When good work goes bad

Ira Glass, above, offers encouragement to frustrated creators; poet John Neihardt, quoted below, offers a different perspective (also encouraging, I think).

Glass (of NPR’s This American Life) explains that when you’re a beginner (such as a writer, artist, or any sort of creator), your taste is better than your skill. So you get frustrated because you can tell that your work isn’t very good. A lot of people quit at this point.

But there’s a positive side to recognizing that your work is bad, Glass says. It means you have good taste, and right now your “killer taste” exceeds your present skill, but it’s pointing in the right direction. The only solution is to produce a lot of work and keep getting better.

I think there’s a little more to it than that, in that doing work improves your taste. The poet John Neihardt (best remembered for his collaboration with Lakota holy man Black Elk in Black Elk Speaks) wrote about this in his 1972 memoir, All is but a Beginning. He describes the thrill of writing his first poem as a young boy:

“At first I was very much pleased with my poem, and so were my Mother and sisters. I went about with a glorified feeling because of it.

“Then one day when I was reading it again, as one might re-examine a precious possession by way of becoming more keenly aware of the treasure, suddenly the glorified feeling was darkened. What I was reading seemed silly and made me ashamed.

“Why, it was no good!

“It just wasn’t any good!

“I read it over and over eagerly, hoping to bring it back. But it was no use. All the virtue had leaked out of it!

“So, when no one was looking, I put it in the kitchen stove.

“For days thereafter the world seemed dreadfully empty and lonely — like being homesick.

“But before long, I was at work on a new poem…” (p. 55)

This wasn’t the last time that his good work would go bad like rotting fruit. But of course it wasn’t that the poems were changing after they were written; what was changing was the poet’s taste. The process could be painful, but when it happened it was a sign of artistic growth.

Have you grown disappointed with that poem, story, painting, or other project that you felt so good about earlier? Congratulations! You’ve become a better artist.

(Update 10/18/2013: The original video disappeared for some reason; I embedded a different one of the same interview.)

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