If you are an artist, it’s essential to go and look at great art. If you are a writer, it’s just as crucial to read regularly, and read well.
Whatever your medium, it’s virtually impossible to do new and innovative creative work without first studying what came before you. And how it was made.
We need to get inspired by the masters in our field, the greats.
The problem comes when we expect to be able to produce something equally as good, straight away. We compare our fledgling attempts at new work, our early drafts and experiments, with the finished work of the masters. And we inevitably find them lacking.
Then we give up, because we feel we can’t produce work that is anywhere near as good.
But neither could they, when they started.
We tend to think we should be able to write a song as great as Lennon and McCartney, right away. We forget the 18 months The Beatles spent honing their craft in clubs in Hamburg, playing four hour-long sets a night, seven days a week, sleeping in sordid conditions backstage and earning princely £10 a month each for the pleasure.
That’s when they learned how to work a crowd. They improved their music in front of live audiences four times a night, and became vastly better musician and writers as a result of it.
We also forget that other labels rejected the fledgling band before they eventually signed to EMI. Even then, there were plenty of songs that weren’t good enough, that never made it onto their albums.
Listen to the demo versions, and you’ll hear that even their classic songs didn’t come instantly. They were tweaked and changed, remixed and improved.
It’s very rare that a song comes out perfect and fully formed, for any musician. But even when it does, it’s usually because years of practice and graft went into getting to that level.
Jane Austen was the first truly great novelist.
She was also the first whose original manuscripts were nearly all preserved. The notebooks now owned by the British Library show that she was a remarkably fluid writer, who clearly knew the story she wanted to tell before she put ink to paper.
Nonetheless, her manuscripts are reassuringly full of crossings out and corrections, and written with very little regard for grammar. The Library’s collection also includes aborted novels that just didn’t work out, showing that even a genius can have flawed first drafts and ideas that go nowhere.
Charles Dickens was a great story-teller.
Yet his first drafts are even messier than Austen’s. Even the page proofs from second editions of his novels show him still correcting, honing, improving. These novels first appeared as serials in magazines, and went through all kinds of structural alterations – often over a period of years – before they became the books we know and love today.
If you happen to be in London, there’s a permanent display in the British Museum, that is free and open to the public. Here you can see music manuscripts worked on by Beethoven and Mozart, hand-written drafts by Austen and Dickens as well as George Eliot.
It’s reassuring to see that some of the greatest works ever made started just as yours did. With thoughts pouring out onto the page, full of errors and false starts.
We all make mistakes.
Using X-rays and other technologies, art historians have discovered that some of the world’s most famous artworks conceal other works that hadn’t come out so well.
Underneath the Mona Lisa, there’s apparently another version of the same portrait, that Leonardo da Vinci painted over to create his masterwork. Some of Picasso’s best-known works have completely different paintings underneath them.
If even Picasso and Da Vinci could create work they didn’t like, perhaps we too should expect to mess up sometimes. Or produce work that needs much more polish, before we show it to the world.
As a journalist, I always love to ask the people I interview about their failures. The work that is never seen by the public, but which is crucial to making something that is seen and admired.
Brilliant debut novels are often preceded by unfinished or not-so-brilliant novels that were never published.
Bands who shoot up the charts from nowhere usually grow out of earlier bands that got nowhere.
Designers always have piles of prototypes that just didn’t work. That’s how they find the one that does work, beautifully.
Most good art comes out of a series of stumbles.
The British sculptor Anish Kapoor once told me he has a whole warehouse full of experiments that didn’t quite make the grade, some of which he will bring back to his studio later to see if he can resolve.
Another highly regarded British artist, Gavin Turk, estimated that about 20 per cent of the work he makes for a new show ends up discarded. He cheerfully described an expensive, large-scale bronze cast he made of a lump of chewed gum, thinking it would look interesting at that size.
“I haven’t chucked it,” he told me. “But I have reservations about its success as a sculpture. Sometimes it’s a bit of a lottery, a bit of a gamble.”
The truth is, everyone has ideas and projects that don’t work out. All of our work goes through revisions and drafts and improvements.
We all have periods when we feel stuck and uninspired. Or just unable to get the ideas in our head out into the real world in the form we’d imagined.
This is what we can really learn from the masters.
When you feel you’ll never be good enough, you don’t give in.
You carry on. You try again.
You learn the rules, so that you can bend or break them.
You push, and persist, and practice.
Nothing is lost.
The failures and the false starts all contribute to your skills, and to the projects that do work.
Eventually, you get good at what you do.
Sometimes, you get very, very good. And you become a master yourself, an inspiration for future generations.
But only if you don’t expect to be perfect, and measure yourself against the masters from the start.