Thursday, April 2, 2009


Sometimes, against all odds, a much-ballyhooed best-seller turns out to be a really excellent book. That was certainly the case with last year’s Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink.

Gladwell advances the 10,000 hour theory of “overnight success.” His thesis recalls the “99% perspiration” theory of genius. But surely, one would think, that rule would not apply to prodigies like Mozart or Bill Gates, or cultural phenomena like the invasion of the Beatles. But it does, as Gladwell convincingly demonstrates. The early chapters of these and other success stories reveal the phenoms-to-be endlessly perfecting their various crafts, so all were primed when great opportunities came their way.

It works that way with successful writers, too. Not much any of us can do about our shares of talent and opportunity, but intensive, motivated work on our chosen craft is within daily reach.

I always figured I’d be a successful writer. My father was a screenwriter, my brother a successful TV comedy writer. I thought I was smarter than both. But I didn’t work half as hard as either. In fact, during my twenties, I hardly worked at it at all.

“If you want to be a writer,” an older and wiser friend told me one day, “then write. Stop reading so much. Every single day you should produce five to twenty pages, single-spaced, on anything at all, before you open a book. Every single day, without fail. You’ve got everything coming in, in terms of your brain, nothing going out. All impressions, no expression. You've got to reverse the flow.”

It was basically the application-of-the-seat-of-one’s-pants-to-the-typing-chair rule. I knew my friend was right. Fitfully, I started. Began filling boxes with false starts, fragmentary essays, aborted short stories, unfinished novels. (I couldn’t plot, but more about that in another post.)

I’d finally begun my apprenticeship in earnest. Like the Beatles, according to Gladwell, playing 7-8 hour sets, 7 nights a week at clubs in Hamburg, Germany:

"All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. ... Most bands today don't perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart."

"Don’t worry about quality,” my wise friend counseled. “Concentrate on quantity. And don’t miss a day.”

Years later I came across a French saying on this point: "If you abandon art for one day, she will abandon you for three." (Quoted by Catherine Drinker Bowen: Discipline and Reward: A Writer's Life.) Horowitz or Artur Rubinstein or one of those keyboard kommandos is supposed to have said: "If I miss a day of practice, I can tell it. If I miss two days, the critics can tell it. If I miss three days, the postman can tell it."

But my favorite example of this kind of grueling apprenticeship was related by one of my favorite writers, the late great John D. MacDonald. He returned from World War II determined to become a writer, based on the sale of one short story (submitted while he was overseas, without his knowledge, by his wife):

"During the winter of 1945-46, in four months--October, November, December and January--I worked 12 and 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and completed 800,000 words of typed manuscript. In February I sold a second story after months of keeping at least 30 stories in the mail to the magazines at all times. I had papered most of my small workroom with form rejection slips, and I painted them out when at last they began to really depress me. I lost 20 pounds. Relatives and friends discussed John's 'severe readjustment problems.' In short-story format I wrote the equivalent of 10 full-length books in four months. Motivation was so overwhelming, I compressed years of learning into a brief time.

“By the end of 1946 we could just barely live on the income from writing. In 1947 extreme financial pressures were eased… It is the memory of the amount of work it took to learn my trade that oftentimes makes me less than tolerant with the stranger who says earnestly, as though we share something special, 'You know, I've always wanted to write!'" (quoted in Maybe You Should Write a Book, by Ralph Daigh, p. 137, and John D. MacDonald’s House Guests, p. 32)

MacDonald became a best-selling writer, admired especially by fellow writers, but never lost his work ethic. Many years later, at the top of his game, he finally agreed to his publisher’s repeated requests to produce a series character. He wrote and discarded two full-length novels before he felt he had hit his stride with Travis McGee.

How much did you write today?