Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion, and Writing

Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion, and Writing

I read Runner’s World religiously. I think I got my subscription in the previous century, when I toyed with participating in the local triathlon. I wasn’t running then; I was swimming and biking to stay in shape. I subscribed to some swimming and cycling magazines as well, but those magazines didn’t hold my attention.

Runner’s World did, partly because it’s an exceptionally well-written, well-edited magazine. It’s not just a collection of notes about a sport I’m peripherally involved in.

Over the years, I had health issues that made swimming difficult and I got a second bike injury. I still have surgery occasionally because of my first bike accident at age 9. The second was a warning shot across the bow. If everything ran in threes, the third accident wouldn’t cause an injury; it would kill me.

So I started walking. Then, I added in running. I can’t tell you why, exactly, especially since I used to tell people I would never do it. Now, I run five times per week—or, in reality, I’m working my way back to that after the car incident of a few weeks ago. (Injury recovery: such fun.)

There’s something about running that’s kinda cool. People cheer you on. From a very drunk woman who stood in the doorway of her house and cheered me on like I was leading a race (maybe she saw 3 of me) to the occasional tourist who gives me a thumbs-up, people generally support what I’m doing…which I find really weird. It’s taken a while to accept that this is part of the running experience. No one cheered me on when I swam or rode my bike. No one gave me a thumbs-up when I got on the treadmill at the gym. Instead, in those instances, other exercisers and I would pretend that others didn’t exist.

One particularly cloudy day a month ago, a runner—sweat-covered, going much faster than I do—ran toward me on a long sidewalk near the highway. Just before we reached each other, he switched his water bottle from his right hand to his left, and kept that right hand up. Fortunately, I had a second to realize that he wanted to high-five. We did, and both of us kept going.

Honest to God, if that had been a scene from a movie or a comic book, there would’ve been a spark of light and energy transferred at that touch. Because I had been flagging at that moment, and the positive encouragement, the acknowledgement that we were both doing this, was enough to boost my spirits and keep me going.

Writers support each other too. If you’re lucky, you end up with a great support system, not just from your writing peers, but from your friends and family. They help you clear time to write. They make sure you have the right equipment. They read your work and celebrate with you when you make a sale to a traditional market or post your indie book into all the various retail sites.

But there’s a big huge difference between runners and writers, and I didn’t realize what it was, exactly, until I read two articles back to back this week.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the first. Stephen King wrote one of his every-five-years or so essays defending the prolific writer. His essays are always a little defensive, because he’s writing for the literary crowd, and always a little perplexed, as if he’s not sure why people complain when someone writes fast. (I’m perplexed about that too.)

This essay, in The New York Times, reads like something provoked it. Some authority figure criticized someone he cares about for writing too fast. Or there’s a discussion that I’m not seeing somewhere that he felt the need to respond to. (Oh, God. Another internet fight. [sigh]) And, like so many people, he confuses his personal taste for a solid definable standard of quality. (Although, when he criticizes some prolific writers, he might simply be throwing some meat to lions to keep them at bay.)

But it strikes me that in no other art does anyone have to timidly propose this thesis that King does:

My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.

Pianists practice. Jazz pianists often practice in public, with improv sessions that become legendary. Artists learn their craft by copying old masters, and then, once they’ve done that enough, artists sketch, often daily, sometimes hourly, and eventually put those sketches into something solid. No one ever told Picasso that he painted too much (as far as I know, anyway). And we’re always reading about some new painting, some new sketch, by some famous artist being discovered in an attic somewhere.

I’ve often used sports metaphors when I discuss writing. No one tells LeBron James that he needs to shoot fewer baskets in practice, so that he can save his best work for a playoff game. We get better at something the more we do it, not worse. That’s how human beings are made.

I’ve discussed this before, particularly in the blog posts on perfection (which became a short book: The Pursuit of Perfection.) But I didn’t take the sports metaphor quite far enough, and it wasn’t until I came across the editorial in the July Runner’s World that I realized what I was missing.

It’s an attitude. A reality check, if you will.

