The idea that a writer must wait for inspiration is one I hear often, especially now that I mentor new writers, and it seems always to come as a shock to them when I tell them that writing—like any other skill—requires an apprenticeship. I don’t know the science behind it, but that old idea, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, which suggests that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any new skill, rings true for me. I am estimating these numbers, but my own apprenticeship was even more time-consuming and went something like this:
20 years of reading for an hour a day = 7,300 hours
12 years of writing for an hour a day = 4,380 hours
7 years of studying craft, working towards understanding human psychology, or getting therapy myself = 2,555 hours
Total: 14,235 hours to get my work to a standard where I could produce a publishable work: my debut memoir The Girls. (To be clear: it feels like I’m now at the baseline stage of having some proficiency but that the real learning is still to come.)
This seems like a lot when written out like this, but I’d argue that my numbers aren’t particularly unusual. When I signed with my agent—Jane Novak—in 2017, two close friends simultaneously signed with their agents. One had been writing for 30 years—with two kids, a husband and a non-writing career interspersed between; the other for 20 years—with a move across continents, two kids, and a range of health challenges.
My point is not to scare anyone with such numbers—indeed, there are many examples of people publishing debut books long before these kinds of years have stacked up—but more so to suggest that waiting for inspiration to strike doesn’t make much sense when that means you won’t put solid daily work in. The quickest way to shrink how long it is between wanting to become a writer and publishing a debut work, I believe, is a daily practice.
I have been studying Muay Thai for one year and one month, now. I am working towards my first fight and am constantly hungry for technical instruction. The gym I train at is small, and it is easy to see where the members’ different skill levels are at. The embarrassment I feel when I show up there at four each afternoon, knowing that I suck, reminds me of the early years of my writing apprenticeship. But I also know now that the only way to stop sucking is to continue showing up.
In the early years, such embarrassment was the thing that prevented me from writing every day. Embarrassment that resulted from my inability to understand that it was completely normal that my work was going to suck for a while and that that had no bearing on the quality of my work in the future (provided I was willing to show up—daily, I learnt with time).
The anxiety of those early years of my own writing apprenticeship was so severe that I can still picture what it felt like in my body. I remember renting a cheap room by The Ganges in Varanasi, India, and covering a bed sheet with Post-It notes to map out the structure of my memoir. I would fold the sheet up and take it with me as I moved cities with my backpack, then roll it out across the floor in each new room I took so I could pick-up where I left off. And I remember calling my mother, in tears, distraught at how intense my anxiety was, and my frustration that I couldn’t figure out how to write well. Not even the monkeys that would sit just outside my open window could soothe me.
There was another time, a few years later, when I was staying with my then-partner. He was at work and I was trying to begin a 500-word short story I was required to write for a university class. I had been waiting all week for inspiration and when it hadn’t come, I found myself with less than 24 hours to write something. The anxiety was so high I couldn’t still my mind enough to sit down. I went through my partner’s kitchen cupboards until I found an old bottle of some liquor and took two shots to silence my brain. Then, having shut down some of the self-doubt, I spewed out a first draft.
One of the problems with waiting for inspiration to strike is that then every writing session matters too much. If you’re only ‘inspired’ enough to produce 500 words that whole week while, say, you’re writing a novel, you’re likely to feel that you need those 500 words to be really fucking good. But writing from such a tense place of needing a first draft to be ‘good’ has led me to trying to control the work, thus writing from the top layer of my brain, rather than sinking into the gut. The gut-level work can happen only when I shrink my writing practice into something habitual that I do first thing each morning, before the rest of my day starts. Because such regular writing means I end up producing three to five thousand words each week—I ‘vomit’ out 500 to 1,000 words in sixty or ninety minutes each morning when in first draft mode— I can relax into the process. It no longer matters if many of my words are shit; I have plenty more to work with.
Chloe Higgins writes about the things she’s afraid of: death, sex, love, and how she feels about her mother. The Girls, a memoir of family, grief and sexuality, is her debut and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. It was also shortlisted for the 2020 National Biography Award. She is the Director of Wollongong Writers Festival and works as a writing mentor helping students develop a daily writing practice. She chronicles her writing process via IGTV on Instagram @chloemareehiggins