I rarely read Facebook these days (most of my activity is on Google+), but I visited it a few days ago and found this gem of a quote, posted by a Facebook acquaintance:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are still starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.
– Ira Glass
I’ve never seen a better summing-up of why people don’t create. There is always a gap between what you envision and what you create, and you can’t close the gap until you have more realistic visions and better skills. Both come only through experience, through repeated disappointments as you both learn your limits and expand them. The greater your ambition (and the better your taste!), the more disappointing this is.
People often complain about beginners coming in and expecting to be able to make something as beautiful as the teacher’s work – talking about an “instant gratification culture”. To me, this isn’t about instant gratification, it’s about the gap: beginners are generally totally unaware of the gap, and thus expect to make something that matches their taste. I think that’s totally normal. The job of the teacher is to gently reshape expectations, and also to set the beginner a task that they can perform reasonably well, to reduce the degree of disappointment.
To my mind, there are two big places where the gap comes into play. The first is at the beginning, when the beginner learns the very basics of the craft – rendering other people’s designs, and struggling to improve their skills enough to execute the path that someone else has laid out for them. The second happens when they strike off the beaten path and begin to create their own designs – and this is by far the hardest gap to manage, as design requires considerably more skill and experience, and teachers/mentors are much harder to come by. I was lucky enough to get some excellent mentors – a big thank you to Bonnie, Laura, and Sharon among others – but I still remember being greatly frustrated by the gap. It is, literally, just like starting all over again.
To me, the best way to get over the gap is simply to be aware of it, and understand that the gap is universal – it happens to everyone. That’s where patience, dedication, and love of the craft come in. You have to love the process before you love the results. Does the clay under your fingers feel good? Then you can throw pots, even if your first results look lopsided. Annie Dillard writes (in The Writing Life), “I asked a painter once what inspired him to start. He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint.'”
Enjoyment of the process is what encourages the beginner to continue, to write the first 10,000 pages that will wind up being thrown away. And I think that this, more than anything else, is what a beginners’ teacher should teach students: a passion for the craft, a feel for the process of making. Because students who love the process, who love the craft – who love the yarn in their fingers as they dress the loom, the rhythm as they throw the shuttle – are students who will persevere. The purpose of the beginners’ teacher is to show the student what the craft, the process is like, so they can (maybe!) fall in love.
(I’m not saying that a beginner’s teacher shouldn’t teach technique. They should. Technique is an important part of learning the craft, after all, and you can’t reach the joy of making without understanding how to make! But if I were teaching a beginner and could convey only one thing, it would be how wonderful it feels to create. If a student “gets” that, nothing will stop her. Or him.)