The Long and the Short of It

Back in May, I mentioned I’d been taking drawing lessons from Ana Hine on Patreon. The lessons are still going on, and I’m slowly learning different techniques to use in my work.

Parallel to this, I’ve been taking part in online life drawing classes. At the beginning, the model poses for three minutes as a warmup exercise before moving onto 10- and 20-minute poses.

I felt defeated before I’d even started: three minutes simply wasn’t long enough for me to make a decent attempt. That’s about as long as it takes to read this post twice over, according to http://readtime.eu/. What’s more, I spoke to artists who not only liked these short poses, but sometimes preferred them.

But then I began to make a comparison with the poetry I write, specifically the clerihew form. I’ve written these for so long that it’s now relatively simple to pen an original one on the spot. For instance, my personal trainer asks me to send a food and exercise report every evening, and I always include one with the e-mail.

I reasoned that if these three-minute poses were as simple to some artists as clerihews are to me, then there must be some value in persisting with them.

With Ana’s help, I’ve been drawing people passing in the street or sketching characters from a film without pressing Pause. One day, I aim to churn these out as quickly as those clerihews.

Carving Out the Time to Write – and to Read

On Christmas Eve, we explored the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field.

It’s a concept I’m still thinking about five weeks on, so I’ve been conducting a couple of unscientific experiments about increasing the time available for writing – and indeed reading, which is almost as important for an author.

As many mornings as possible, I go for a half-hour walk around the local park. I’m also a frequent radio listener, so I often take my pocket-sized DAB receiver with me. I use it when I walk other places, and occasionally at work when it’s quiet.

For five weeks, I’ve replaced that radio listening with educational podcasts; the subjects covered have not been writing-related, as I’m already familar with that.

Similary, I also have two 15-minute breaks per day. To increase my reading time, I’ve started setting my watch to beep after ten minutes, during which time I concentrate on my book. When time is up, I then finish at the next convenient break, usually the end of the current paragraph or page.

By doing this consistently, I’ve now clocked up an estimated 100 hours of learning in just over a month: that’s already one percent of the 10,000 aformentioned hours.

If I were a beginner writer, I could replace the walks with audiobooks, and replace the reading with writing, and I’d be on my way to becoming better at what I enjoy. There is usually time to be carved out if you look for it.

10,000 Hours of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field. There is an excellent introduction to the theory on ReviseSociology with reference to figures including The Beatles and Bill Gates.

Note that the word ‘expert’ is probably not the most accurate one in all fields. However, let’s stick with the term for the purposes of this entry so as not to overshadow the broader point it makes.

It seems redundant to say that 10,000 hours is a considerable length of time. Think back to what you were doing on Hallowe’en in 2018. The period that has elapsed since then is approximately 10,000 hours.

Realistically, it’s going to take longer than that to clock up the magic number. Assume you work on something for eight hours a day on five days per week, giving a 40-hour work week. Then, for argument’s sake, multiply that by 50 to represent the weeks worked in a year. That gives a round figure of 2,000 hours per annum. Now repeat that five times.

I’ve been writing since 2010, and I don’t rely on it for an income. Instead, I have an office job that offers flexible working hours, allowing me to devote extra time to writing where necessary.

I’ve probably served my 10,000 hours of practice since 2010. It doesn’t mean I know everything – far from it – and neither does it mean I stop learning. But I do feel I’ve had quality practice.

When I was a student in the early 2000s, I had a flatmate who would play the opening bars of In The Shadows by The Rasmus over and over again on his electric guitar. I didn’t live with him for longer than six weeks, but he never improved in that time, probably because he didn’t approact the problem from another angle.

As I say, I’m still learning, and I found out only this year that varying your practice rather than merely repeating an action can help you learn a skill up to twice as quickly. In a writing context, this might mean using a pencil instead of a keyboard, focussing on description rather than dialogue, or changing the time of day when you write.

It’s also important to invite feedback if you wish to improve. Particularly in poetry, I read a lot of work that has potential, but would need to be trimmed or otherwise refined to make it sparkle.

Don’t forget there are many milestones on the way to 10,000 hours, no matter what your field. Just 10 hours is usually long enough to read up on the history and theory of your chosen field, while a language learner probably knows enough after 100 hours to hold a reasonable conversation. And how could you possibly be bad at snooker after 1,000 games?

Above all, probably the most important part of is to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s usually possible to tell whether someone has enjoyed writing: the words seem to pop off the page and carry the reader along. You don’t need 10,000 hours to have a good time.

Serving Your 10,000 Hours

There’s a much-quoted theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make you an expert in anything. While the notion of becoming an expert by this method has been debated for nearly 25 years, it is true that quality practice makes you better at what you do.

If you’re a long-term reader – and there must be one or two of you out there – you know I’m upfront about not being a lifelong writer. I started to pen fiction seven years ago at the age of 26; my last creative writing before then was done at high school, at which time I was more interested in music and computing. I’d entered my thirties before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet.

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...
Creative writing class-fine arts center (402690951) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the purposes of this entry, let’s convert the 10,000-hour theory to more manageable figures. It’s near-impossible to calculate accurately, but let’s say I practised my writing for two hours every day. If we enter that into the 10,000 Hours Calculator, it gives me a figure of 13.7 years. Eight hours devoted to my field per day brings that down to 3.4 years.

By this measure, I’m not convinced I’ve reached 10,000 hours yet, but does it matter?

As I started relatively late, I used to believe I’d forever be catching up with more established writers. These days, however, I lean toward the view that once you’ve practised for a certain length of time, the gap begins to close. The writer who’s done it for two years will know far more than the one who started 12 months previously. Yet when you’ve written for five years, say, you’ll probably have more in common with someone who’s written for 20 years than two.

The message here, of course, is not to stop practising once you’ve been at it for two decades. On the contrary, the more a relative newbie learns, the narrower the gulf will be between their knowledge and those with more experience. Every day is a schoolday.