My sister-in-law sent me a link the other day. It was an article about the research of a well-known psychologist, Anders Ericsson, who believes that given a certain basic level of talent, the main difference between people being ordinary or high-achievers in almost any field – music, chess, writing, even athletics – is the hours of learning and practice they put in. Talent doesn’t figure nearly as highly as you would think, according to the large studies he has analysed. The key to success is persistence. Not just mindless repetition though. The time has to be used for learning, finding ways to improve, taking new information on board, mastering each new skill. Spending hours and hours, week after week, year after year.
I found this quite cheering. Not so much the fact that I’ve obviously still got years to go before I might become a terrific writer. More that it’s potentially possible – I could become really good. Success is not just for those special writers who were born gifted, it’s not necessarily out of my reach. According to this scientist, unless I genuinely have zero aptitude for writing, I can be good at this. If I just put in the hard work, if I keep going despite all the rejection emails and the temptation of Facebook and the constant desire to bake chocolate chip cookies, I have a great chance of becoming a skilled writer. We all do – all of us who love words, the hapless scribblers of the world. Woo hoo!
When I worked as a GP, I was painfully aware that I wasn’t the smartest doctor in town. I didn’t know the causes of raised calcium off by heart and I had to look up drugs sometimes because I couldn’t remember which was which. I don’t know if I ever fully understood how the kidneys worked, but luckily that wasn’t really relevant to day-to-day practice. I did know how to work hard, though. How to read around patient cases, and call pathologists for advice. How to badger hospital outpatient departments to get my patients seen promptly. How to spend time with my patients and examine them fully and not rush them out the door. I knew how to put in the time required.
Now, trying to establish myself as a writer, that same determination is still with me. It flags sometimes, especially when it’s been a long time since any positive news (Like right now. Around ten months. Not that I’m counting). But I remind myself that the writers who don’t succeed aren’t necessarily the ones without the requisite talent – they’re also the ones who stopped writing. The ones who quit.
So after each ‘thanks but no thanks’ email I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, and go back to putting words on the page. One foot in front of the other. Woof.