The Pain of Killer Taste

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“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me — is that, all of us who do creative work, like, you know we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap that, for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, okay?  It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.  You know what I mean?  A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point, they quit.  And the thing I would just like to say to you, with all my heart, is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as what they wanted it to be; they knew it fell short.  It didn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.  And the thing to know is everybody goes through that. And if you go through it, you’re going through it right now, you’re just getting out of that phase, you gotta know, it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you could do is:  do a lot of work.  Do a huge volume of work.  Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month, you know you’re gonna finish one story.  It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually gonna catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while, it’s normal to take a while, and you’ve just have to fight your way through that, okay?”

Ira Glass*, writer and creator of This American Life

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with creatives who find themselves paralyzed by this dynamic, caught between their vision and their efforts; Ira Glass, in the above quote, articulates this phenomenon brilliantly.  It’s a brutal experience to look at something you’ve just created and hear that voice say, “what a piece of crap.”  You are both the hangman and the hanged, the righteousness of your condemnation as painful as being condemned.  

Most psychotherapies include work that focuses on or at least addresses the disempowering things we say to ourselves, calling ourselves stupid, ugly, worthless, etc., — technically, negative self-talk — and it is an important task in psychotherapy to explore how to deconstruct, respond to, or let go of that internal dialog.  Most negative self-talk develops from disempowering things others have said to or about us, or negative self-talk we’ve heard significant others direct toward themselves, especially when we were very small and learning about ourselves and our world.  Those messages get inculcated into our psyche and, eventually, we lose our conscious awareness that they originally came from outside of us:  they become “just the way I am.”  

But the kind of negative self-talk that Glass is talking about is subtly and importantly different from this:  while it feels — and can be — self-directed, a critical component of it is the voice of your artistic sense, your creative intuition.  Have you ever seen or heard the early works of your artistic heroes?  How many of them actually appeal to your creative sense?  Even our best untrained works are not going to be hung in MoMA or recorded on Nonesuch; they are the product of a developing talent, not a mature one.  The discomfort, even shock, of seeing how far short one’s work falls from one’s vision can manifest as a peculiar kind of harsh self-talk that, far from being a dysfunction, is evidence of a strength, even if it’s painful.  

That said, this strength, this voice of your creative intuition can be hard to distinguish from the more dysfunctional variety of negative self-talk and can even be co-opted by it.  In my work with creative folks, we often spend time exploring this difference and developing ways of supporting your artistic sense and expanding the conduit to it, while dismantling negative self-talk.  As you learn to identify your old, negative narratives and develop skills to cope with them, you are freed up to listen to the creative guide that defines your vision as an artist.  Further, as the clarity of this vision resolves and you feel more acutely the distance between it and its manifestation, we can work together to help you push through that discomfort to produce efforts that ever more closely resemble your ideal.  



*I found several indirect citations for this quote, but the original YouTube video from which it was apparently transcribed appears no longer to be available.  My sources:


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