I heard/read it twice in the last 12 hours, and I've heard and read it before (including from Alaska's own talented Talent Code author, Dan Coyle): that to attain even an initial level of mastery in most artistic and athletic pursuits, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required.
Today, I heard it in a youtube interview with screenwriting structure expert Robert McKee. He said it takes about 10 years and 10 scripts to learn how to write -- and that doesn't mean to learn everything, but just to get the basic working toolbox in order. Ten scripts is about the same number of pages as three good-sized novels, and I've always believed that three to four novels is what it took many of my own favorite authors (E.M. Forster, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, and many more) to find their groove. (Think of your own favorite writers with a healthy ouevre; are your favorites their first novels, or their fifth or twentieth?) Stephen King has said something about learning by writing your first million words. That might be ten thick manuscripts, probably a mix of unpublished and published, with the former nearly as helpful as the latter.
McKee added another principle: that in addition to the 10 years, you need about 20 years of life experience. He didn't say it in a condescending or provocative way, and he admitted there are some things that can be written well at an earlier age or in collaboration with others, as well as some exceptional individuals. But for most of us, we may not have all that much to say until our late thirties or forties.
Last night, I came across the 10-year/ 10,000 hours of practice idea in another form, in the research of Angela Duckworth, who studies the character trait she calls "grit." More on that tomorrow.
In her post yesterday, Deb announced her plan to write a post a year about the subject of being a self-made writer, which seems fitting for a blog that has engendered many posts on the notion of learning, practicing, persisting, and enduring.
It also happens that I spent two hours this morning talking with a bright, younger writer, answering his questions, which circled back frequently to this idea of how long it takes to master the technical and emotional aspects of writing, to which I couldn't stop from adding the concept of simple life experience. We need to know not just about writing, but about the world. I didn't mean to be gloomy, suggesting the road is overly long. (On the other hand, our culture worships youth and novelty more often than middle age and dogged routine, so I suppose I don't mind being a champion for the mid-lifers and long-haulers.)
Does this seem depressing to anyone out there? To me it doesn't, because it gets past the notion of writing as early genius or lightning-strike inspiration. If talent (especially early-blooming talent) were the most important thing, many of us would give up now. Instead, long-term cultivation, including lots of deliberate practice, reading analytically, taking classes or learning from peers, and writing, writing, writing. I'm happy to know that I haven't peaked yet.
With that, I wish you a Happy New Year with about 8640 hours left to spend. Many will be spoken for already (darn that sleep), but somewhere in those thousands are surely some hundreds to help you along your path to mastery.