We all like to think that creative people are another class; that they exist on some higher plane than the rest of us where everything is easy and amusing. We like to think that they have a clear vision of what they are doing at all times; a clear vision of where they’re headed, and what they’re saying…
(If you’ll allow me a brief sports metaphor) we often talk about creative people the way that sportscasters talk about tall quarterbacks: “they can just see further down the field.”
Now, let me first say that I use the words “we all like to think” with supreme confidence. This flawed image of creative people is something that I’ve thought (hell, there are still days that I think it.) I hear it out of people’s mouths and see it in their actions. We embody this belief that creative people are a different breed every time we use the phrase “naturally talented.” And that phrase, “naturally talented,” is arsenic to our creativity.
It’s true, tall quarterbacks may actually see further down the field, but does that really make the choice of who to throw to easier? Does being taller make the enormous men running at you move any slower? Tall quarterbacks don’t have to practice less. They don’t take the week off while the special teams run laps, and the linemen hit the sleds. Being tall might be a natural advantage but it also makes you a bigger target. Not every kid over six foot grows up to be Joe Montana (or to play basketball.) And not every 10-year-old who can play the piano grows up to be Mozart.
Now, sports metaphors aren’t normally my thing, but I think they work here. They work because creatives, like athletes, have to bust their asses. They have to practice every day. They have to bang their heads against the wall with frustration and then turn around and go back to work. I honestly think this is why child-prodigies don’t grow up to rule the world. Everything comes to them too easily, too fast, and too young. They never learn to struggle; they never learn to push. And when they finally hit the steep incline that everyone else has been pushing against their whole lives, the prodigies are baffled. “Why can’t I just do this.” Without the toughness and the tools that the rest of develop, they stop progressing, they retract from the obstacles, they get jobs selling tires and then they fade into the crowd.
As a teenager, I used to read interviews in guitar magazines trying figure out what these people, these famous musicians, knew that I didn’t know. I’d buy the albums that they bought, read the books that they read, dream of the gear that they used; in hopes that one day the creative code would decypher itself in gold holograms in the air before my eyes. I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to hear what they heard, see what they saw, know what they knew — because I thought that was the hard part: changing species. After that, I just supposed music and words and paintings came flowing out fully formed, like revelations.
But that’s not the way that things worked; it’s not the way things work. Hendrix broke a lot of strings, Rodin ruined a lot of stone, Escoffier spilled a lot of veal stock. The only thing they knew that I didn’t was that novels don’t get written on the couch watching reruns. Albums come from blood. Symphonies spring from demoralized hearts; from desperation — not the desperation to be loved, or appreciated, or admired — masterpieces spring from the desperation to grow, to learn, to get one yard closer to an ever-moving goal line. Creation lives in effort, in the battle, in the unknowing and the pushing.
In the decades since my interview-scouring days, I’ve learned something else: I am a creative. I am a creative person because I choose to be. I am a creative person because I wake up every day and I make myself into one. I sit in the chair and I manifest imperfections. I embrace the drills and the dropped balls and the scratched out paragraphs. Because there is no long-term advantage to “natural talent;” there is no higher plane, no supreme species, no Rosetta Stone. There’s just us, nothing more than dreaming teens willing to crack and to crap and to suck and to keep reaching toward a distant point that we can’t even see.