A couple times readers have written in wondering about how one goes about writing. I’ve always demurred in answering. Everyone’s process is different and there are no rules for writing — other than to write, write, write.
But I was thinking about the process the other day and one of the things that came back to me from a long time ago were the words of Virginia Wolf:
Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.
— Virginia Wolf
If you read my blog you may remember that I have written about the so-called 10,000 hour rule — the idea that if you want to master something — a skill – it takes 10,000 hours of doing it over and over again until you truly have got it down pat. It’s not about muscle memory; it’s about having done a thing so many times that you understand it completely; you have lived through the snags and the problems and overcome them; you have tried the various ways to accomplish something and settled in your own body and mind on what you can do and do it well.
And if you think about it, isn’t the Virginia Wolf quotation just about the same thing — except it refers to language. It takes a thousand books and perhaps a million sentences for you to fell really comfortable with your language; with how you want to phrase an idea, with how you emphasize your point — or choose not to do so.
With my own writing, there are a lot of times when I intentionally stop short of saying what’s really on my mind. I want to leave room for a certain percentage of readers to go beyond my ideas and to draw their own conclusions. If I gave them the answer they’d never do it. Some might say that a great many people would never get to that point, and I should spell things out more completely — but that has never been my point in writing. Anyone beyond myself who reads my words has an invitation to take what I start to a conclusion that they alone may draw. I know that’s not a way to build a great honking readership — but it’s my way and I’m sticking with it.
The idea of reading 1,000 books is really about exposing yourself to as broad a background as you can of ideas and expressions. Every writer is unique. Their ideas may not be new, but their choice of which words follow each other, their cadence, their mood, all of these things are part of what it takes to put your story down on paper. And until the words can flow like water there will always be a struggle to get them down on paper. They don’t flow simply because you have something to say, they flow when you understand your own language and how you as an individual communicate.
10,000 hours, 1,000 books, the idea is the same. There is a point where learning becomes life. Where the story you have to tell is ready to be birthed. Whether fiction or non-fiction, whether long form or blog or haiku, there comes a time when it’s mature, complete, and you are ready to write.