This is a nice video which sets visual images to a bit of monologue from Ira Glass where he is talking about how creative people’s own good taste often discourages them while they are in the early stages of honing their craft since they are better at seeing what is wrong or limited with what they’re doing than able to correct it.
I always felt lucky that when I started writing poetry, at about 16 years old, I had had little previous serious exposure to poetry so that I had no idea how bad my stuff was. It was complete drivel. Much of it outright pedantic drivel. And I was putting my poems in the “journal” published through my church that I helped start, and for which I quickly became the editor-in-chief and main writer for several months before one day I stopped and really looked at what I was about to publish and realized in a flash that it was dreck. I asked my editor who effectively co-ran the publication with me if it was bad and he candidly admitted it was. I checked with my girlfriend. Yep. It sucked. No one had come near to telling me this previously. No one had even hinted a bad opinion of my poetry but much of it was simply terrible.
Fortunately by the time I had the sudden realization about how bad my poems were, likely in part through the influence of a very good literature class I had been taking for months at that point, I had just started to make certain improvements and so was not totally discouraged. I effectively spent the rest of the calendar year just focusing on practicing different aspects of crafting a poem. I would write poems that were basically just heavily detailed, leaden descriptions. I would write poems which just focused on alliteration. I would write poems that just practiced metaphors. I knew the poems weren’t overall good but they would do one thing well. By the end of the year, I started to write the first of my poems that I would actually start holding onto an including in my official collection of poems, Naked in the Night Garden. I was still never satisfied even with those poems to actually try to publish the book. And re-reading some of them when I found the collection during my recent move, I’m less impressed with them than I expected to be. I was thinking maybe I would post some on Camels With Hammers just for fun. But I don’t think they’re even good enough for that after all.
But, they were at least basically competent by the end. And had I not lost the entire feel for poetry but kept plugging away at it, I probably could have gotten good. If nothing else, all that disciplined practice and attention to words certainly contributes to my daily essay writing here on the blog. The other disciplining exercises that sped up my rate of thought and writing were the arduous ordeal of writing a doctoral dissertation and the more than 20 hours a week spent in classrooms improvisationally working out ideas with my students and nailing down how to articulate a wide range of concepts through numerous repeated verbal attempts, morning and night, day after day.
Last but not least, blogging has also been the very best way to discipline myself into the kind of daily practice in writing that Glass insists is necessary (and that Ray Bradbury incisively calls for as well). I talked in detail about the many ways this worked for me in yesterday’s piece on what I consider to be the Top 10 Benefits to Blogging for Philosophers and Other Academics and Writers.
The teaching, the dissertation, and the daily blogging have provided the sorts of daily rigors that have been inestimably helpful to me as a thinker.
Finally, to pick up on Glass’s theme in the video of encouraging worried creative people that their struggles are not unusual, I recently read an old article from Psychology Today about the mindsets and habits of creative people. It resonated a whole lot and I found it very, very reassuring that I was not alone. Of course, I really don’t know how good the science behind it is and it may be a Horoscope effect of expressing characteristics anyone would relate to. If that’s the case, I at least recommend it as a great placebo for treating impostor syndrome. The author of the piece, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also wrote Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.