Very few people talk about the gap.
But I think it’s one of the great barriers to us making the work we were meant to make. Ira Glass, the producer of the brilliant PBS radio show This American Life, explains it best.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone 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. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you’ve got to know its 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 going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight your way through.”
Too many of us fall into this gap, victims of our own great taste.
We give up, thinking we’ll never be good enough. When what we need to do is practice more, try more, to ship the work and put it out there to let others decide whether it’s up to par.
One of our mistakes is often to compare our clumsy first drafts, our early songs, our student artwork to finished work by the masters of our craft. We forget that their first drafts, first songs and early art were clumsy too. And that even their best works went through multiple versions.
I love crime thrillers.
One of the great joys, for me, of stumbling on a writer I haven’t read is devouring a whole series they’ve written over years, and watching them evolve. A couple of years back, for instance, I read all of Ian Rankin’s Rebus books.
The early ones weren’t great. The plotting was loose, the city of Edinburgh hadn’t yet taken its starring role and Rankin was still experimenting with the character and backstory of his main hero, the shambolic John Rebus.
But reading them, one after the other over a few months, let me watch a writer home his craft over 30 years, just getting better and better. In the last few books, you watch Rankin execute really difficult things with such aplomb that you want to stop reading and applaud.
I love art retrospectives for the same reason.
Most people rush through the first rooms of early work, because it’s not usually that interesting. They’re looking for the greatest hits, the artist’s best work. I tend to linger, looking at those first clumsy attempts at articulating ideas. Andy Warhol’s commercial illustration work. Diane Arbus before she found what she really wanted to photograph. Piet Mondrian painting windmills. Even the greats had to start somewhere.
A young David Bowie once thought recording The Laughing Gnome was a great idea. I have very little to add to this fact. Except to say that if you think your career is forever stained by some early mistake of judgement, stop and listen to it now. (More than once if you can bear it.) And then consider how Bowie went on to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Does the gap ever close?
Of course. The more you make, the more you do your verbs, the better you get. And the more you stumble into those magical days, the happy accidents that come from experience at your craft, when something turns out even better than you imagined.
But never it never closes fully. I think there is always a slight gap, a disappointment in what we’ve produced.
Why else would we keep on making our work, if we’d already achieved perfection? We have to believe that the next one will be better, that we still have directions to explore, that there is room to improve.
This is what took Picasso from his blue period to Cubism. Or Vivienne Westwood from bondage trousers through pirates to tweeds with a twist. The Beatles from bubblegum pop to The White Album.
Work at your craft, and the gap becomes a motivation. Just mind it at the beginning, and don’t let the gap swallow you whole.
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