The Gaps, Crap and Gumption Traps in Creative Work
December 23, 2011
The poster above reflects hard-won wisdom acquired and shared by Ira Glass, host of PRI's This American Life, emphasizing the importance of perseverance in developing mastery of creative production. While Glass focuses on storytelling for radio and television, his insights and experiences about the gaps between ambitions and realizations - and the connections between quantity and quality - relate to wisdom I've encountered from masters of the crafts of filmmaking and maintaining motorcycles. I believe this wisdom applies to any creative endeavor, and I would argue that storytelling is an essential ingredient in every creative enterprise, as the creative things we produce and consume comprise an integral part of the stories we make up about ourselves.
The poster is derived from a video interview posted in August 2009 (Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 3 of 4) in which he describes both the frustration and importance of making stuff that is still "kind of crappy" as an unavoidable part of the apprenticeship required for the journey to master craftspersonship ... and, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap anyway.
Ira Glass is my favorite interviewer, and so I was intrigued when he was interviewed by another experienced interviewer, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong. The interview, which appeared in a June 2010 Slate article, On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong, offers some glimpses of the wisdom captured in the pithy poster above:
One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.
In a recent American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, the prolific writer, actor and director shared a similar perspective on the need to produce lots of stuff. Although the documentary is no longer viewable online, an interview with Robert B. Weide, the documentary filmmaker - a filmmaker filming a filmmaker - is available, in which Weide shares Allen's Quantity Theory:
You ask him [Woody Allen] about his endurance and his longevity over 40 years, and how prolific he is, doing a film a year for 40 years, as a writer and a director, and in many of them, an actor. And he says, "You know, longevity and endurance have their place, those are accomplishments of a sort, but those aren't the accomplishments I care about, which is to make a really great film." He says that he's working on the quantity theory, which is that if you just keep knocking them out, one picture after another, just keep making them and making them, some of them won't be that great, but every now and then, one will come out good.
Allen's Quantity Theory brings to mind the Metaphysics of Quality, and the idea of a gumption trap that Robert Pirsig described in his classic 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps - externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience - and ways of addressing and overcoming them. I won't include the full text of Pirsig's hypothetical course in Gumptionology 101 here, but the following passage gives a sense of his perspective, and its relevance to the views shared more recently by Ira Glass and Woody Allen:
Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined "irreplaceable" assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."
There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.
Pirsig's ideas about gumption were part of the inspiration for this blog, and I have consciously and unconsciously encountered some of these traps when writing - and not writing - posts here. When I look back on my early posts, many of them now seem like crap ... and I don't think any of the posts I've written - or anything I've produced in any other realm - have ever quite closed the gap between my ambitions and my realizations. I suppose blogging gives me a channel through which to work out - or at least work with - the ongoing tension between striving and acceptance.
Finally, speaking of blogging, I first encountered the poster at the top of this post a few weeks ago at the top of a post at Tim Kastelle's blog (which I always enjoy) on How to Make Things Look Simple. Tim found it amid one of the longest chains of Tumblr reblogs I've ever encountered, but further searching suggests that it was originally created by Sawyer Hollenshead. In digging around for the source, I also found a plain text version of the Ira Glass quote on a blog maintained by NPR's Fresh Air associate producer Melody Kramer, which I'll include - and conclude with - here, as I find it more readable (though less striking) than the poster:
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.