10,000 Hours to Legitimacy: Interview with Krista Suh

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Krista Suh in kindergarten 😀

“They say it takes 10,000 hours of anything to become an expert, whether it’s piano or taekwondo.  I’ve decided to devote my 10,000 hours to writing.” – Krista Suh
                                        .

This week MD chats with 25-year-old writer Krista Suh to ask her, “How does she do it?” We all have creative dreams, but many of us convince ourselves at a young age that we won’t be legit if we follow them. As someone who escaped the pre-med track for a creative career, Krista is as legit as they come. Months of out of college, Krista got her first writing check by selling her feature-length comedy JUST KILL ME NOW as a web series called “Assassins” which debuted on www.comediva.com. Soon after, Krista got accepted into the prestigious FOX Writer’s Initiative for her script “Ivybound”, a one-hour television comedy which FOX later optioned. Since then, she has signed with a manager, won Ashton Kutcher’s contest IdeaJam (and made him laugh once), worked in the writing department for the Primetime Emmys, and she’s given Katie Holmes an Altoid.  Now Krista happily spends her days writing and developing original television pilots. So “How does she do it?” 

When did you begin writing?

Wow, let’s see.  I began writing I suppose in elementary school, but only for assignments.  My first produced work was maybe 4th grade.  A traveling theater group came to our school, and everyone submitted stories, and mine got chosen to be acted out!  So I was about 9?  Unfortunately, I didn’t write much creatively for about 10 years after that.  So my current writing streak probably began shortly after college when it started to dawn on me that this is what I really wanted to do.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be an acrobat, truthfully.  Though if you had asked me as a kid, I would have said something adult-approved, like “doctor.”

Why did you want to be an acrobat?

When I started writing my mentor told me to make a list of my obsessions, what I am naturally drawn to. Acrobatics is something that just puts me in awe, and I don’t know why, at least not the complete reason. In part it’s because there are these people out there, mere mortals, who are pushing the bounds of ordinary life to create something beautiful. And also I wanted to be able to show off like that. It’s an art that you carry with you wherever you go, because it’s in your body, you don’t need any props other than the earth to push off of.

What do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a writer?

Ah.  Well, worst case scenario, I’d be miserable, a graduate from some fancy law school, drooling over the lifestyle of the Hollywood creative types, Oh, and I wouldn’t be able to get a job even with my fancy law degree.  Worst case scenario.If I wasn’t writing but I had followed my heart and explored the creative side of me, then I think I would be an event planner.  That’d be almost harder to tell my folks: I want to be an event planner (vs a writer).  For me, planning an event is a lot like writing a story, except instead of describing a place, you find an actual place to stage the story.  Then you plan out the details of the night, and you’re actually writing the story IN the memory of each guest.  They’re both creative occupations.  Writers create stories out of words.  Event planners create memories out of logistics and details.

How did you start writing?

I’ve always loved writing, have always loved reading, but for the longest time didn’t have the audacity to just WRITE.  I would read great books and not really understand that there was a person behind that book.  I circled around my profession for a while.  I wrote for the college newspaper. I became editor-in-chief.  When I wrote essays for seminars, I hungered for any sort of appreciation for my writing.  And finally, (after a lot of soul-searching and internal house cleaning of the mind) I just let myself.  I allowed myself to write.  And there were lots of fits and starts, but slowly I’m approaching a lifelong routine of writing every single day.

When did you first self-identify as a writer?

I don’t think I self-identified as a writer until much later.  I knew I could write excellent dry academic papers, but I was afraid I lacked the fire for “real” writing – which for me was writing fiction.  I also knew I was an excellent editor, I could delve in, massage, or totally rewrite someone’s work, and at the end it was in publishable standards yet retained the original writer’s voice.  I’ve edited articles where a huge number of changes were made, but the writer didn’t even notice.  I think I self-identified as a writer around age 23. It was around that time I sold my first 2 pieces of work, one to a production company and one to FOX.  That was extremely good validation for me.  Though honestly, I’d hope that I’d have had the courage to call myself a writer with or without that external validation.  However, it helped.

How do you carve out time from all the daily hustle and bustle for your craft?

It’s hard.  It’s probably the hardest part of the job.  You would be amazed at the stuff that I find myself doing instead of writing.  It’s shameful.  I guess the first step is to be aware of it.  Aware that online shopping for the perfect bookends might actually be a manifestation of my fear of not being a good enough writer, and not because I really believe that once I have the perfect bookends my life will be perfect.  (But at least my shelves look great!)

Your vices come out in stark relief when you try to write.  Online shopping, physical shopping, planning your dream vacation/home/wedding, a sudden urge to be domestic and cook and clean, even exercising (though writing usually wins out over that one).  I find that when I’m obsessing about a boy in a very un-Zen-like, unenlightened, teenagerly way, it’s usually because I’m scared of actually writing, and not because the boy is actually that cute.