Editor David Willey wrote his editorial about racing. I have no idea how many races there are around the country every weekend, let alone every year. Hundreds, maybe thousands. Some of the races are for fun, and some are qualifiers for the bigger races, like Boston. Those qualifiers and the bigger racers have a huge prize pool and more than bragging rights: they’re athletic events that get covered on the news, and recorded in the record books. When someone wins the New York Marathon, that person makes international news. Usually that person is an Olympic qualifier or a former Olympian.

We’re talking superstar athletes.

Around those superstar athletes are average-joe runners. Well, not average-joe in some of those big races, because those runners had to qualify. But we’re still talking a crowd of people. I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.

That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.

Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best. Or it might be—as it was for me in my first (and so far only) 5K—just showing up. It might be finishing (also a victory for me in that 5K).

Willey discusses that in his July editorial. But it was this paragraph that caught my eye:

In any race, the last finisher is no more a “loser” than one who finishes in the middle, and I have just as much respect for the runner who stops the clock as I have for the one who breaks the tape. First and last are very different achievements, but both require guts, ability, and dedication. A 2:03 marathon (the current world record is 2:02:57) is inconceivable to me. But I couldn’t run for seven or eight hours, either.

I went back and started reading more carefully, and found this nugget as the article’s lede:

I’ve heard a version of it uttered at almost every big race I’ve ever run, usually as a way to calm prerace nerves. I’ve said it myself: “I know two things for sure. I’m not going to win and I’m not going to lose.” In other words, relax, run your own race, and try to enjoy it.

I stopped, and thought about that in conjunction with the Stephen King essay, and had a tiny epiphany about writers.

Writers always expect to win. Because they’re not trained to work, because there are a handful of examples every few years or so of someone who becomes a million-seller with his first novel, writers believe that lightning will strike them as well.

Writers never examine the amount of work that “lucky” beginning novelist has done before the big sale. Often that “lucky” beginner had writing success elsewhere in writing—as a journalist, maybe or in one case I’m familiar with, as a regional playwright. I can’t think of anyone whose very first bits of writing became a megaseller.

That’s like me somehow managing to stumble my way to the starting line at the Portland Marathon and expecting to run it in 2:15:25, the current record for a woman running a marathon.

We all know that it’s ridiculous for a middle-aged beginning runner to run like an elite athlete.

Yet writers expect to have the same success as J.K. Rowling without putting any effort into the ramp-up at all.

And I honestly believe that the attitude comes from the myths. Myths like writers shouldn’t write a lot or they won’t produce quality. Writers should write slowly to produce art. I’ve traced those myths before, and they aren’t in existence for the writers. They exist for the overworked teachers of writing.

The fact that Stephen King feels the need every few years to defend his “rapid” pace which, in the annuals of writing, isn’t that fast at all, should tell you how pervasive those myths are.

So, now, review that Runner’s World attitude. Think of a novel instead of a race. And rather than trying to “win” by making that novel perfect, think of it the way that Willey does before his races.

Relax. Write your own novel. Enjoy it.

Pull the expectations of megasuccess off it. Because if you’re acting out of the myths, you’ll make all kinds of mistakes. To stretch the running metaphor almost to the breaking point, if you go out too fast and hot in a 26.2 mile race, you will burn out or get injured.

Writers won’t write too much, but their expectations could injure them. If everyone who writes a novel expects to be the next J.K. Rowling [insert your favorite highly successful writer here], then almost everyone who tries to write a novel will be disappointed when that novel is finished.

Only a handful of writers every decade get noticed at that international level. And that number might go down as this new world of publishing allows readers to spread out and read things other than the things traditional publishing has curated.

If writers approach writing the way that runners approach running, a lot of things will change. Not just the relax, enjoy, and run your own race thing—which is exceedingly important.

Something else will happen as well.

Because, as I stepped back from Runner’s World and thought about it, I realized the reason I subscribed to the magazine after I had given up on the triathlon and wasn’t running at all was because of the magazine’s attitude.

Runner’s World assumes that runners will be obsessed with running. Not deluded by it. Every issue has articles for beginners, middle-of-the-pack runners, and elite runners. Every issue. The magazine also assumes that there are runners in the world who do not race—like me. (I would have to get up way too early to compete in most races.)

