Monday, January 12, 2009

Does it take 10,000 hours to be a great poet?

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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.

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29 comments:

  1. Yes, it can take that long to write something worth reading. I have lost count of how many times I've re-written my books. Each time I touch them, I'm a better writer. So I go back over them again. As I write this both books are in cue to be published yet, I daily have the urge to tear them apart again!
    TerryAnn

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  2. I agree with you about reading other poets to become a better poet/writer, etc. Read period and everything you can get your hands on. Interesting analysis of the Outliers because I have a coed Reading Group who wanted to read this book. Most of the men in it are successful financial analysts, etc. and I opted for To Whom the Bells Toll first. Ed, I am sure you can figure out why I chose to do this. thanks, Anne B. Grote

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  3. oops....typo...For Whom the Bells Toll. Thanks, Anne

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  4. yes I can, Anne! and thanks for the comment!

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  5. It certainly takes honing your craft. I'm not sure how anyone can put a number on that though.

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  6. yes, saw that study about various fields, including music and sports. 10,000 to have distinguished skill in field (over 10 years was it?) Casual dabblers of a craft stay dabblers.

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  7. and I agree, it is more key to learn than to be a "natural". A "natural" just started earlier than others. Who said, it takes reading a library to write a book? But it takes a rigor of not just hours but as you say, sense of place in history, what has gone before, or you are a fangirl, not building onwards and pushing personal limits.

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  8. i recently said i'd likley be a better poet, if i wasn't a midwife.i think there is much to be said for "elbow grease" and the development of craft. i think i was a midwife for nearly five years, and had delivered about 1,000 babies before i felt proficient in my craft:)

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  9. I've been reading and writing poetry since I was 8 years old. And, to your point, most of what I wrote was inspired by other poetry that I'd read.

    Of course I'm sure that any poet can be inspired to write something great...but no one can give a poet his/her voice as an artist. In other words, anyone can learn the "skill" of writing poetry, bu I believe you must be born with third eye of a poet...the ability to take from the technical aspect of it all and create something with your own signature. Yes, it's all been said before, but it will never be said exactly as YOU can say it. THAT is the definition of being a poet!

    Great entry by the way, Edward...this subject matter has definitely given me something to dwell on...

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  10. Dear Edward,

    Synchronicity--I just quoted the same statistic from Gladwell at Facebook. I have been publishing poetry for forty years and have certainly put in the 10,000 hours, as it would require of me less than an hour a day. So I've probably put in twice that.

    There was an essay recently in the NY Times, I think, about conceptual vs. hard work artists, or late bloomers. For instance, Picasso's later works fetch much less than his earlier ones, whereas Cezanne, who took much longer to mature--his later works sell for much more.

    Among poets you could put Blake and Coleridge into the instant genius category, though both had considerable learning behind them, even if Blake's was largely mystical studies. But hell, even Ginsberg imitated Auden early on; all the confessional poets did in the fifties.

    In my poetry tutorial I force students to write at least one sonnet. You'd be surprised how many balk at it. But I'm an old dog, and I don't think verse libre should be attempted until one has a relative mastery of formal verse, the form most poetry has taken until the last 60 years or so.

    Work is fun! Some poems, including one recently nominated for a Pushcart, have taken me seven years.

    There is no substitute for hard work, with this caveat: if the inborn talent is absent, that artist, no matter how hard he works, will not ascend to mastery. It takes both talent and work, and though Edison said genius is 99% perspiration, in the arts I think there is a little less. The muse will always have her say.

    CE

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  11. great comments and I'm enjoying hearing different perspectives

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  12. Roughly 2.75 years of doing this for 10 hours per day is what 10,000 hours amounts to.

    I would say it's a start.

    The up-front investment begins to facilitate dwindling time requirements for putting together an automatic product.

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  13. I think in addition to writing, it takes reading lots of poetry from different eras, styles and schools.

    Study the great poets and see what made their writing so popular with readers and peers, based on the time they lived, country of origin, ideology and taboos of the time. How did they handle politics, romance, death? How did they present ideas? What made the poem work for you as a reader? What made the poem NOT work for you?

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  14. Excellent post, Ed. I've been musing on this 10k-hour thing since hearing Gladwell on NPR. It has contributed to a shift in my perspective on whether or not to pursue a career change at this juncture.

