Victorian Gamification and Spasmodic Hercules
I read something very interesting the other day about Anthony Trollope. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t either but a quick trip to Wikipedia revealed to me that he was one of the most famous writers of the Victorian age. He was popular and had critical acclaim while he was still living. Beyond that he was also an incredibly prolific writer. He wrote forty-seven novels, forty-four short stories, eighteen nonfiction books, and two plays. This massive pile of work was written while he held down a full time job with the British Postal Service. How the heck did he do it? Was he a genius? Did words pour forth from his pen fully formed, inspiration striking at every moment? Well of course not. Still we’d have to assume that he was something special if it wasn’t for the fact that he explained exactly how it was done in his autobiography, which was published after his death.
I don’t have a copy of his actual autobiography, but I ran into this information in Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book Willpower. Here’s what they say;
“Anthony Trollope believed it unnecessary—and inadvisable—to write for more than three hours a day…He would rise at five-thirty, fortify himself with coffee, and spend a half-hour reading the previous day’s work to get himself in the right voice. Then he would write for two and a half hours, monitoring the time with a watch placed on the table. He forced himself to produce one page of 250 words every quarter hour…At this rate he could produce 2,500 words before breakfast. He didn’t expect to do so every single day—sometimes there were business obligations or fox hunts—but he made sure each week to meet a goal. For each of his novels, he would draw up a working schedule, typically planning for 10,000 words a week, and then keep a diary.”
When this process was posthumously revealed he lost a lot of favor in the sight of British critics. It seemed to them to be utterly repugnant to schedule writing. Inspiration does not follow a schedule after all. The artistic Muse does not follow anyone’s timetable. But I think there is a great deal to be said for Trollope’s method. Most writers sit around and write when inspiration strikes, or when the “creative juices are flowing”. I think this is a crutch and an excuse to put off writing. The perfect moment for writing will only come once in a blue moon; in the meantime sitting around on your hands will not make you a better writer. Trollope wrote 10.000 words a week, whether he felt like it or not, and he was a bestseller. He taught himself to make the creative juices flow. It’s not the most talented writers who succeed but the writers who actually go out there and start writing. Trollope concurred: “I have been told that such appliances (scheduled writing) are beneath the notice of a man of genius. I have never fancied myself to be a man of genius, but had I been so I think I might well have subjected myself to these trammels. Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
Want to know something else I found fascinating? Every day Trollope wrote down the number of pages he had written “so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.” It reminds me a great deal of 750 words. I always was ashamed when I’d log on and see I hadn’t written anything in three days, and it would spur me on try and write more consistently. Trollope created the same effect by making goals for himself. He wrote “There has been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”
Setting arbitrary goals and keeping score? Sounds like gamification to me, even it is Victorian. I too have my own rule that would be a “blister to my eye” if broken; posting something every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So far I’ve only failed at that once. When I get around to writing a novel I’m definitely going to set weekly goals for myself. The last novel I started hasn’t been touched in four years now. You know why? Because I was waiting for a burst of “inspiration” before I started the next chapter. Inspiration is fickle; goals aren’t. Keep that in mind no matter what project you’re working on.