Overnight success

A few years back I was listening to a radio interview of a musician who’d just made it big, and the DJ asked her, “So how does it feel to be an overnight success?”

She laughed. “People keep saying that and I have to keep telling them my overnight success took 13 years of really hard work.” She went on to say that her “secret” was to learn to keep working through disappointment and rejection, to keep focused on her love for the music she was creating.

I use her words for encouragement and motivation in my writing life, often—Don’t give up, Ev. Keep writing. You love it and you’re getting better and better. Persist, persist, persist!

Just before starting to write this post, I plugged overnight success took 13 years into Google and was amazed by how many hits it got. Apparently this long arrival of “overnight success” is the rule not the exception—10 years, 13 years, 15 years, 20 years, 32 years—all those were referred to as overnight successes, triumphs, sensations. . . .

And it makes sense. The Arts used to be referred to as Disciplines, a name that better reflects the nature of creative pursuits. I also like referring to writing as a craft, because of the word’s connotations of work, practice, honing, refining . . .

Then just last week, my attention was pointed to an article from August 2006’s Scientific American, “The Expert Mind” by Philip E. Ross. He makes a fascinating, well-supported argument for the idea that “effortful” study and motivation are far larger contributors to success in academic and artistic fields than innate ability.

Here are just two of the quotes that really struck me:

“The 10-year rule [coined by Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University] states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labour to master any field.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

“At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

As I am often dubious about my talent, I find great hope in the studies that Ross references. I love all things word and story related, yes. And sometimes I think I have a modicum of talent, maybe. But I know too many people whose natural talent for storytelling exceeds mine to the point that I should have given up long ago if mastery and success were purely talent-based.

What I do possess, however, is tenacity. I’m stubborn. Always have been—childhood pictures prove me out: mini-Ev, all of four-years-old, brow furrowed obstinately, jaw jutting in firm commitment to my focus. And I have a strong work ethic (my euphemism for obsession ;-)).

But even importantly, I find joy and challenge (yes, even with the frustration!) in the learning, in the toil, in the striving to say it better, be more evocative, be more honest.

There’s a small, weird part of me that knows success as the world calls it won’t be my idea of success at all. The point of writing for me, the fun, is the growth, the power of developing writing muscle, and (I’m sorry, it’s the worst cliché!) the journey . . .

I’ve been writing seriously, working on my craft, for just over ten years. Do I hope to see my novels in print soon? Absolutely. I want to share my stories, to give (hopefully) a bit of what so many others have given to me through their carefully scribed words and thoughts. But when “it” has happened, when I have a book or ten out there, will I think I’ve arrived? Nope. I hope to be the kind of writer whose best work is always yet to come.

So here’s to the work and to overnight successes for us all—be they tomorrow, ten years, or even more from now.

Happy writing,