A friend remarked recently that he had been interested in oil painting, but was frustrated in his initial attempts. “What I created was never what I wanted, in my mind’s eye,” he said. And he gave up painting.
I wrote back:
Would it help you to know that this frustration is not only perfectly normal, but practically universal among artists/craftspeople in whatever media? There is always a gap between what your mind can envision and what your hands can do. It does narrow somewhat as you get better, but most master craftspeople still experience “the gap”. It doesn’t bother them as much, partly because they’re used to living with it and partly because they know approximately what degree of shortfall to expect, but it’s always there.
(In 30 years of creating across a wide range of media, I think I’ve only made one piece where I looked at the finished work and said, “Damn. That is a masterpiece, and exactly what I wanted.” All my other pieces had a gap, and often a pretty huge one. But that’s a good thing. If you don’t have a gap, you’re not growing.)
Ira Glass said it very nicely:
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 just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know – 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 will finish one story.
It is 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 awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I make a point of working regularly in media where I have no experience and no expectation of skill. Partly that’s because I work in a very multidisciplinary fashion, and enjoy exploring new things. But partly it’s because I find it very liberating to be bad at something on a regular basis. If you are used to being good at everything, it’s easy to get into the trap of thinking that poor work is a reflection on you, and that you are somehow less talented and less of an artist if your work is awful.
But if you’re constantly beginning something new, you learn to stop being afraid that your work is going to suck. Of course it’s going to suck. Good work requires skill, and if you don’t have any skills, how can you possibly produce good work? I expect my early work to look like crap. I hope it doesn’t, of course – everyone does – but if it looks awful, that’s just fine.
What is more important to me is the delta in crappiness – okay, that first piece was pretty bad. But you know what? That’s the worst piece I’ll ever make. No skills, right? My goal is to make the second piece a little better. I don’t ask it to live up to my vision, because it won’t. I don’t have the skills to do that yet. But if the second or third piece shows some technical improvement, now I’m on a roll.
Don’t let the fact that your early work sucks bother you. It’s going to suck. It’s good that it sucks, because if you can let go of needing to be good at it, you can get on with the real work, which is improving the skills that you’ll need to produce better work. As a weaving teacher I know tells her students, “Don’t worry about making the first piece perfect. You’re not making a scarf – you’re making a weaver.”
Don’t worry about whether you have talent. I frankly don’t believe in talent when it comes to art or most other things. Yes, there is such a thing as genetic aptitude: I’m never going to win the Tour de France no matter how hard I train. However, most people never hit the limits of their genetic aptitude because they don’t push themselves hard enough to run into that genetic barrier. Unless you are an Olympian, you have probably hit the limits of your motivation long before hitting the limits of your body/mind. How much skill you have, and how willing you are to work to develop those skills, is the most important factor I’ve seen for achievement in a field.
It makes me really sad when I see people try something, decide that they have no “talent” for it, and give up. I have no talent for cycling, but I’ve bicycled 585 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles four times with the AIDS Ride. I have trouble keeping track of where my feet and hands are at the same time, but I got pretty good at Tai Chi. And I have no innate talent for art – none whatsoever – but I’ve worked damn hard to develop a ton of skills that will make me good at making art. It’s not about talent, it’s about skill – and developing skill is something anyone can do. It just takes time, and hard work.
In writing, it’s generally agreed that your first thousand to ten thousand pages are going to suck. The answer isn’t to give up writing. The answer is to start writing, NOW, so you can get those ten thousand pages out of the way, and get on to the good stuff. The only way out is through.