Ten Thousand Hours
I have put in 10,000 hours on writing—and then some. I may be slow writing royalty, having spent 30 plus years learning how to do it. I’ve published freelance nonfiction, do freelance pieces for radio, and am now working on fiction, which I’ve also taken my time to learn. All I can say is that it’s been a privilege.
It seems fairly straightforward. If you are doing what you love, you will not resent the time it takes to master your craft.
Every once in awhile, though, I come across some bright young MFA whose life has been a beeline from one success to the next, and I wonder: Could I have been a teeny bit more efficient? Could my learning curve have been shortened by a couple of decades?
Here are a few things I have learned.
Read your work. Don’t just write for a year and then return to read what you have done. Which I did. It is a brutal shock to learn that the brilliant prose you remember having put down is actually closer to gibberish.
Read your work aloud. It is a brilliant and cheap way to edit out pomposity and boring asides. No audience necessary at first.
Let other people read your work. You have to choose your victim carefully. You want someone who’s insightful, sympathetic but also tough, who is not out to sabotage your desire to write just because you happen to write badly (which I used to do—so badly, I was afraid to show my work). A saint, in short, who also has great taste and is humble enough to know that we all must start somewhere, and wise enough to know that some very wonderful writers have started way, way behind the starting line. (If you don’t believe me, read Eugene O’Neill’s earliest work).
To edit, start by cutting out the boring parts. This is Amy Hempel’s advice and it remains the best I’ve come across. And as you reread your work repeatedly, more of it will bore you. The parts that you secretly questioned as not quite belonging begin to lie there, on the eighth time through, like road kill. Unload them.
Read what you love. There are masters in every genre. Powerhouse agent, Alexandra Machinist, once described her very serious, very well-educated German grandfather as emerging from his study to announce, “Georgette Heyer iss a geniuss!”
Oh, yes, and write every day. Start with three longhand pages—the Morning Pages as described by Julia Cameron--to get through the venting, awfulizing and snarking. Longhand frees up one’s mind, and is, in my experience, a good cure for writer’s block. It’s also a sort of quotidian magic—by the third page, a new idea, a good phrase, something pops out. And sometimes it’s an idea that will take you wonderful places.