polish and depth than I’ve done previously, and allow my subconscious to play with the “next steps” as I’m exploring the current scene. I’m letting myself focus on the quality of my words rather than merely the quantity of words (though I will keep my word count goals, since I’m still goal-oriented). Even if it kills me, I will not leave a scene until it makes sense. My goal for this next story is to finish with a first draft and not a rough draft. (Some people think they’re the same thing; for me, my rough and first draft are definitely different.) I’ll always go for the big picture because it’s heartening to see the page count progress. But in exploring the depth, rather than breadth, I’ll see more of a world than I previously anticipated. At least, that’s the hope.
I intended to post this last week (January 25, in fact) but I thought it was too silly to post (and I was kinda distracted by Veronica Mars, season 2). I mean, really, what value can come from posting my infinitesimal progress toward my writing goals?
But, today, I saw the #followreader chat on Twitter, featuring Margaret Atwood, one of my literary heroes. I decided to ask her this question…
…and she answered with this…
(By the way, how cool is it that I was able to ask her a question and have it answered immediately??)
Turns out, I just need to keep reminding myself that the only way for me to get better as a writer (and teller of stories) is to continue writing. And the best way for me to continue writing is to celebrate the progress that I’ve made so far, regardless of how small that progress may be. I plan to keep churning out crappy words, so that one day, I’ll be able to find better words with which to capture my stories.