The View From Halfway

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Photo credit: robert.molinarius)

Every skill, every art form, every task has one similarity. I’m pretty sure you know what it is.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a musician. Not a very good one, but I do play several instruments, and I find a thousand analogies between the two activities. Many writers think that they should be able to sit down at a keyboard, without learning about the craft of writing, the history of literature, the evolution of the story, the classics, modern prose, and award winning books, and turn out the next masterpiece. That’s like asking someone who’s never played the piano to sit down at one and play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s really an absurd thought.

The first time I picked up a trumpet, I simply couldn’t play it. After a month, I wasn’t much better. I was 9 years old. By the time I was 16 years old, I wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. That’s a seven year difference. When I first learned the guitar, I was terrible. I know I was, because I still have recordings of myself. After over two decades of playing, I’m okay. I have the ability to be great, I think, but I won’t invest the time it would take to play at that level. I know it would take about 3-5 hours of practice a day, probably for a few years. That’s a lot of time.

Writing also takes practice, just like any other skill. Musicians practice every day for years, sometimes since they were children, and most will never become household names. You probably spend eight hours a day at your job, and after a year or two, you got to be pretty good at it. But many writers don’t have that level of commitment. I struggle to write for 2-3 hours a day. I’m sure it’s not enough.

If you want to know exactly how much practice it takes to be good at something, read Kristina Blackwell’s blog post about 10,000 Hours. For me, it was a wake-up call. I rediscovered what I’d always known. I’ve chosen a very hard thing to do. It’s not easy, nor should it be. No one ever said that writing a novel would easy. You are making art, after all.

“But what about all of those books I’ve read that weren’t any good, and yet sold hundreds of thousands of copies?” Well, if they were so bad, why did you buy them? There must have been something that someone wanted – a certain story, a feeling, an idea. Prose will only get you so far (and not very far) and then you have to have a story to tell. Some people have beautiful words, and no story. But even if your words are lacking, if you have a great story, you are going to get much farther.

Every writer has to decide what kind of artist they want to be, and what kind of audience they want to cater to. You can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try to. I can read a book, and honestly say’ “Not my thing, but I can see there is something in there of value.” I’m not a Justin Bieber fan. I even admit to making a few Justin Bieber jokes. His music is not my thing. But when I watch him perform, I can see he is the best dancer on the stage. His voice has that “boy-band” inflection down perfectly, even if the lyrics are lacking in emotional depth. He is a master at what he does. And what he does is different then what I do, or what you do, most likely. But the rule doesn’t change with the activity. There is still only one rule for success: you have to be a master.

Until you master something, you won’t be a good teacher, you won’t be a good mayor, you won’t be a good bureaucrat, and you won’t be a good musician. You still might be all of those things without mastering them, but your work will never be commended, you’ll never be noticed, and most likely, your efforts will be unremembered (or worse, be remembered in a negative way). So why do so many people think a writer doesn’t have to work much to become good?

I haven’t reached 10,000 hours yet. I’ve still got a ways to go. But I’ve been writing novels for over 10 years. Hopefully, that is putting me on course to be within range in my lifetime. One way or another, someday, I will master it. I’ve dedicated myself. But the bottom line is – anyone can be successful. Anyone can master this. Anyone – you or I – can do this. We just have to try and try and try some more, until we have it mastered. For all of us, the only way to get closer is to read more, and write more. Your audience will let you know when you are there.