Tortoise/hare paths to creativity

What if you're someone who's been working at comedy for years and nothing ever happens? When is it time to quit? I asked that a while back. Couple of articles I read recently reminded me of the topic.

Stephen King argues you need to know when to give up as a writer.

The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid. If you're not talented, you won't succeed. And if you're not succeeding, you should know when to quit.

When is that? I don't know. It's different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it's time you tried painting or computer programming.

Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer - you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It's lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices ... unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you'll know which way to go ... or when to turn back.

Then again, economist David Galenson has studied creative output and found there are different paths for successful artists. If you judge by the current value of their artwork, some artists burn bright early and then fade away (Andy Warhol peaked at 33, Frank Stella at 24, Jasper Johns at 27), while others grow over the long-term and do their best work later in life (Willem de Kooning at 43, Mark Rothko at 54, Robert Motherwell at 72). The same split is seen in writers too.

Conceptual poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Plath, each of whom made sudden breaks from convention and emphasized abstract ideas over visual observations, were early achievers. Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at 23 and “The Wasteland” at 34. Pound published five volumes of poetry before he turned 30. On the other hand, experimental poets like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, whose work is grounded in concrete images and everyday language, took years to mature. For example, both Pound and Frost lived into their eighties. But by the time Pound turned 40, he had essentially exhausted his creative output. Of his anthologized poems, 85 percent are from his twenties and thirties. By comparison, Frost got a late start. He has more poems in anthologies than any other American poet, but he wrote 92 percent of them after his 40th birthday.

On and on it goes. Conceptualist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby – light on character development, heavy on symbolism – when he was 29. Experimentalist Mark Twain frobbed around with different writing styles and formats and wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 50. Conceptualist Maya Lin redefined our notion of national monuments while still a college student; experimentalist Frank Lloyd Wright created Fallingwater when he was 70...

We should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days may lie ahead. Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.

So even if you suck now, maybe you're a comedy Rothko who will bloom later in life. Maybe.

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5 Comment(s)

Blogger myq said...

Dangerfield is a decent example of someone giving it a go early, not succeeding as much as desired, quitting, then coming back older and making it happen.

But then he died, so eventually it will stop working out no matter what.

In death we are all equal. Unless some religion is right.
#wayofftopicnow #keepgoing?

12/13/10, 2:42 PM  
Blogger Gonzalo said...

I quit all the time.

12/13/10, 5:14 PM  
Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

Here is advice that people could use on their journey (only read the advice that applies to you):

0-3 years in: You're hilarious! Keep going!

4-6 years in: Okay, I was lying before, but you're finally funny. Don't stop now.

6-9 years in: Romano didn't get his big break until he was pushing 40 and had a family. Prioritize as you see fit.

10-15 years in: You have no other skills. There is no turning back.

white guy: the business is oversaturated with your type, and you'll never make it. By the way don't forget to pronounce the headliner's name correctly - Sir Farts-a-Lot.

woman: you're impaired by your gender so you'll never make it. By the way please remember to pronounce the headliner's name correctly - Sir Farts-a-Lot.

non-white guy: I don't know what to tell you Josh. You never listen to me.

ventriloquists: You like money don't you? (throwing foam monkey) WEAR THE PUPPET!

15-20yrs: We have a new game show that needs a host.

12/13/10, 5:19 PM  
Blogger Josh Homer said...

Haha Abbi!!!!!

12/16/10, 5:28 PM  
Anonymous ECN said...

I think (he says, much later) the difference here is that we're not talking about basic competence.

These aren't people who tried art when they were 25, couldn't so much as draw a tree, and then succeeded two decades later.

These are people who had all the technical skills they needed, were producing good work, but eventually did better work.

So yeah, Dangerfield is a good example. There was nothing Dangerfield was missing early in his career -- it just took him a while to give his act the resonance it needed. Some dude who has no timing and can't craft a punchline? Not as good an example.

1/9/11, 4:13 AM