Today is a significant anniversary in my writing career. It is twenty years since I began a concerted effort to get published. Prior to that I had seen it as a hobby, writing for myself; from 1st July 1997 I self-consciously began to take it more seriously. In the years since I’ve completed seven novels, two works of non-fiction, and started at least half a dozen other projects that ultimately I didn’t pursue.
Which brings me to the ten thousand hour rule. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, the rule proposes that if you practice something – be it playing the piano, golf or whatever – for ten thousand hours you will become an expert. The specifics have subsequently been challenged, nevertheless there is surely a link between how much time you spend doing something and one’s proficiency.
In the past twenty years I have done a lot of writing. At a conservative level let’s say 5 hours a day, 5 days a week (25 hours). Because of other commitments, say I only manage to work ¾ of the year – so 40 weeks. Now multiply that by my 20 years as a writer and you get: 25 x 40 x 20 = 20,000 hours. That’s twice what Gladwell recommends, and a lot of time to spend at my desk! Yet bizarrely I feel I know less about writing now than when I started out. How can that be?
The irony of knowledge is that that more you acquire the more you realise just how much you don’t know. Those twenty thousand hours have made me more aware as a writer. Where once I dived in with the confidence (ignorance?) of youth, now I understand the technical aspects better which gives me a higher bar to aim for. In conjunction with this I’ve also read a lot more than I had done two decades ago. That throws up its own challenges. Sometimes I will read a sentence, for example by someone like Nabokov, and think: how can I write something even half as good? I’m more self-conscious of the process too. I can tie myself in knots worrying if what I put down on paper adequately conveys my intention. In my experience, it has become harder to be sure as the years go by, not easier.
Yet it’s not all gloom. It strikes me that my concerns are actually prompts to keep questioning and challenging the work. To keep getting better. There’s at least another 10 000 hours in me yet!