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. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta 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 gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
(As if Ira Glass being interviewed on NPR wasn’t enough to indicate society is disappearing up its own ass, all the blogs that have posted this quote cite a different blog for the source. Nefffy seems to be as far as I can follow that thread [including being cited on Fresh Air’s own tumblr blog, which makes no sense], so good on her, I guess.)
Generally, “hang in there” assurances are a dime a dozen, but this one is enhanced by some explanatory power for why early works tend to suck. It pinpoints exactly why I’m disappointed with my work, calling me out for having shitty skills, while bolstering my ego with an assurance that my taste is good. In the end, my high standards set a good target, but I have to get used to the idea of failing to meet it, at least for the time being. It makes perfect sense that we should have to walk before we can run, but I tend to forget it because I get impatient. It’s hard to accept that I’m producing only “early works,” but if I can keep that in mind, I might be more willing to share what I produce, rather than cling to the idea of perfecting it (which only leads me to keep projects around too long, compounding any embarrassing factors exponentially).
The hardest part about adjusting to this mindset is accepting that anyone who is good at anything started as a “wannabe” — someone who only wanted to be good. Sure, natural talent accounts for some aptitude, but generally, expertise is determined by putting in the requisite time and effort (see the 10,000 hour rule). In this light, it’s wholly unreasonable for me to expect to be good at anything within the next few years, let alone right this second. The only issue, then, is that I have to accept that I’m just going to be bad at stuff for a while, and that I am, in fact, a wannabe. I have to embrace the fact that I’ll be acting like a composer/writer/performer/whatever long before I’m actually any good at it, which I kind of find insufferable, but I also acknowledge is necessary practice.
It’s a little scary, though, to embrace wholly an identity you don’t plan on fully inhabiting for years, especially when that identity requires a significant investment of time and (perhaps more importantly) money. It’s one thing to buy a guitar so you can start playing it; it’s another to buy all of the equipment you’ll need to gig with it. I think the acknowledgement of this is what leads to gear-head culture, where you can’t be truly great until you have just the right mouthpiece or overdrive pedal or whatever; blame your failures on not having the perfect equipment that will always be just a little out of your price range. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of those things are neat-o toys on their own account, but my focus here isn’t on my gear-head tendencies, at least not in the traditional sense.
As I was furnishing my first apartment out of college, after securing a bed and a couch, my concern immediately jumped to furnishing my “studio” (never mind that it was also my bedroom) — I needed to set myself up for success as a composer. I already had a desk and a MIDI keyboard (a necessity for anyone who doesn’t want to spend hours inputting notes into Sibelius), but what I really desired was a drafting table where I could carefully craft hand-written scores and design non-traditional scores and sound sculptures. The table itself was relatively cheap — $15 at a nearby garage sale — but the requisite supplies to stock it were another story. I picked up pencils and erasers, pens, a large cutting mat and exact-o knives, a T-square and other straight-edges, a compass, and other arty/drafty doodads. I had never really used any of this stuff before, at least not in the applications I was imagining, so my purchases were largely anticipating my needs. Some of these items have come in quite handy, though I still feel like I haven’t justified owning these things, let alone having paid a pretty significant amount of money for them.
When I was in high-school, during the height of my gear-headedness, I had to convince my mom that a PA system was a good investment. I needed it to perform, and potentially, to make money. That PA came in handy on a few gigs, but it wasn’t long before we completely fried it. Oops. With my studio, I don’t know if I can convince myself with this justification. Making money composing continues to not really be a goal of mine, so it’s mostly just a time-consuming habit. The only danger is that it’s occasionally an expensive habit, and I’m nothing if not a cheap, cheap bastard.
Last year, I applied to a few graduate programs, submitting the requisite porfolio to each school. One of the pieces I decided to submit cost just over $100 to produce — that’s not the total for all the schools; $100 per copy of the piece. I still get sick thinking about it. As many people have pointed out since then, it would have been cheaper for me to purchase a binding machine than to have even one of these things made at FedEx. This will only get truer as I need to bind and copy more things, but the thought of making such a significant investment in what amounts to very private entertainment seems almost worse than coughing up a bunch of money on the rare instances I actually need something copied and bound. It comes down to a simple question: will I feel worse if I have more stuff I can’t really justify owning?
The reason I’m thinking about this question and the Ira Glass quote is that I’m hoping the anxiety/guilt over having stuff I can’t yet justify having will also pass with time — or rather, that I’ll someday be able to justify having them. This is kind of a moot point until I find the next thing that I absolutely need to have, which is going to take a while when I’m looking into impossibly un-sexy machinery. In the meantime, if anyone has tips on duplex printers, I’m also looking into those.