I was reading some old posts of prolific author and blogger Dean Wesley Smith from his blog, and I came across this review / summary he did of a book about some prolific authors. As he noted, some of the authors had over 500, some over 1000 books, or works that counted as books, in print. Granted, many of these were collections of shorter works, or edited anthologies, but the point remains that these authors wrote a lot in their lifetime.
I guess it is no coincidence that many of these names are household names, most of us have heard of them even if we haven’t read their books - L. Ron Hubbard, Barbara Cartland, Isaac Asimov.
I have been reading Originals, by Adam Grant, and he mentions in one of the chapters the following information: Beethoven had only a handful of ‘genius’ level works, out of his output of over 600 compositions. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and dozens of sonnets, but only 5 or 6 are most familiar to us, and deemed his best work. Picasso created an astonishing number (in the thousands) of paintings, sketches and sculptures, but only a few are the most sought after.
So the question is - did they become so successful and famous because they were really good, or were they really good because they were prolific? In other words, does quantity affect quality?
For some reason, this is a discussion my mom and I have very often. Not the specific question of quantity versus quality, but what to do if you aren’t too sure of your quality, or how do you get to better quality? One of my mom’s favorite actors is Amitabh Bachchan (one of mine too), a stalwart in the Indian film industry. He has acted in 100s of films, or at least so it seems. In many he was the leading man, but he has taken supporting roles and performed brief cameos in others. Of those several dozen roles, only a handful leap out when we think of him. Some of his work is truly appalling, clearly roles he took when nothing else was on offer. However, the sum total of his work is what we admire, the fact that he was brilliant in certain roles, even when the rest of the movie had little to commend it.
How did he become brilliant though? Was he just born an exceptional actor? If you have read my book Anyone Can Get An A+ or read many of my other posts, you would know that I believe that most talent is really a measure of skill. Sure you need some innate ability, some aptitude, but more often than not it simply stems from passion, interest and spending hours and hours on some activity while you get better and better. If I acted in a 100 films, I might be a pretty good actor. Of course, there isn’t a guarantee that I would be great, but passable definitely. Enough to create a career, carve a niche. The point is you need to have the discipline and the interest to stick it out over time, in a creative pursuit. And you need a break.
But nowadays, us creatives are lucky. We can create our own breaks. We can write a book and self-publish it. We can take our iPhones and some software, and create our own movie. We can upload that to Youtube, or try to get it shown at festivals. We can rent a space for a night and showcase our photographs, or our artwork. To some extent, we can create our own breaks. The harder part is getting someone to care, to show up, to appreciate our work.
And maybe this is why we need to go for quantity - because as we keep putting our work out there, over time, there is a greater chance that it will get noticed. If I write one book, it might get lost in the sea out there. But if I write 30, the chances are someone will stumble on one, get excited about all the others and maybe read a large number of them. Maybe they will recommend them to a friend, or share their excitement on social media. That’s how you get people to care.
And of course it doesn’t hurt that writing 30 books will transform me as a writer. Perhaps my first or second or even tenth book isn’t too good. But hopefully each one is much better than the other, hopefully I keep learning, and by the time I am at my 20th or 25th, they are pretty good. Good enough to be read by many people and enjoyed. Maybe good enough to be considered for an award, or at the very least, to open up many other opportunities for me, related to the writing.
And this is probably the strategy of anyone smart enough to see the trend. If you keep at it, you will inevitably get better. You will hone your craft and polish your prose and really fall in love with your work, whatever it is. And it won’t matter whether you have the lead role or just a cameo. If you give your best to every part, over time you have a body of work to be proud of. And as Julia Cameron says, you never know, you might find your vein of gold, the one type of role (or genre of writing or style of painting or garment to design) that fits you best, that brings out your personality and ability and talent the best. You never know what you can achieve, given consistency of effort and time. So keep on truckin’.