In the arts, what is it that separates competence and excellence? The same as in nearly any other pursuit: some combination of talent, interest, ability, resources, effort, and time. Lots and lots of practice time.
What about attention to detail?
That’s something different from all the rest. Because one can have all the talent in the world and spend a lot of time and effort practicing their craft, but, if they’ve no eye for detail, progress slowly, if at all.
Typically, however, natural ability goes hand in hand with what I’d call “creative dissatisfaction”.
What do I mean by that?
Decades ago, when I was just starting out as a custom props builder and set builder, my attention to detail, a.k.a. “my eye” was, well, just adequate. I did decent enough work that nearly from the moment I “hung a shingle”, I had enough work, word of mouth, to support myself, my wife, and our then three young kids. But I could see issues – flaws – imperfections – in my work, although I also believed that given more time and practice, the gap between my desired results and my actual results would close.
Until that occurred, however, the work I created created a dissatisfaction in me. A nagging feeling that “I can do better”.
Initially, the gap manifested in a million frustrating ways. Joints that were out of square. Welds that, even when they didn’t fail, looked terrible. Sanding swirl marks visible in stained wood. Loose-fitting parts. Screws with stripped heads or threads due to overtightening. Clunky aesthetics. Dull tools. Hardened drips in painted or polyurethaned surfaces. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Ira Glass, host of the weekly radio show and podcast This American Life, once said, “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.”
Here’s the thing, though, Ira. Early on, you don’t necessarily even have good taste! You simply don’t know what you don’t know. You’re working in a vacuum. Hence, like our kids before we ever let them have sugar in their bland oatmeal, contentedly finishing their heaping bowls full of the stuff and cluelessly contributing to maintaining their parents’ spare budget (for which their parents thank them), you’re contented with everything you create. Then, one day, probably at your grandparents’ home, you’re introduced to Captain Crunch, which, besides delivering a sugar rush, produces a new dissatisfaction in you. Wood shavings. All this time, you’ve been eating wood shavings.
When my daughter, Sophie, was being homeschooled and in her middle school years, her writing teacher (ahem) once returned her essay to her for more corrections no less than seventeen times. She still recalls how that experience, frustrating at the time, helped her to hone her ability to see flaws in her work, a process that, as an editor these days, she continues to find enjoyable.
I play a fair amount of pickleball these days, and find the same process at work in me, a similar dissatisfaction, when I watch the local professional players practicing (a.k.a. drilling) or playing on an adjacent court. Colorado Springs is blessed to be home to a number of such “senior pros” (50 +) like Joe Fresca, Scott Moore, and Bill Muno. Moore, in fact, currently holds the record as the most accomplished senior male pickleball player in the world, with twenty-one national titles (fairly evenly divided between singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles), and seven “triple crowns” – times he’s won gold in all three events at a national tournament. (Watching them up close and personal, I find myself thinking, like Paul Newman exclaims in one of my all time favorite films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when viewing the expert trackers who were leading a posse in their direction, at night, over bare rock, “I couldn’t do that, can you do that? How can they do that??”
What produces creative dissatisfaction in one’s art or craft? For me, creative dissatisfaction was perhaps first birthed into my fledgling artistry due to being introduced to a modicum of culture; of a widening of my comprehension of what was possible, in the arts, starting in high school. This was initially delivered via the Gardener’s Art History book we had in art class, as well as by viewing my own teacher, Floyd Tunson’s work, up close and personal. Later, I recall feeling this creative dissatisfaction rising in me when I went to art museums. Much of the work I saw there had something I knew mine didn’t. I often couldn’t articulate, even to myself, what it was, but knew deep down that my work was sorely lacking. Ira Glass’ gap opened up. In more recent years, having had the opportunity to do more overseas travel, I’ve been left with a similar feeling, particularly when viewing Europe’s great art and architecture.
Kokoshka, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Sheesh, this is good.
El Anatsui, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Amazing, amazing work.
A hum-drum, average street somewhere in Porto, Portugal.
Creative dissatisfaction. Although I want to explore the notion more, I’ll end this post with one final thought:
Society sorely needs more of the creatively dissatisfied.