Even so, the magazine’s attitude has an underlying current of obsession. Okay, wait. That’s not accurate. The obsession isn’t underlying. The magazine assumes that runners—even non-racers, even beginners—are obsessed with all things running. That runners will spend time and money training. It also assumes that every runner will hit the pavement several times per week, and try hard not to miss.

It assumes discipline. Or it assumes that the runner wants to learn discipline.

It does talk about quality runs, but it also talks about the value of other types of runs. I just read an article on my break about the different types of training for different goals—you should run differently if you’re trying to lose weight than if you’re running to relieve stress.

There’s an assumption that while all the runners who subscribe to the magazine are equally obsessed with running, they are not equal in any way. They have different goals, different bodies, different desires, and a different way of dealing with everything.

They might be part of the masses of 40,000 runners in a large marathon, but each is running her own race. Striving, at that moment, for a personal best.

Personal best.

Striving. Working hard.

I came away from this particular reading experience with a strange epiphany. Runners who go out every day or every week have no delusions about where they stand. They’ll tell you that they run at a 12-minute mile pace or that their personal best was a 4-hour marathon. They’ll tell you how they hope to improve, what they’re doing to make sure they get out every day, and how they hope to avoid injury.

They won’t ever tell you that they’re going to qualify for the Olympics or that they’ll win the London Marathon—unless they’re elite runners who are actively working on those goals.

Mostly they’ll tell you how they’re dealing with their runs, given their weight, their age, and their years of running. They remind themselves every time they go out that they’re doing the very best they can, and giving it their all, but part of that all is consistency, and yes, practice. Doing it afresh all the time.

Writers, on the other hand, will tell you their delusions. They’ll tell you, upon first meeting, the plot of their novel. You know which novel. The novel that’ll make them millions. They won’t tell you how hard they work. They will tell you how brilliant they are.

The writers who actually work hard have learned to shut up years ago. We don’t talk about how prolific we are—except for me and Dean (and Dean more than me). We get crap for working hard, the very crap that Stephen King modestly proposes we do away with in his every-five-years-what’s-wrong-with-being-prolific essay.

Being delusional gets in the way of hard work. Imagine if a runner who wants to beat Paula Radcliffe’s record for the marathon simply talks about beating it, and runs every few months. Or has run one race in the past two years.

We’d all shake our heads at that runner, and maybe laugh behind her back at how silly she’s being.

However, if that runner was running every day, was following training guidelines that would keep her injury free, was practicing by racing as well as by running the neighborhood, then we would expect her to eventually get into an elite training program, with a good support staff and world-class coach, and maybe, just maybe, have a shot at that record.

We’d expect that runner to climb a ladder of achievement. Sometimes elite runners vault, skipping many rungs of the ladder, and sometimes elite runners slide down the ladder, starting all over again. (Runner’s World has articles about that too, because the best high school runners become middle-of-the-pack runners in middle-age, and it can be discouraging for them.)

We don’t expect writers to climb a ladder of achievement. Oh, we expect them to get into graduate school or something. That’s not what I mean.

I mean, we don’t tell writers that it takes more than a million written words before the writer finds his own voice. We don’t tell them that sometimes it takes several crummy novels before a writer understands the form and writes a passable one. We don’t stress practice. Or obsession.

We stress delusion.

I will never discourage a writer who wants to be the next J.K. Rowling. I do expect that writer to put in the work—the practice— it takes to write novels even one-tenth as good as hers.

And I can already see the comments. How can I say these things about practice when I tell writers who self-publish to publish their first finished novel? How can I say these things about practice when I tell writers who want to be traditionally published to submit their very first novel for publication?

Aren’t I being a hypocrite?

Nope.

Because I see those acts—self-publishing the first novel or submitting it to a traditional publisher—as running in your first road race. You need to train in all parts of the business if you’re going to be as successful as J.K. Rowling. You need to practice racing. You need to stand at the starting line and see how it feels to be surrounded by others going the same way.

You need to know if you like racing before you decide to devote your life to it.

Same with writing.

Even highly successful writers have discouraging days—or, hell, discouraging years.

