Lessons from the first 1,000 hours

Lessons from the first 1,000 hours

I just hit a thousand hours of writing. I know this because, for almost three years now, I’ve tracked every single minute I spent doing it.

To be completely transparent, I started writing four years before I began tracking my time. So 1,000 hours might be a slight underestimate – but probably no more than a couple hundred hours short. Why? Because for those first four years, I spent most of my writing time struggling to put pen to paper. W.R.I.T.I.N.G. became this looming, angry, mythological force. Every day I would ask myself: Why is this so hard? Why can’t I just sit down and write?

Looking back, those years of discomfort may have been a necessary stage. Even if the crushing angst lasted a couple years longer than it needed to, it did eventually force me to confront the root of my paralysis: the fear of writing badly. And finally, I emerged with a healthy fondness for writing badly, which allowed for the consistent writing practice I have today – regular times where I turn my phone off, sit my ass down, and write without judgment.

But again: that discipline took four years to develop.

After that, I started tracking every minute I spent writing. This compulsion was probably the result of a misguided reverence for the 10,000 hour rule, and an obsessive need for a concrete target. But more importantly, tracking my writing time gave me permission to disregard quality and focus on quantity. I knew that the writers I loved had had to slog through years of bad work to get where they are today. I found that at the end of each writing session, even if I hadn’t produced any pages I was proud of, I could always point to the number of hours I’d tracked and feel like I’d accomplished something.

Here are the kinds of activities I track:

  • Typing out a screenplay, short story, poem, blog post, etc.
  • Outlining a project
  • Reading a draft
  • Lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, trying to solve a story problem

Here are the kinds of activities I don’t track:

  • Checking my email
  • Checking my phone
  • Talking about writing
  • Driving to a cafe to write

I believe what I’ve learned over the first thousand hours of focused writing practice (and the preceding four years of angst) can be distilled into three main lessons.

The Lessons

1. Treat it like a second job.

I protect my writing days like nothing else.

For the past several years, I’ve insisted on negotiating whatever day job I have down to three days per week so I can spend the other two weekdays writing. I’m in the insanely fortunate position of being able to do that and pay the bills. Yes, I take a significantly reduced salary as a result – and live much less comfortably than I could – but it’s a sacrifice I’ve been happy (and lucky) to be able to make.

If I didn’t have the privilege of restructuring my workweek, I’d try different ways of carving out time: waking up an hour earlier, going to sleep an hour later, or reserving Thursday nights for writing. Consistent practice, even a few hours a week, adds up.

2. But don’t force it.

I’ve forced myself through awkward negotiations with employers about my writing schedule. I’ve forced myself to have difficult conversations with family and friends about my protected writing time. I’ve forced myself to say “no” to a hundred obligations. I’ve forced myself to turn off my phone during writing blocks, even when it felt selfish, until doing so became second nature. And on some writing days, I still have to force myself out of bed and force myself to sit down at my desk and force myself to open a document.

Despite all that necessary forcing, I’ve learned that what I actually do during the practice shouldn’t be forced.

Well. Sort of. Sometimes I do need to power through a particularly odious part of a writing project just because it needs to get done. A few times, pushing to the finish line has really paid off. But other times the best thing, in retrospect, would’ve been to shelve the project. Because if I’m forcing things too often, it means burnout is lurking around the corner.

Knowing when to forge ahead, and when to let go, is an ongoing learning. After a thousand hours of trial and error, the balance I’ve struck is this: I always enter my writing day with a specific goal in mind, but I’m not a slave to that goal. If I set out to work on a screenplay and my mind keeps wandering to a short story, I allow myself to jump projects. If I’m writing during my writing day, I count it as a win, regardless of the output.

Just a year ago I would’ve rolled my eyes at someone telling me it’s okay to write what you feel like writing. How do you expect to get anything done if you’re constantly switching projects? But because I’m obsessive compulsive by nature, relaxing the reins a bit was a necessary mental shift that has helped stave off burnout ever since.

The more I allow myself to write whatever I feel like writing, rather than what I think I should be writing, the more the practice becomes its own reward.

3. Above all, be present for it.

If I’m devoting time and effort to a lifelong practice, I have to actually show up for it. Not with my body, and not with my mind – but with the real me, the one who lives back there behind everything, who watches it all unfold.

Sitting down to write is not like making a spreadsheet for your boss on Friday afternoon – you can’t hide your lack of enthusiasm behind a functioning finished product. Creative output is not a veil, but a mirror. It reflects you as you are.

I try to be as present as possible during the writing process to give the work the best chance of life. I can’t decide exactly how the thing is going to turn out, but I can at least be there when it’s born.

The next 1,000 hours

Or: “Why is it taking so long to turn this into a career?”

For the most part, I’ve learned to stop obsessing over that question. After a few years of practice, that angry mythological force called W.R.I.T.I.N.G. rarely rears its ugly head – now, it’s just writing. It’s not a measure of my worth, and it’s not the meaning of life. It’s a “craft.” Other crafts include: carpentry, playing the violin, and car repair. Many people are able to find meaning in those activities, even though they may never earn a living at them.

Still, after years of consistent practice, you’d expect to be able to get a job fixing cars.

In my experience with writing, wins are like winds on a calm sea. They come infrequently, and can be subtle enough that I really have to feel for them – but they can keep me moving. If I finish a draft of a screenplay, that can fill my sails for a good six months. If a writer I respect tells me I’m on the “right track,” I can coast on that compliment for at least a year.

And on those days when I’m feeling no wind at all, no motivation, I can at least read the hours on my writing timer and see that it’s higher than it was the last time I checked. Sometimes that’s the sweetest victory of all. And even when it’s not, it’s victory enough.


Appendix: Resources that actually helped

Many great writers would scoff at the notion of reading books about writing. As I am not a great writer, I’ve found studying the craft to be a necessary part of improving. Of the many resources I’ve turned to over the years, a few stand out above the rest.

Books

Videos

Don’t be fooled by the specificity of their subject matter – the following lectures are applicable to all types of writing.

Apps

Want future write-ups delivered to your inbox?