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An interesting exchange! I thought you might be interested in some thoughts I have based around research we’re conducting for our book on creative practice.

I read a little while ago that every time Kurt Vonnegut finished a novel he used to grade it. Sometimes the grades he gave his own books were accurate in terms of the success and critical acclaim they eventually achieved but in most cases, they bared no relation. For example, he ‘failed’ his best-selling book Breakfast of Champions with a D whilst he gave one of his least popular novels Jailbird an A++.

One of the common attributes of creative people finds psychologist Dean Simonton (who I first got to read about in Adam Grant’s book Originals) is that they are extraordinarily rubbish at judging whether the thing they’re writing, creating, inventing or making at the time will be a hit or a miss. And when they do feel sure, they invariably get it wrong.

In one study he writes about composers like Handel who pinned all his hopes on a few operas that nobody other than him ever liked and Beethoven who predicted incorrectly time and time again which of his compositions would be most popular. He also writes about the inventor of the telephone and the light bulb Thomas Edison who registered a mammoth 2,300 patents over his life - most of which were non-starters or complete failures.

Over his career, Simonton studied the work and lives of thousands of famous writers, inventors, artists and musicians to see if they had any common attributes or qualities. He only found one sure-fire indicator of future creative greatness and that was productivity and quantity: "Creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers.They simply produce a greater volume of work which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality” he writes. Point being. Creative people are rarely able to judge whether they’re any ‘good’ or not or whether the thing they’re creating will be loved or loathed. The only thing you can do is to keep making.

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Really interesting insights here. Reminds me of this sentence in Kafka's diaries, from October 20, 1913:

"I am now reading 'The Metamorphosis' at home and find it bad."

Kafka, no! It's good! Really, really good!!

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I think you make a great point. I would put forward that, not only is there no correlation between being a great artist and being a great judge of your own art, but that most are spectacularly bad at it. It's a gut feeling but I think the best and happiest artist don't even waste much time asking the question.

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Hi Matt yes I think that's broadly true. However I think there's a split between creatives who are happy to churn out work but not necessarily improve (which is totally fine) and those who want to up their game. We find that successful writers (and artists) might not spend too much time thinking about whether they're good or not but they do learn from their mistakes. I like this quote from the journalist Oliver Burkeman who said: “The really important thing about habits and habit change is that the thing you’re training is not the behaviour but the failure of the behaviour. It’s getting back on the horse once you’ve fallen off rather than never falling off.” Any creative endeavour can involve failure, confidence-knocks and crushing self-doubt – falling off the horse is fine. What matters is how you respond to failures when they occur.

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Feb 28, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

Yes this is all so true Matt. Just how does one decide if one is good at doing art of anything, besides just 'loving to do it', is poser.

But if you are doing it for reward and especially payment and all efforts in that regard fails, then you should probably admit your talent sucks and give up. But if it is just for your own pure enjoyment, then continue regardless. Who knows, you might yet be come into vogue.

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it is amazing how you just expressed the great secret of creativity : quantity. I keep explaining that, but it often turns into "hard work", which is linked of course, but which does not quite explained it. I am sure Mason Currey speaks about it in his books, but i found it in a bizarre way by writing my stand up show. It is so obvious in humour and advertising. I am so waiting forward to reading MC's book... that is waiting at home. Juste waiting for the end of the lock down here to come back ! Thanks for the comment, please keep us update on the book release !

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Feb 18, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

standup is a great example. You keep trying and polishing things.

I've read these stories of writers throwing away their first three or four books, or just finding them not good enough for publishing. I'm writing my first full-length novel right now, and I keep learning things as I go and integrating them into the book. If this book isn't good enough, I'm gonna work on it until it is, ya know?

This idea of needing multiple iterations -- I find it goes against the grain of our impatient minds (and again, productivity, time-is-money culture), but it's so legitimately the way anything improves! Figuring out what that looks like in writing has been a challenge. Like right now I have sections I've written in three different POVs because I need to pick one, and I figured I need to just see it and see what actually works best. There's this voice in my head saying "just do it right the first time!" and I need to tell that voice to hush. We have to be able to explore what the best way is rather than assume somehow we ought to instinctively, magically *know* what will work on the page. And edit edit edit, get feedback, edit, let it sit, come back to it.... god it's time-consuming! But nothing else I'd prefer to do with my time, so . . .

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Yes, quantity definitely seems to precede quality! And I do think it's interesting how comedians seem to take a very workmanlike approach to writing, rewriting the same joke over and over until it lands just so. Hope you enjoy the book!

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Mason, I LOVED what you wrote. It captures perfectly everything I might have ever wanted to write on this. Thank you. :)

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Thank you, that means a lot!

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Masonnnnn. As usual, your advice is insanely helpful. Creative burnout feels like an accurate-as-hell diagnosis. I actually just read that Odell book and loved it. And big, muscular thanks to everyone commenting here. I'm finding all of these helpful.

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So glad to hear that advice was useful—thank you for letting me know!

