In anticipation of my annual Christmas card, I’ve been tinkering around with songwriting recently. I’ll be honest, it’s miserable and I hate it.
The difficultly lies in embracing that fact that I’m not very good at it. As with anything else, you have to allow yourself to be bad at something before you can be good at it. And as much as I love music, I’m riddled with impatience as I attempt to craft lyrics and melodies. I know I’m holding myself to a unrealistic standard for a beginner.
In detailing this process to a friend recently, one metaphor in particular seemed apt–that of a door. It’s as if creative ideas exist inside us and our skill becomes the doorway through we manifest them in the world. The more practiced your craft, the larger your doorway and the easier it seems to manifest your creative ideas.
The idea of honing a craft speaks to one of my favorite stories from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear:
[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
The student who spends a semester making pot after pot refines their shape and size of the doorway, allowing their ideas to move seamlessly into the world. The student who has spent their entire semester honing their idea may have the perfect pot inside them, but they don’t possess a way to externalize that idea.
The more work we do, the more refined our skill. The more refined the skill, the easier the work becomes.