The Race of Art

Imagine if I was in a race with a famous cyclist. Let’s say this cyclist is named Lance Armstrong. If the recent drug charges bother you, let’s call him Jan Ullrich or Eddy Merckx or Séan Kelly. The identity of the cyclist doesn’t matter, just that he’s renown for cycling.

I am not a cyclist. I bike. Occasionally. I go pretty hard once a week for a few hours. I am not a model of human endurance but neither am I a fat slob. I go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week. I have muscles. I do cardio.

Imagine that for this race, The Famous Cyclist got one hour and I got eight hours. Whoever covered the greatest distance would win. I actually think I would have a pretty good chance of beating anyone. With those odds?

The ability and talent and dedication of The Famous Cyclist doesn’t matter when faced with the massive time disadvantage. The Famous Cyclist will lose.

I’ve been thinking about writing in terms of this race. Maybe because I’ve just had twins and my free time is fragmented and skittish. Maybe because I’ve been witnessing the unbelievable work ethic of writers I know, admiring them, and trying to flog myself to write more, and more often.

But if a friend of mine is writing three hours a day, say, and I am writing only one hour a day. Even if I was a genius (which I am not), does anyone think that after three years I would still be more talented or have produced more work than my three-hour-a-day friend?

I have writer friends all over the time spectrum. Some friends who believe themselves to be writers treat writing as a masochistic act and drag themselves to the keyboard once a week. Others go when inspired and log in a few hours a week. Others are the daily workhorses, just trying to get those two hours a day. And then there are the thoroughbreds, putting in six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day.

Now there might be a wide range of talent across that pool. But with that differential in the time, does anyone doubt that the most important factor is not talent, or even luck, or connections, but simply the time spent on the craft?

Put another way: does anyone doubt that the person putting in six hours a day writing will beat out the person putting in one hour a day? It seems obvious when put in those terms, no? I’m not saying there aren’t other factors — there are lots of other factors when it comes to success as a writer — but time seems to be the most important one.

There are thousands of creative writing MFA students graduating every year. They join tens of thousands of students who have already received their MFAs. Add in those who have not gone the MFA route. Add in the established authors. Add in the dilettantes, the journalists, the elderly. You arrive at a staggeringly large number. Now make a spectrum. At the bottom of that spectrum, put the haphazard writers. They write once a week. At the top of that spectrum, put the thoroughbreds, who never miss a day and average six hours a day. Where do you fall?

More importantly, where do your expectations fall? If your expectations correspond to the successes enjoyed by the top end of the spectrum, and yet your work ethic corresponds more to the lower middle half of the spectrum, then you are deceiving yourself and the truth is not in you.

Now some of you are rebelling against such a prosaic description of art. “It’s about the magic inside me,” you say. “It’s about the intangible qualities that I bring to the table.” It’s actually not. Technically it’s not a race, either, but it is a competition for an increasingly small pool of publication spots. If you want to create, you have to motivate. You have to have discipline. You will never achieve anything without putting in the time, and those who actually succeed log a staggeringly high number of hours.

If you want, you can describe time as a virtue. That was you don’t have to say that you’re going after time, per se, which seems to have bland connotations, but that you’re working on perseverance, patience, endurance, discipline. Pick one of these virtues. Bind it to your forehead and write it on the tablet of your heart. This is your virtue, writer. Cultivate it.

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3 thoughts on “The Race of Art

  1. Luke Tennis says:

    Great post. I think I will pick perseverance. Since timing is a factor in publishing, perseverance is even more important. But don’t discount talent and luck. If you are without these, there is something else to consider. To write without worrying at all about publication. To put in those hours because you want to, because the manuscript demands it.

  2. capsman says:

    Aside from Jan Ullrich also being penalized for doping, this is a great post. I have to say, though, I have gone in completely the opposite direction–from chaining myself to my desk to working more or less only when inspired. Most of the short stories I’ve had published (in reputable journals) I wrote in a day or two, barely edited, and sent out. The novel I labored on for a few years became a Frankenstein from putting too much effort into it; the new novel I am working on feels (at this stage) breezy and brilliant.

    So I’m not convinced time really does matter. Hemingway wrote two of his most famous stories–I can’t remember which, but I think “Hills Like White Elephants” was one of them–in a day. My own feeling is that you have to put the time and grind in when you are a younger writer, because that is what it takes to learn the craft, then as you get more experienced, you do need to trust the muse to strike you, or else the fiction just becomes plodding and…forced. The cycling point is great but only goes so far, since the game in fiction is not to beat other cyclists in the same race: it is to invent a whole different sport. And who can you do that when you spend all your time on the bike?

    Thoughts? I agonize over this a lot.

  3. bookfox says:

    @Capsman I think you have to put in your time chained to the desk, to use your phrase, in order to have those inspirational moments. That novel you labored on gave you the ability to write in a fit of inspiration.

    I do agree that writing while forced can end up plodding and that you have to put in your time when you’re young. Yes, the cycling analogy breaks down at a lot of points but I think it’s still true to some degree.

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