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Feb 18, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

I love being on this forum! I'm always shaking my head at how much Mason's books and writing impact my life, and sometimes write him to tell him that ... but it's so great to see other people also warming their hands at this good fire, and to see Mason being thanked! yay!

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Aw, thanks, that's very sweet of you to say ☺️

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I wondered aloud yesterday, "Why am I not a creative person? Why am I not creating?" My husband asked, "What question do you want an answer to? :) Well, he is reluctant to provide answers because I am awfully stubborn, and I don't heed his advice. But I feel that this is a kind of jungle you walk through alone, and light often breaks through (it does!) but walking is the idea. There's a Sanskrit word I adore, AbhyAsA. A simple meaning for the word is "practice." In my early 40s, I am now beginning to think that EVERYTHING is practice. A practice in cultivating awareness, being still, watching oneself, going with the flow, being gentle, reminding oneself to come to the moment, again and again. A kind of allowing for Life/Energy to express itself through you with patience, love, and gentleness. And it does, it always does.

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EVERYTHING IS PRACTICE — love that!

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I always want to emphasize to my painting students that you have to focus more on the process than the outcome. Each individual outcome can be considered a success or a failure but you have to take a step back and think about your development. If you continue to work with the perspective that you're Learning (or like Lakshmi said, that you're Practicing) that changes a lot. Not to say you can't still be discouraged by setbacks but if you try to adopt the position that you've learned something from those setbacks it cushions the blow.

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Really excellent advice — your students are lucky to have you.

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Feb 18, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

YES! Learning meditation practice, this message has also seeped into the rest of my life. Everything is practice!

Doesn't mean we don't finish things, but the approach is gold, and has changed my life.

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to me, practice is the lower brain (belly brain, our first one) digesting what the upper brain (intellect, our second brain) taught him. And ultimately transforming it into experience through trial and errors. And by the way, we are all creative the same way we can all run. As some run faster, some create faster. To run faster, you just need to like it and...practice ;-)

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I definitely agree with the need to rest and the need to understand that in that rest time, the brain is doing something good for your creativity. The well is filling back up, as Julia Cameron would say. Patience is so hard to muster, but essential and usually not achieved through brute force. If you are like me, it can often feel like time is running out and every day that you don't produce that finally cathartic piece of work that holds up to your ambitions and is received with overwhelming praise, feels like just another sign of proof that you will never get there. As a new mother of twins in her early 40s just beginning her career as a filmmaker, I definitely hear the clock ticking on my creative livelihood. Sometimes it gets too loud for me to concentrate on the reason why I am abandoning a steady job for a precarious career as a creative. My soul needs it. There has to be some sense of peace and quiet to create and I always have to remind myself to recognize when it's not quiet enough. One thing I am growing to be open to when it's too loud is to engage in enjoyable things (god forbid!). In those light moments of enjoying life, inspiration has a way of making a surprise entrance.

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Love this, especially the last part. I often worry that if I take a break/let myself rest I won't get "enough" done . . . but then lashing myself to the desk, gritting my teeth, and forcing out the work doesn't exactly create great results!

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Katherin, congrats on taking the plunge and beginning your career as a filmmaker! And as a new mother of twins, no less! You are my hero.

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I can offer another perspective. I am not a writer, I paint. Non-stop. For years I wanted to be discovered, get a show etc etc ... It didn't work out and I was miserable and burnt out. I was really suffering. Then it occurred to me that I really love painting, and this need to be accepted and validated was keeping me from enjoy it. So I let it go. The need for acceptance. I will never be known or famous or rich or even respected by peers. I paint every day. I am happy.

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Feb 18, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

Thank you for sharing this! "I paint every day. I am happy." YES!

I'm still hoping to get published, mainly with hopes of making enough so I can write part-time or full-time AND pay the bills :) but you're right . . . focusing on the unknowable future is a recipe for frustration. And an ugly competitiveness, potentially.

I was reading a book recently, and it said "what are the stakes for your protagonist?" And then it said "what are the stakes if you don't keep writing this book?" It pushed me to think this through. I want to be writing, whether or not others recognize my work. I feel it's why I'm here. So that's a deeply settling thing to come to.

Thanks, Stefan, for sharing your story.

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Love this. So few people end up making it big as artists that if you're not enjoying your practice *at all* then it's definitely time for a change. Glad you found a way to shift your perspective and enjoy painting again.

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Dec 1, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

I'd say to this writer- cut yourself a break! We are in a clustercuss of tough things right now. I know the "Shakespeare wrote Lear" line, but he also probably didn't have to worry about vaccine distribution or a new baby.

It is ok to not be fully productive right now. Indeed, I'd say it's expected. Enjoy playing with your baby, drinking coffee, and doing whatever you need to pay the bills, and come back to your own work again later. It will be there when you are ready.

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Excellent succinct advice! Agree 100% about now not being the time to expect to be fully productive.

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

It seems like T is focusing on writing and rewriting as his primary method of practicing, rather than taking the smallest part of the task that he feels needs to be improved.

For example:

If your stories are bland, your practice should involve simply creating outlines with good twists, not writing entire stories.

