Gladwell’s Outliers is all the rage–a student told me about the book on Tuesday in 2nd period; my fiction professor mentioned it on Tuesday night in class; Ron Silliman mentioned it in his latest blog post. Okay, says me, I’m listening. The idea behind the book is that uber-successful people get really good at whatever they do by spending 10,000 hours doing it. So let’s say I want to become a really good poet…or teacher…or poker player. If I spent 2 hours every day working on one of these goals, it would still take me 13 years and 8 months (give or take) to get to that 10,000 hour mark. Poker is out. A two hour game isn’t realistic, and playing 14 hours a week (2 tournies and a cash game?) would lead to angry wife and troublesome child…unless I taught him…nevermind. I spend 8 hours a day teaching (practicing), 180 days a year. So by the end of this year, I’ll be at 7200 hours. Throw in there my extra reading time and the classes I took to become a teacher, throw in another couple hundred. At this point in my life, I’m 3/4 of the way to becoming a great teacher. That means another 2 or 3 years and I can acheive greatness.
More than a great teacher, I want to be a great writer. Silliman discusses two things important to teaching writing: actually writing and reading. The irony is humorous because he admits spending time in a classroom once a decade, so we have to approach his views as an expert on writing rather than teaching, and experts are not guarenteed to be good teachers (introduce 90% of college professors who stand there and blather for 90 minutes, never bothering to check in with their students during a lecture). I don’t know Ron. He may be a good teacher, but the 10,000 hour thing may suggest excellence hasn’t quite been acheived.
Silliman made another comment that drew all of this together when discussing the need to read in order to be a good reader (two other responses to other issues here and here). Silliman writes (emphasis mine):
This is where I think that Malcolm Gladwell’s gimmicky 10,000 of work to become good at any one thing, whether or not it’s writing, comes into play. You need to understand the range of poetry that you are seeking to become part of – a process that becomes harder each year as the number of contemporary publishing poets grows – and you need to be able to trace the history of this landscape backwards at least 200 years. I would go further than that myself – I’d argue that you need to know enough middle English to reach Chaucer in the original, and really grasp (a deliberately vague term) your own place within this constellation. If you can’t, you haven’t read enough, written enough, thought hard enough.
I agree that reading makes you a better writer–regardless of genre. This challenge that Silliman offers would mean that nobody would be worthy of excellence under the age of 50 (unless you’re in PhD or MFA program, but even then…). This is rather dissappointing for someone like me, who didn’t really figure out a direction until 25 or 26. I think I should be familiar with the entire collection of poetry across the bridge of time, but I would say that that is a lifetime commitment. If I were to walk into my creative writing class and say, “You need to know your place in the spectrum of the last 200 years, so we’re going to read…” they will already be defeated by the mountain before them.
I’ve read a few things of old, a few things of new, and a lot on the in between, and I know I haven’t read enough. But I know that I don’t fit in with the ancients or the Shakespeares. I may never read Chaucer in middle english, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t read enough. I could read for 3 hours a day until the day I die, far surpassing that 10,000 hour marker, and it would make me a master of literature. But what would I miss in writing? In building friendships? In raising my son? In loving my wife? Regardless of what the P-A crowd says, these things inspire writing, poetry, creativity, art, music, etc. Maybe Silliman should include “lived enough” to the list. Then, I may or may not be good at the writing thing, but I’ll have a decent record of the process!