Malcolm Gladwell, in his most recent book, Outliers, suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to become great, to obtain a critical mass that could allow, say, a young Bill Gates to leverage what he learned during that time into the global giant that is Microsoft. The Beatles didn’t start out great, he explains, but invested and amassed 10,000 hours of hard work into their craft before things took off.
Much can be said about innate ability. About being in the right place at the right time. Networking. Being introduced to the right people just at the instant you have something to offer them (imagine if Einstein hadn’t been accepted into the American scientific milieu). All are factors that can increase opportunities for success. And yet, all are short-cuts, in a sense. How often do any one of these, in particular, play a prominent role in success? A strong argument can be made (and Gladwell makes one) that there is a far more important ingredient.
Elbow grease, a nearly forgotten commodity in today’s ‘give me’ generation, may be the greatest benefactor to success. Does the math work in the literary world? If it works, then how does one measure success in art, when there are so many different motives one might claim to pursue it seriously?
Not by the almighty dollar, we're quick to reply. Number of publications? Number of books? Do you have tenure in the Literature department at a major university, teach at a community college? Do you have your own poetry blog with thousands of viewers? Most agree that these factors, while certainly contributing, are not prerequisites or determinants in establishing quality and value with respect to matters in the art world (I'm generalizing here, but bear with me). We all know of exceptions to the rule (ourselves, for example), and are quick to point out that intelligence, or academic ardor (institutionally speaking), though perhaps useful tools, are not in and of themselves, key players in the universe of art and artists.
Thanks to internet, we have a 100 million experts. Who’s to judge who’s good and who’s bad? In poetry, for example, which poems deserve to be pushed to the fore and celebrated (if this were even possible), and which avoided at all cost? The hyperbole of such an exercise, to be sure, is distasteful. And yet, I think this is what we do to some degree on a moment by moment basis (especially on the net). From what I’ve seen, most writers care deeply about what they write, and they care about getting better. Most are open for critique. However, many don’t seem to want to seek it out proactively. But looking for critical analysis from peers may be jumping the gun. There may be a much simpler route to success.
I like Gladwell’s 10,000 rule. It puts a stronger emphasis on the value of learning a craft, a talent, even a gift. It puts a premium on rehearsing, on honing, on editing, on revising (not to discount stream of consciousness writing, extemporaneous models, etc.) It’s clear we’d do better to read 100 pages for every page we write. Or a 1000 pages. If you write poetry, then read poetry. Read about poetry. Read about the lives of poets. Read history, when a poem about an historical event strikes you deeply.
Write and rewrite. Show your work to experts, consultants, friends, your dog or cat. Success? Everyone has their own models and values of what this means, but most kid themselves if they reject the ideal. All the writers I know, and I know a good deal, care deeply about what they write, and if they understood what it took to get better, they’d move in that direction. Expectations for success can be incremental and modest; or they can be quantum leaps, the sky’s the limit.
Most who write know they need to spend more time working on their craft. Improvement can be measured a million different ways; but, in the end, little improvement is possible without contributing energy into the equation. Does it take 10,000 hours to write a great poem? Probably not (that’s a lot of hours)… but as you approach that kind of commitment, you’re sure to reap a lasting benefit in the development and mastery of your craft.