There was this idea that circulated a while back about the 10,000 hour rule. It said that, to become a master of something, you had to put in 10,000 hours of practice. I’ve never really subscribed to that idea. While I absolutely agree that we get better at things the more we do them, if you practice doing something poorly, you’re only going to get better at doing it poorly. However, my bigger gripe with the idea is this term mastery.
It’s always been a question in my mind: at what point does a creative professional claim mastery? Because it’s not like a language. I’ve been trying to master Spanish for decades, but probably never will until I go live in Ecuador for a while. When I can speak easily, without having to translate every damn word in my head before I speak, I will consider that mastery (and even that is a pretty basic level of mastery). But with writing? By what metrics could I ever begin to measure mastery?
I was thrilled to open the most recent Poets & Writers to see an article that Carl Phillips summed up my own thinking just beautifully with this passage:
To be absolutely upfront about it: I don’t believe in mastery when it comes to art, any more than I do when it comes to a relationship with another person. In both instances, the relationship— between two people, between art and maker— is symbiotic and organic, ever-changing, on both sides, so how can there ever be mastery of what by definition never loses the ability to surprise, to change in ways that we can’t predict? This is why I’ve always described a writing career as a lifelong apprenticeship to what can never be fully mastered, even as the artistic impulse is an impulse toward mastery—that is, toward what only exist abstractly.Carl Phillips
I love that he compares an artist’s relationship with art to a person’s relationship with another person. It’s a perfect metaphor. Having been in a relationship with my husband for 21 years now, I can absolutely attest to how things change. There is no mastery here. Only a blind groping toward happiness with the best of intentions.
I approach my writing in the same way. I never want to feel that I absolutely know what I’m doing. With every new project I want to be thinking: this will be awesome if I can pull it off. I want to be a student of writing for as long as I live, not just taking classes and reading books on writing, but also allowing myself to get bowled over by beautiful language, to stop and go back to read a passage again and again to understand how the author captured the cadence of it, or evoked the imagery, or made me laugh. Its fucking magic, the written word.
So yeah, forget mastery and instead commit to exploration. Always be learning. Always be curious. Even if you never get very good, you’ll have a lot of fun.
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