categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Most of the talks I gave over the last month were Environmental with a capital E. But one was more specifically about writing, given to some young writing students, and in it I gave an overview of the first decade of my own writing career (“career” being a word I wouldn’t have used, even loosely, back then). That chapter of my writing life could be aptly titled Banging My Head Against the Wall. I wrote two novels, the first better than the second, that were big, clunky, and ultimately unpublished. When I finished each novel, I sent them along to 5 or 6 big New York publishers and they sent back the obligatory form letter rejections. One editor wrote a personal letter, that included the phrase “You are a writer of considerable talent,” a phrase that I clung to like a lifeline through my (roaring) 20s. I revised the book along the lines of her criticisms and sent it back to her, only to get a form letter in return.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was undergoing an apprenticeship. I don’t believe I heard the word “apprentice” once during those years. I have written elsewhere that if I could go back in time the advice I would give that young man would be “Hold on.” To that, I will add today, “Keep going.” Recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, where he suggests that anyone who wants to attain mastery of something—whether it be hockey, computer programming, or a musical instrument—needs to put in roughly ten thousand hours. I like this concept. I was not a writer who, like Jack Kerouac, had written several novels as a teenager and had been writing since he was a little kid. I had started cold at 23. So, by Gladwell’s lights, what I was doing during those years was putting in my 10,000 hours.
This I told the crowd last week, thinking it, from the perspective of middle age, a helpful story, and one that even had a kind of happy ending. When I was thirty, I wrote my first truly good book, a novel about my experience with testicular cancer called Wormtown, and it occurs to me now that maybe that was also the first book that I started having put in my 10,000. Soon after that a professor of mine suggested that, hey, since your fiction is so autobiographical anyway, why not cut to the chase and write nonfiction. After that, using the fictional techniques I’d learned as a novelist to write nonfiction, I was up and running.
Or so was the story I told to the young writing students, thinking that they might find it not just happy but uplifting, how some poor slob went from nowhere to somewhere. But then a young man in the audience raised his hand. He was pretty close to 23, the age I was when I started, and his eyes weren’t exactly shining with hope.
“You mean we have to write for almost ten years before we make anything good?” he asked.
I scrambled for an answer. From the age of fifty, ten years of your young life seem like fair price to pay to get to do what you love for a living. But from his point of view? To tread water for a decade—a decade!—while you wait around for some magic “mastery” to kick in. Fuck that.
When in trouble I always lean on Keats, and I did so here, bringing up the way in which he had taken down the whole apprentice thing in fast motion (which is a good thing when your whole career lasts 5 years), cranking out the long poem Endymion and ushering in the odes. I brought up other exceptions, freaks like Hemingway and Fitzgerald who were so young—little babies—when their work started pouring out into the world.
And I thought back more honestly about my own life. During those so-called apprentice years I never thought that what I was doing was “practicing.” I thought I was writing great books that would be published. And even though they were not published, they might have been. They didn’t suck quite as much as I paint them in retrospect. The point is that no one will ever put in that much time mastering something while thinking that they are just warming up for something else. The hope, and delusion, that what they are making is great and world-changing serves the necessary and practical purpose of keeping writers going. That the ten thousand hour meter is running all the time feels almost incidental.
My questioner seemed vaguely satisfied with my scrambling answer. But I think I owe him more than he owes me, since he had scumbled and complicated a story of mine that had become too set.
And yet…and yet…..the advice I would give a writer who is truly setting out has not changed much. Hang on. Keep going. And remember you are getting to a place where, while things will still be hard, they will be better. Sure, cling to your hopes, even when those hopes may feel like they border delusion. And remember that the whole time you are doing this you are taking down those 10,000 hours, and that things are different on the other side.