To anyone whose creative process is a clean, methodical, straight-forward matter, you can ignore this post (also, I hate you).
To everyone else, I want to put forward a theory. We mostly think of creative talent as something that can be improved steadily. Say, you write a book. It sucks. But you learn from it, and the next book you write comes out better. You learn from that one too, and your third book is even better than the second. You learn from that one, and the fourth book is so good you win major awards and attached the phrase “New York Times Bestselling Author” to the front of your name. And so on.
But this is faulty thinking. There are countless examples of authors whose first books make a big splash, garner lots of critical praise, etc, but when their second books come along, the world is less than impressed. There are various reasons why this could be so–expectations set too high by the first book, too much pressure on the author to live up to his or her first effort…
And then there is the matter of creative growing pains. Maybe the second book wasn’t as good as the first because the author is learning and growing, and he or she has hit one of those awkward adolescent phases when the nose is too big for the face, the voice is cracking, acne flares up, and emotions run high. This is the literary equivalent of junior high school.
The unfortunate part of growing creative talent is that those awkward adolescent phases never stop happening. We might write a great book, a lousy book, an okay book, a good book, another lousy book, and then a truly brilliant one. In that order. We get to be homecoming queen one year, and the awkward dork sitting on the sidelines the next.
As readers we all know the disappointment of picking up a book by a favorite author, only to find that we hate it. And maybe we hate the next book he or she writes too, and we start wondering if we shouldn’t just give up on Former Favorite Author. As writers though, we ought to know to be a little more foregiving. We’re all just grasping around, trying our best, hoping we’ve done something someone else will want to read (and, we hope, many someones). Creativity is too messy and mysterious for a clean upward trajectory.
Lori Borrill made a great point in the comments section of my last post (which inspired today’s topic–thanks Lori!), about how she noticed that Meryl Streep’s brilliant career is peppered with bad movies. And yet she’s gone on to keep acting and keep making great movies too. We should all aspire to have such long careers, accepting that no matter how hard we try, there are going to be some horrible growing pains along the way–and some moments of loveliness too.
Who are some of the creative talents you admire most? I bet no matter who you name, their career reflects this process of growing up painfully.