So you need to be aware.  But what do you actually do?  It differs for everyone.  Don’t be afraid to resort to “cheap tricks.”  You might feel like you’re mature enough to work with wifi on, but maybe you’re not, and that’s OK.  Turn it off, and don’t guilt yourself over your weakness.  It’s OK to treat yourself like a kid, one without a lot of willpower.  I oftentimes hide my browser icons and the dock on my macbook, just so if I really want to go online, it takes an extra 3 steps to open a webpage, instead of a simple click.  I also sometimes set a deadline with a friend.  I’ll ask a trusted friend to read my work at a certain time, like 8pm, and then I’ll ask her to get back to me with her thoughts at 9pm, so a really quick turnaround.  I do this because I’ve found that I adhere to this deadline more, when I know that she has cleared this specific block of time for me, and that I would be screwing over her schedule if I didn’t get it in on time.  When there’s no specific block of time for the turnaround, you don’t send in the work at the agreed upon time. Instead, you might say to yourself, “Oh, she’s not going to read it right away anyway, I might as well tinker with this part, she’ll understand, or I might as well write that section later,” etc.  Writing has to be made a habit, and habits take time and sometimes a little trickery to set in place.  Writing morning pages was hard to make a habit, but I found that the mundane step of keeping a notebook and pen next to my bed helped me enormously in setting the habit of writing in the morning.  It’s a logistical, kind of obvious thing to do, but sometimes when we chase after a big goal “I want to be a writer!” we forget to do the little things to get us there, like keeping a pen handy.

How have “morning pages” affected your work?

Morning pages is an exercise taken out of Julia Cameron’s bag of tricks (she talks about this in The Artist’s Way and in many of her books).  Morning pages have been huge for me.  You write 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness writing each morning.  I’ve been doing it for almost 5 years now.  It’s a way to check in with myself, and see what keeps popping up, what might need attending to.  It’s also just a great place to vent.  And even after I’ve done my 3 pages in the morning, for the rest of the day, it’s comforting to know that the notebook is not too far away, should I need to sound off some more.  It’s more for my own mental health which then affects my work in a positive way.

I remember how impressed I was when you showed me your writing grid, on which every colored-in square represented so many hours of writing.

The grid is something I’ve been doing just over a year now, charting my hours of writing – and only for creative writing, not for journaling, etc, I found that I had to make the distinction otherwise I’d journal forever to evade writing.  This has been helpful to me in that it breaks down this huge shifty goal of “I want to be the best writer ever” to workable units of time.  The idea being, there are many ways to be a great writer, but all of them include putting time in.  And not every minute is full of glorious story breakthroughs and soulful character epiphanies, in fact, most of it is tedious and discouraging.  But I find that when I chart it, it makes writing less mysterious and more of an attainable work goal.  They say it takes 10,000 hours of anything to become an expert, whether it’s piano, taekwondo, etc.  I’ve decided to devote my 10,000 hours to writing.  If you’re writing like you would work at a 9-5 full-time job–say that’s 40 hours a week, 50 weeks out of the year–that’s 5 years of work toward becoming an expert.  It’s not quite accurate in that very few people can write (and really write, not just stare out the window but count being at your desk as writing) 8 hours a day 5 days a week Monday through Friday.  The actual time spent writing in a long stretch like that is actually fairly little, just like the actual amount of work done in the day of a worker bee’s life in the office is actually very little.  So it would be more than 5 years.  A number I hear a lot, in a lot of disciplines, is 7 years (to become an expert at something).

The grid system has affected my working habits in that I now write every single day without fail.  It’s definitely something I had to work up to, and I’m still working on upping the daily minimum (my goal is to average 4 hours a day).  It’s progress from before when I would write for 10 hour days for a few days, then not write for what feels like weeks.  This makes me face the page at least once a day so I’m never too far from writing.  Which keeps me sane(r).

Your Writing Grid

Writing Grid Developed by Krista Suh. Print me. Fill me in. Each sheet represents 200 hours divided into 15 minute units. The number of hours or days is shown in every fourth column. You need 50 completed sheets to reach 10,000 hours of expertise in whichever craft you choose.

How has your work changed over time?

It’s funny, I think at first I was resistant to the idea of writing too close to home, of using my own experiences too much.  I thought I would get more respect as a “real” writer if I wrote something shockingly way out of my experience like something set in 17th century Congo.  Ironically, it was only when I let myself write a very autobiographical story that I got more comfortable writing about anything, whether it was close or far from my actual day-to-day life.  Now I don’t really look at things from a “did I experience this personally in my life?  Am I an expert on this?” point of view, because when you care about your characters, you do experience everything they do.

To learn more about Krista Suh and her work check out www.kristasuh.com. And be sure to print out Your Writing Grid to document the time you dedicate to perfecting your craft. Can you put in 15 minutes toward your art today? Can you fill in 1 square today? If so, GREAT job!

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3 thoughts on “10,000 Hours to Legitimacy: Interview with Krista Suh

  1. […] just average, whether it’s writing, drawing, a sport or whatever. J:  I strongly believe in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell speaks about in Outliers, so respect and make time for your creativity now! […]

  2. […] written briefly about how the 10,000 hours rule is overrated. When I read that I found it a little shocking, especially since the concept of 10,000 […]

  3. […] comedy to dissect the nuances of Being an Artist. If you like how her mind words, check out her interview with us and her MD project on becoming a authorized artist, the Legit […]

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