There’s a reason that Stephen King writes this essay every five or so years. It has nothing to do with those of us he’s writing for, and something to do with him. Clearly, being a prolific writer in a literary world that does not value the successful prolific writer bothers him on a very deep level. He’s grappling with it in one way or another, and every now and then, we see the result.

I could go on for another 3,000 words stretching the running metaphor to writing. (Those writers who collect writing books but never put a word on paper? They’re like wannabe runners who shop in athletic stores, have great shoes and top-of-the-line gear and leave it all in the back of the closet….and that’s just one more example.)

Instead, I’ll leave you with this.

Be obsessed about your writing. Practice it.

Stop being delusional about your writing. Know where you are in learning the craft and business, and figure out how to get to your goal. If you want millions of readers for your work, study the bestsellers. Figure out how they got there. And then learn how to be the best storyteller in the business.

Do the work.

Figure out your goals. Not just for today or this week. But your ultimate writing goal. Then break it into chunks. Figure out how to achieve those monthly, yearly, five-year, and ten-year goals. Have a plan, and work on it.

If you end up slipping down the ladder because of something, figure out why you slipped, figure out how to avoid doing it again, then start climbing again. Smarter, and with the right attitude.

Because attitude really is everything. And your attitude should include three things:

Strive for a personal best.

Relax and enjoy the journey.

And most of all…

Run your own race.

Even if you want to, you’ll never have J.K. Rowling’s success. Hers was a product of her time and the books she wrote. If you become an international bestseller of epic proportions, you’ll do it because of your time period and the books you write. The books you believe in.

Your definition of writing success will change over time. Once you achieve one of your goals, you’ll look to the next goal as a measure of success. Accept that, and keep moving. Keep practicing, and keep writing.

Remember, that the only way human beings become proficient in something is to do it over and over again, always trying to improve.

Ignore the myths.

Find a starting line.

Run your race.

The more you find your race, your voice, your work, the better you’ll be as a writer.

And most of all, have fun. Because writing, like running, is something we choose to do. If we’re going to choose to do something, if we’re going to obsess about it, then we should be doing it for the love of it. Not because we’ll be famous or renown. But because it’s part of who we are, and what we do.

Each and every day.

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“Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion and Writing,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog courtesy © Can Stock Photo Inc. / canphoto




26 responses to “Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion, and Writing”

  1. R.Wallace says:

    Wonderful post. It really resonates for me on two levels. It makes me think I’m doing the right thing not laboring over that first book for years before publishing. And I recognize the arrogant attitude of the would-be writer from my writing group (which I’ve mostly abandoned).

  2. kammbia1 says:

    Excellent post, Kristine. I can see the connection between running and writing. As a matter of fact, I just started getting into running while I’m currently writing my second novel. I just bought When I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami to delve further into this connection between running and writing. We have to be mindful as writers that we have to put in the writing time and develop our craft over the long haul. Thanks for the reminder.

    Marion

  3. John Brown says:

    I love the part about stop being delusion. And relaxing and enjoying the journey. And running your own journey. But mostly about just enjoying the work.

  4. jeremyckester says:

    Thank you for posting this Kris. It is amazingly well timed that I saw this today. Great article.

  5. Anita Cooper says:

    Thanks Kris. I needed to ‘hear’ this. 😀

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Kris!

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!

    A few thoughts:

    (1) Re Picasso: amusing Onion note:
    http://www.theonion.com/article/ritalin-cures-next-picasso-4087

    (2) I think the literary idea was not that writers were discouraged from spending tons of time writing, but rather that they weren’t expected to produce a book at the end of every x # of hrs of work. Lots of exploration and rewriting time was assumed. (I know what Dean’s opinion of this is.)

    (3) Re delusions: Yes, I’ve been surprised by the number of people I know well who have said things like, “I thought I’d finish my first novel and sell it and have this great career while I stayed home with the kids,” “My plan was to become a best-selling author,” etc. Over time I’ve come to think of these folks as being a lot more optimistic and confident than I am; they don’t seem to be delusional in other areas of their lives.

