When I first started working in graphic design, there was one book in particular that I wanted to design a cover for: Manalive by G.K. Chesterton. I even created some mock covers that have thankfully vanished in the mists of time. I wasn’t ready at that time to design a cover for that book. I was still at the stage where the majority of my design work was frustrating for me to look at, because it didn’t look right. It looked as if I had described what I wanted to a sub-par lackey and he had returned with a bizarrely inadequate version of what I had asked for.
It was hard to describe what that feeling was like. Recently I discovered this quote from Ira Glass, the host of the radio show This American Life:
“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 a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I remember a similar thing being said by one of my teachers at the small Californian art school I attended. He told me that of all the students he had taught, the ones who “made it” as artists tended to be the ones who started mediocre. Many of the naturally talented artists would be spectacular for a short time, but then be discouraged by the hard work of perfecting those skills. The mediocre students remembered how hard it was just to get started with their skills and would stay the course to hone their craft until they were good, even great. And the best of them never stopped taking classes, never stopped trying to learn more.
The trick for those of us who work in creative fields is to keep pushing even after the “gap”, as Ira Glass calls it, is bridged. Among artists, they will often talk about hitting the “plateau”, long periods of creative stagnation where it feels like you’ve hit a wall. The key to heading upwards off of that plateau is to start pushing past your creative comfort zone. Keep trying something new, something that doesn’t quite work, something that might lead to a sudden breakthrough. It’s not comfortable: it’s an irritating and sometimes frustrating experience. Another artist I know compared the process of pushing yourself creatively as being like committing to a fitness regimen.
I finally did get a chance to do that cover for Manalive a few years ago. I have many book covers that I look back on and cringe a bit, wondering why I made certain creative choices. So far, I haven’t second-guessed the Manalive cover, and it’s one of my very favorite projects to have worked on. But I couldn’t have done it when I originally wanted to; I needed those years of slowly building up the skills that led to the final design work. It’s when all the all the discomfort and frustration pays off that you realize that it was worth it. So keep pushing!