In college I had a brilliant professor of creative writing–he was dazzling. After class one day I said to him, “You know everything about literature and writing. Your analysis of works is something to behold, and you’re able to tell students how specifically to improve their work. But as far as I can tell you’ve never produced any creative writing yourself. Have you?
“Because I have no talent.”
He didn’t have the talent his students did have, but his students didn’t have the knowledge he had, and that’s what we were there to acquire so we would have both talent and knowledge.
A painter will not automatically improve her performance by painting more. A writer’s performance won’t improve simply by further writing. To ratchet up their performance they will have to make changes designed specifically to develop it to a higher level. One major change is to acquire more knowledge.
In the arts and every other pursuit knowledge isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything. Most often the reason a creator isn’t yet accomplished isn’t because he’s unintelligent or not gifted but because he isn’t knowledgeable enough. You need a big data base to be an accomplished creator.
Knowledge translates into new techniques and skills. New techniques and skills translate into new creative accomplishments–roles for the actor, publications for the writer, commissions for the painter and composer, greater satisfaction with your craftsmanship, and so on.
Particularly important in the acquisition of knowledge about your art is the instruction you receive. It may come from yourself if you are a self-taught autodidact who acquires knowledge by reading and studying the author’s ideas as many creators do, and instruction from direct in-person exposure to expert, skilled teachers. Most creators are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly. They are teachable.
Everyone who has reached the highest level of excellence in their chosen field will be found to have spent much of their lives immersed in that field pushing themselves to improve their performance, and have amassed tremendous knowledge of it. Experts have a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand. Most experts consider about 50,000 different chunks to be the foundation of their expertise. When you are learning, you are adding chunks. It is no secret to you when you are talking with masters of a domain. Knowledge seems to come out of their every pore.
If you are interested in reaching your upper limits of performance and the most effective training in reaching them, you should study experts in your field–read about them, listen to the stories about them. They have probably spent their entire creative life maximizing their performance. Lengthy, on-going, never-ending training is nearly always the reason for superior performance. All the known routes to high performance require extended training. There are no shortcuts.
Research on what enabled many people to reach high expertise reveals that very often elite performers attach themselves to teachers who give them quality feedback, and with their help engage in specifically-designed training tasks. Training tasks force the creators to solve specific problems and stretch their performance, break bad habits, acquire new skills, and often experience career-changing insights.
Often creators we’ve heard most about received a more ancient style of education rather than modern large classes and many teachers. They received at least some one-on-one personalized education, spending time with a teacher with a good reputation known for their work with students on an individual basis, engaging in give and take dialogue and questioning.
When a student in an art studies with a role model, a master, sparks fly. The two of them immerse themselves in the world of their art. Together, they analyze the piece of work, the skills that went into producing it, and the additional skills that will be needed if the student is to go further. The student learns the importance of concentration and sheer effort, and the need to overcome self-doubt. The student is gaining independence and confidence, and learning to solve problems on her own. Then in time, she may become a master in her art.
Troubled and immensely talented American short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER was called “The American Chekhov.” A turning point in his life was being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by author John Gardner and being affected profoundly. Carver said that whatever Gardner had to say “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously… I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”
American MARY CASSATT’S emergence midway in her painting career was the result of a sequence of happy events: living in Paris, mingling with the French Impressionists, especially mentor/teacher Edgar Degas, becoming an Impressionist herself, and finding her subject–her voice: mothers with their children. Degas was a generally unpleasant, abrasive, hard to deal with man who most other painters couldn’t stomach. But he was a good teacher, the right teacher for Cassatt.
Ernest Hemingway had a most astounding capacity for absorbing information as soon as he was exposed to it and applying it immediately. He was greedy for knowledge and went to everyone for help—and they gave it freely–Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and others. He studied, read, and wrote, sometimes eighteen hours a day.
Expert performers and their teachers identify specific goals for improvement, particularly crucial aspects of performance. The person who is trying to improve his mastery must concentrate full attention on getting rid of shortcomings, focusing on where in his performance there’s the most room for improvement. Not any old teacher will do; a bad teacher is worse than no teacher. The teacher must be effective and must know how to support and excite the student to go on learning. What could be more unendurable that a dull teacher?
The most important quality that leads a creator to success is his motivation. A good teacher stokes the creator’s motivation through positive reinforcement and encouragement.
If a writer is weak on imagery she must write out a hundred, two hundred, three hundred effective images in practice. If she’s already a master of imagery she needn’t practice making images as much and can concentrate on what she’s not strong on.
Admitting shortcomings is hard for some people, but not hard at all for others. It wasn’t hard for Vincent van Gogh. His brother Theo asked if he should stop criticizing Vincent’s work in his letters. Vincent replied: “Continue writing me about my work. Do not fear to hurt me…I will take such criticism as proofs of sympathy worth a thousand times more than flattery.”
Generally speaking, writers, painters, ballet dancers, actors, and composers are quite probably the toughest-on-themselves, most self-critical creatures on this globe. Only the poorer and most naive of them are seduced by undeserved praise. If there are flaws in their work, they almost always recognize them before anyone else. Tell a prima ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will shake her head and say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly.” And if the criticism of their work is unfair and not justified, they recognize that too.
The whole reason for being of the creator is to produce fully realized, polished works that as closely as possible approximate the ideal of “The best I can do at this time. In a year I should have more knowledge and should be able to do better if I keep working and learning, and in five years, better still. But right now this is the best I am capable of.”
Until you can say that, the work isn’t finished and needs more attention. That attitude should be yours as long as you paint, as long as you write, as long as you dance, as long as you act, as long as you compose.
© 2017 David J. Rogers
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