Malcolm Gladwell has famously written that any artist worth her mettle will need to put in ten thousand hours at the craft before it becomes any good, before it climbs out of the sphere of art made with great intention for oneself, to a place where it has the power to speak to others. Ira Glass, host of the radio program “This American Life,” says, “For the first couple years what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition, but it’s not quite that good.”
He goes on to say that if you stick with it, and don’t quit, and keep trying to meet and exceed your own standards and ambition, eventually you do, in fact, get good at it.
And I know that in the midst of putting in those hours—those “miles of canvas” as I’ll always think of them, thanks to a painter I once interviewed—it’s easy to stop and ask, why should I bother to keep at it? Because, you know, work is hard. This is an argument I get a lot from new writers. It’s hard—therefore, it must somehow be bad. I try not to point fingers and scratch my head and blame entertainment culture…but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten about what good, hard work feels like. The pleasure and reward of digging in to an idea, a story, an essay and keeping going until you reach the a-ha, or the bountiful place of flow, the coalescence of wonderful things.
I believe that awareness, depth, and greatness really do live just on the other side of “failure.” And I have failure in quotes because those moments when our work didn’t turn out the way we hoped, when we didn’t receive acceptance or publication, are experiments, riding without training wheels, not failure.
Sometimes, the only way we know where we are is by seeking reflection from others. Yes, it hurts to be rejected, but it hurts more to give up because someone said you weren’t there yet (or something much worse, in much harsher language).
I’ve been on the ledge of creative despair more times than I can count. Enough times that my husband of eighteen years has learned now that these are not true places of crisis, but places of deconstruction before epiphany or change. And the times when I actually climbed down and kept at the work, there has always been a breakthrough. Sometimes, I just needed to stay up there, hugging myself and quivering into the wind, but so long as I did, nothing was created. And that’s okay, too. We aren’t machines. We need downtime. Thinking time. Silence. We need to mentally pace the corridors of our own creative palaces until doors open.
The thing is, if you do keep at it, even in the midst of your ten thousand hours (and let’s be real: these hours never stop accumulating; there’s always learning to do), you experience small breakthroughs, glimmers of the heights to which you are capable, and these are rewards in and of themselves.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and Forged in Grace. For a dose of optimism, read my column, The Persistent Optimist, at Sweatpants & Coffee.
The Second Annual Plot & Scene Writing Retreat with Martha Alderson happens at the Mt. Madonna Retreat Center, May 1-3, 2015.
Or read my column, The Persistent Optimist, at Sweatpants & Coffee.
Photo, “Building Blocks” by Eran Sandler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.