    In my opinion, one of the most profound benefits of investing tons of hours into a craft is flow (another buzz-word of recent years...). You simply have to keep on doing something for a while before the bits and pieces begin to coalesce into larger groupings of sense. The dance emerges as the individual steps and positions disappear...

    It should not be lost on us that this applies to relationships as well. It probably applies to faith too.

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  15. I just did the math.

    I've clocked at least 28,000 hours as a professional gardener/landscaper...

    ...now, gimme stuff!

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  16. When my parents asked how long it will take me to become a writer I said to them maybe in 10 years, they might see some improvement. Perhaps they'll understand better when I tell them about the 10,000 hour theory. What they really want to know is when would I publish a best seller.

    Thanks Ed for this wonderful post, it helps not to give up at difficult times.

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  17. Excellent points, Ed. And you're right that quality has nothing to do with:

    "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?"

    For me, the greatest Art is made by those who are able to tune out pop culture (the 10,000 things) and have a conversation with all the masters that have ever been. So, in that sense, in addition to the time and hard work you've mentioned, mastering craft also requires learning to be discriminating.

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  18. I did the math on this and realized that grad school probably comprises about 2500 hours of this time (assuming you're in an MFA program with a writing concentration); undergrad probably another 2500 (given the fact it's not all writing classes, but most of us probably took as much as we could get).

    I really love thinking about this, because, given my 45 years, my abandoned novel, my completed memoir, my short stories and thousands of poems, letters, journals, automatic writing, blogs, and songs, I am feeling pretty secure about my abilities.

    Thanks. This was a gift.

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  19. Good article!especially the last part summarizes everything.
    Not hours but tears I think.Poetry requires a hard life, a sensitive soul and much work.

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  20. No Olympic athlete or solo concert musician would think 10,000 was an onerous requirement. Michael Phelps sometimes swims for 8 hours without stopping as practice.And most concert artists practice daily for eight hours or more.

    It demeans the art of writing to assume that innate ability can produce a great work of poetry or fiction, when the other arts require long apprenticeship.

    Writing that is not simply some version of "What I Did Last Summer," requires as much practice as any other art form.

    Diana Manister

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  21. Seth, now you're starting to sound like a boomer, LOL

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  22. I think we have to consider a span of time as well as absolute hours. I think someone who started writing poetry at 18, had..let's say a magical inheritance and didn't work, then wrote (and read) until the 10,000 hours were done could very well put out total crapola. A poet who writes over a period of time, studies his/her craft in various ways, lives life, observes, thinks, gets better over time and likely much better than the person just 'putting in the hours'. So much goes into writing good poetry and a large part is an inquisitive mind and perhaps no small amount of living on the offbeat side of the hill:-) Good post, Ed.

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  23. right on, Pris; putting in the hours is no guarantee

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  24. Read. Write. Read. Rewrite. This is the job of a writer. If you went to a dentist for a tooth extraction, you'd expect him to know exactly what he's doing and to have practiced umpteen times.
    So too the writer must practice. I recently revisited a story I wrote two years ago. I cringed when i first read it.. damaged beyond repair, I thought. But with a little coaxing, i have managed to revive it. Now I am hopeful.
    In short I could not agree more with Mr. Gladwell. Poetry's not the X Factor, Mr. Cowell has no jurisdiction here. Only fanatics need apply!
    That said i have a folder of poems I am working on... trying to work on... any day now... oh, it's not easy...

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  25. There is way more to it than time invested, and reading and writing and re-writing poetry is great but that doesn't make it either. If you don't have soul, heart, inspiration and experience in other areas of life, you may as well take those academic exercises you call poems and burn 'em in the wood stove because that's the only way their gonna keep you warm. And a side note to deconstructing pam, and I think Kunitz would agree with me on this one, being a midwife makes you a better poet.

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  26. I heard this 10,000 hour piece on a talk show and have been repeating it to my students ever since. On one point, however, I wonder if the effort need always or even ever include feedback. If you study prose, and choose to write like a particular author - nothing can tell you if it works or not - until an audience reads it.
    Critics are one audience, but hardly the audience that matters or is even the best audience. I've particpated in workshops ect - but the end game for me is not feedback from literary critics - that seems to unwittingly feed into the idea that literature is the domain of the mighty and the chosen. Its there, it works or not. My work is my work and it has stature or not.

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