    (4) On the notion of early success: it does seem to me that in popular music there are instances of people who become successful, in one way or another, without putting a ton of time in at that particular thing. Keith Richards says that he and Mick weren’t songwriters until Andrew Oldham locked them in a room and insisted they start writing songs. Their first song was “As Tears Go By,” and six weeks later it was in the Top 10 (sung by another artist). I take Tony’s point and I know that plenty of “overnight successes” have 20 years of work behind them, but there do seem to be stories like this.

    Thanks again for the post.

  7. allynh says:

    On your Left

    Captain America: The Winter Soldier ”On Your Left”

    A while later in the movie, Sam Wilson says, “I do what he does, only slower.”

    I feel bad for the people I lap, then I hear, “On your left”, and I feel better about moving at my own speed.

  8. Scott Gordon says:

    Fun article. Thanks for sharing.

  9. In every art and sport, performance is expected. You don’t wait until you’re ready to play baseball. You don’t wait until you’re ready for your first recital. And the game itself, or performance, or art show isn’t necessarily important. It’s little league, your class art show, community theater, JV soccer, or just a pickup game. From the beginning, these activities stress the entire business. But not writing, because something, or another.

    I wouldn’t have developed without playing the game. The game is a necessary part of learning the art.

  10. Susie says:

    A good article, but I have a slightly different theory, which is not necessarily contradictory to yours. Everyone knows how much hard work it is to run a marathon. Most of us have been required to run at least a mile for gym classes in school or taken up running for a short time and given up because it was hard. Writing, on the other hand, is largely done in private. It consists of countless hours of pounding away at the keyboard and most of the time, no one sees all those hours of work, not even spouses or roommates, depending on schedules. People assume writing is easy because they all learned how to spell words and string them together to make sentences and paragraphs in school. Everyone can write, but not everyone can write well and so many people out there don’t understand the difference. It’s the same reason professional writing services are so often undervalued.

  11. Kari Kilgore says:

    I’ve been getting Runner’s World email motivation quotes of the day for years, even during times when I’m not running. I’m more often than not struck by how often you could change just a word or two, and you have a fantastic quote about writing when it comes to motivation, determination, and perseverance, not to mention doing that strange thing only other obsessives understand!

    On the other hand, you’re absolutely right about the delusional nature of too many writers, especially beginners or people who talk about it more than they do it. Fantastic contrast with the outsized expectations of far too many of us. The more blows we collectively strike against the myths of fast=bad and never practice to get better, the happier writers and readers will be.

  12. Leah Cutter says:

    Your post was a particularly acute reminder for me today that I need to define my success and not let others do it for me. And my definition of success can only include things I can control. While sales are nice, the only thing I can control is how often I find myself at the keyboard and how many words I put out. Nothing more.

    Thanks.

  13. Indy Quillen says:

    Well said, Kris! As my Sensei told me after I won my very first 1st Place Trophy in a martial arts competition, “See how lucky you get when you work hard?” I’ve never forgotten that lesson in life…

  14. I’ve used sports metaphors before to counter the myth of the non-prolific writer being somehow better, and they do fit better than they rub. As in training, there’s a sweet spot that’s neither under-training nor over-training. Some days you mount up with wings as eagles, some days you run and don;t grow weary, and some days you merely walk and don’t faint, to paraphrase Isaiah. And sometimes you have to take a break to recharge. There was a three-year period wherein I wrote well over a million words, and I ground to a near-halt, wondering if I’d lost my mojo. I took a month off, traveled, barely checked my email, and it came back.

    Your point about unrealistic fantasies of brilliance and “winning the lottery” is particularly well taken. I think I’m fortunate to never have really tried the traditional route for exactly that reason: winning that lottery seemed so unlikely, why bother. I suppose I unconsciously bought into the myths. But when the indie route opened up, I realized that writers no better than I were making their livings doing it, and hard work and output were definable assets. Those I had, I knew. I’d long ago learned how to work. It was comforting to realize this was just another job to learn, albeit a job I could love, a job I could work myself into being better than good enough.

    I really believe anyone can, if they’re willing to put in the time and effort.

    Sounds a lot like running.

