Striving for Mastery

Someone said that mastery of (any?) skill is reached at ten thousand hours, and this seems to have been accepted as a general guideline. I wonder where I am on the mastery scale for writing? How much longer do I have to go? What happens once I reach mastery? Is it like the scene at the end of Highlander when lighting shoots out of my mouth and all the windows around me shatter? Every word I put down on paper from then on is carved into tablets, written in gold? What will my title be? I’m also pretty good at putting bait on the end of a fishing hook, but I don’t want to think about what my title would be after reaching mastery in that skill. At the end of the day I’m not taking this ten thousand hour thing too seriously, as I’m sure it’s possible to be better than ninety-nine percent of people at a given skill in a much shorter period of time. Still, it’s fun to think about where I stand.

Is there a mastery for writing in general? Maybe so, but if would it be fair to say I’m a master at writing fiction, if eighty percent of what I’ve written are random thoughts in a journal? Probably not. For now let’s assume there’s a general mastery for writing. That means I can add up all the journals and non-fiction accounts of things I’ve written since I started writing as a teen? (This brings up another good question: is it fair to include a cumulative total if the training toward mastery is not done sequentially. In golf, for example, I know that taking a year off and starting again is more or less like starting at a beginner level. I wonder if the same is true for writing, if I took a few years off?)

What counts as an hour of writing anyway? Is “writing” only the action I’m performing at the moment, or does it include the many hours of revision that is often involved in creating a published work? Let’s say it includes revision hours, too.

So assuming the ten thousand hours towards mastery does not have to be day-to-day consecutive, and it can be any writing at all, that means I can include all the notebooks I filled with plots for D&D adventures while hanging out in my mom’s basement as a kid. It includes all the short stories and papers I wrote in college, all the journals and letters and anything that involved crafting sentences for others to read. I’m not going to include emails and birthday cards. That seems to be pushing it too far. Looking back twenty years would result in a vague estimate. It might be helpful to look at more recent years first. On average I’ve put more quality words on paper in my last eight years in Japan than any other time of my life. I’ll start with total word count, and then try to work out some way of measuring hours of writing from that.

Forty essays in the theme of “Leisure Maximus” for a total of forty thousand words. (Funny how that worked out to exactly one thousand words per essay.)

Twenty thousand words on a “Brief History of Economic Me” and related essays.

Seventy thousand words on the Family journal.

Forty plus flash fiction and short stories for a total of fifty thousand words.

One hundred and fifty thousand words on the novel Tokyo Green. (Minimum! Again this is a rough estimate. The original manuscript was one hundred and thirty thousand words. The final product was ninety thousand words. There were at least twenty thousand words of notes, character sketches and world-building. And there were scenes rewritten and others written from scratch during revision. So how to arrive at a total here?)

Sixty thousand words of two unfinished novel manuscripts.

Two hundred and fifty thousand words of notebook “doodling”. I estimate a minimum of five hundred words per day written in my notebook on the train, and I’ve made the round-trip commute over two thousand times. This comes to one million words, but much of this doodling went into the journals and stories mentioned above, so I won’t count it twice.

This comes to six hundred and eighty thousand words.

Does it make sense to get a words-per-hour total from this?

Again, I’m trying to estimate time spent on the craft, and the above words represent the words in their final form. Certainly journaling and doodling takes much less time than writing good fiction. There’s no way I can make this exact, but I’ll try to be fair.

After thinking about it lunch, I decided on one thousand words per hour for journaling, doodling, and unfinished manuscripts; and two hundred words per hour for finished essays and works of fiction. I can spend up to ten hours crafting a five hundred word flash fiction story to perfection, but can get through many more words per hour writing and revising a longer work. Two hundred seemed fair. So that’s three hundred and eighty thousand words at one thousand words per hour, and three hundred thousand words at two hundred words per hour, for a grand total of three thousand three hundred and eighty hours of writing in eight years. This is close to my original ballpark figure of thirty five hundred hours, which averages to a little more than an hour per day writing over the course of eight years.

How many hours did I write before arriving in Japan, dating all the way back to my junior high school years? Who knows? I’d guess at least as much, maybe less. Let’s say twenty-five hundred hours as a conservative estimate. So maybe I’ve clocked six thousand hours of writing time in my life. I can wait to see what happens when I break ten grand.