  15. Van Alrik says:

    I agree with most of this, but I have to confess, I’m a basketball fan, and the Lebron reference got me thinking…. Lebron James does get told to shoot fewer baskets at times (see for example, http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/11634537/cleveland-cavaliers-open-regularly-resting-lebron-james-season), and it is specifically so he can avoid injury and save his best work for the playoffs. This doesn’t work against the logic of your post, because Lebron has already put in his time with years and years of consistent practice and long hours to get to where he is now, but it does make the point that different pursuits operate within different constraints, and for at least some, there is a point of diminishing returns where the risk of “prolificacy” begins to outweigh the benefits. I’m not sure that is the case in writing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if in some circumstances it is. Something to think about anyway.

    • The pro basketball analogy breaks down after a while, because writers aren’t time-limited. Our bodies don’t give up on writing and peak performance in our late thirties. That’s why I used running as the prime example. Runner’s World often features 80-something runners. 🙂 There are no eighty-somethings in the NBA, but there are tons of eighty-something professional writers. 🙂

  16. Dane Tyler says:

    I hope you’re getting better every day, Kris. And thanks for this insight! It really helped me understand my writing career a little bit better. Coupled with Dean’s post on Pulp Speed, this is an eye-opening day for me. 🙂

    Do blog posts count as practice, do you suppose? I wonder because their tone seems so different than the tone of fiction, and even a lot of non-fiction, at least the kind of non-fiction I wrote.

    Just curious about your thoughts on blogging as practice for writers.

    Thank you again.

  17. I definitely feel obsessed about writing when I still try to find my 15 minutes and I’ve only had a handful hours of sleep (which has been the norm for the past 4 months)!

    But really, though, what a great and wonderful article. I especially love how it speaks to writers at all different levels in the race. For me, I’m at the slow-walking pace these days and my success is usually getting in those 15 minutes of writing. Other days I found success is looking at my life in that moment and recognizing that trying to write would end in frustration, anger, and tears. So I simply say, “Not today” (because the kids have other ideas for my quiet time). But I feel good about that choice. It feels good to do my own ‘gut check.’ If the writing will be a fun experience, with some important ‘me’ time, I do everything in my power to make it happen. And sometimes I feel like I only have the energy for 15 minutes and it’s a wonderful surprise when I do 30.

    That’s a slow race and a different one from many other writers, but I’m good with it. I’m enjoying what progress I can make these days.

    Thanks again for another great article, Kris! I do enjoy these little bits of connection to the writing community.

  18. Mike Zimmerman says:

    Kris,

    Excellent post. It struck a particular chord with me because I’ve worked with the folks at Runner’s World and related titles. Everything you say hits the mark. RW readers, as well as the editors, writers, designers, ad sales folks, all of them share that running obsession. Tying that approach to writing is about as smart a piece of advice as I’ve seen.

    Another set of obsessives: Golfers. Golf mags are set up just like RW, across-the-board skill sets, yet all pushing to get to that next level. I mention this because I’ve always thought the golf analogy fits writing as well: Play your own game, play the course, not the other players, etc. (As a golfer, Dean probably can relate — I bet there’s a poker mag or two out there set up the same way).

    At any rate, as someone who has spent time in that magazine and book world, I can confirm everything you say is spot-on. Here’s to finding the next level…

    (Also, I forwarded your link to David Willey. I do think he’ll appreciate it.)

    Mike Zimmerman

  19. Vera Soroka says:

    Great post! I think that those days of the big best sellers like King and JK Rowling are going to be far a few now as the indie movement gets stronger. It’s a new world now. Readers have so much more to choose now and they don’t have to read what the BPH tell them that they should read.
    As a writer you still have to build your career one brick at a time or one book at a time. How fast you write is up to you. Read Dean’s pulp speed post. It takes practice. I took up my own short fiction challenge this summer and I loved it. I always had trouble writing short fiction and now I’m doing it. I will have lots to publish this fall. I did this while taking kids to summer camp and being sick in August. If you want to do something you have to find your own obsession to do it. It takes hard work and I might not sale any of these stories but I don’t regret the time I spent practicing. I think I became a better writer.

  20. Robin Brande says:

    Wow, Kris, what a wonderful post! Thank you!

  21. tony says:

    An echo of the music industry, where no one except the musician recalls the ten years of work it took to become an overnight sensation.
    Thanks for sharing.

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