If your sentences feel uninspired, focus on describing one thing and writing it as many ways as possible. (E.g., "she looked over at him," vs "she glanced at him, wondering if he was still interested in her," vs "she pretended to look at the stove, focusing her periphery on his glistening skin.")

Writing an entire novel or short story forces you to spend too much time on the things you already do well, and make it harder to measure your progress on the areas that need improvement.

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Such a rational, reasonable approach! I guess the tricky part, though, is that what makes good writing good can be so ineffable. Like, you can have an amazing plot and well-crafted sentences and still end up with writing that feels completely inert and lifeless...

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Regarding Mason’s prescription that the writer take a break from writing to regenerate... in addition to reading Jenny Odell’s HOW TO DO NOTHING for inspiration, I would recommend Katherine May’s WINTERING: THE POWER OF REST AND RETREAT IN DIFFICULT TIMES. May richly describes the necessary creative void of times in our lives, fallow times, that bring us back to our work stronger than before. Her thesis and hope that “lost” time isn’t lost at all plays out across her book, which is a lyrical catalog of her experiences and routines during wintering periods that had nothing to do with her writing career, yet in binding together thoughts and experiences from that allegedly “fallow” time created a motivating, thoughtful argument for rest.

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Thanks for the book rec, Eden! Adding it to my list now!

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Thank you for the recommendation, I'm ordering this book now!

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Same here. Thanks, Eden.

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There’s this option, too: Stop writing for others & start writing for yourself. Writing doesn’t have to be for other people.

I discovered this when I saw some flowers that were so beautiful I felt my life was worth living just to see them. I wanted to be able to see them in my mind, so I kept looking at them and started describing them to myself to help me *see* them. Over time I started writing my flower descriptions down. The language I discovered to describe them was my own. For the first time I claimed the freedom to use language for myself, not having to Do It Right according to other people’s rules.

I now have a “good notebook” where I write down each day the beautiful things I saw & experienced, the things I accomplished, the things that make me feel like I’ve lived that day. I haven’t ever felt like criticizing how I’m writing this. I do it because it helps me.

Since discovering writing for myself, it now strikes me as odd that our whole school education on writing is based from the start on What’s Wrong With Your Writing & How It’s Not Good Enough.

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Nov 30, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Mason, this is one of your best advice columns yet! I really enjoyed reading your advice to T. It felt like the perfect blend of compassion and tough love.

The part that really resonated with me was this. "What I don’t hear is whether you know what you’re after. Do you feel a pressure inside you, of an idea or a sense of the world that you want to convey? Is there a kind of writing you want to read but which doesn’t seem to exist, and which you’re trying to invent?"

After seriously working on my own writing for the past 17 years, and having worked with both writing students and other writers as both an instructor and a colleague, this is, in my mind, the MOST important thing you need in order to ride the waves of this challenging profession.

What do you want to say to the world? What is the idea that you want people to read, digest, and have percolating in their minds and bodies after finishing your essay, short story, book, play, or script? If you need help with this, I highly recommend the book, INVISIBLE INK by Brian McDonald, and pay close attention to the part about armature.

This is what it's about. Without that motivation of knowing what it is you want to SAY to the world, you are just treading water, but not really swimming.

T, I hope you'll take December off to spend with your A+ baby (congrats!) and your fam. I really hope you can give yourself a true break if it's financially feasible. Having true, deep rest (when you think you've had enough, keep resting) will replenish you and give you time to reflect on what it is that's missing. This is what I do for myself when I've hit a wall with my writing and/or am just burnt out with it all. There's something inside you that wants to be out in the world. Give it time and space to reveal itself. Wishing you all the best!

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Peg, thanks for the kind words, the book recommendation, and the very wise advice about true, deep rest as the route to creative breakthroughs.

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Dec 7, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

A great thing I'm learning in a course I'm taking for illustration is how to journal so it actually helps you move forward. For the writer, it could be helpful once they start writing again to realize first off, writing something terrible or bland is okay. It's what you do with that afterwards - whenever you write something, journal about it. Journal about what you do and don't like about what you wrote. Try to be specific and clear. Journal about what you envisioned it would be. Once you keep doing this, you'll have a much clearer idea of what it is that keeps happening when you sit down to write - what the 'mistakes' are that you keep doing over and over because you haven't taken the time to critically and introspectively think about them. We often don't see clearly what we are reverting back to or what is a habit (good or bad) or what we actually are getting better at because we're so caught up in this existential crisis/success/what if it never happens mode. It's been helpful in my art, so wanted to share!

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Good tip, and very much agree that we often can't see our own bad habits—or when we're getting better! I like the idea that journaling can help with this.

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Dec 3, 2020Liked by Mason Currey

Progress and hope are key. When we want to do some "great work" we're often comparing ourselves to an imaginary 'perfect' version of ourselves (and our work) or to the 'greats' that we admire. Both are deadly and deadening. We need to look at our unsatisfactory present work in the context of our past work (which means not destroying all our old stuff). If we do that we can see genuine improvement in our art there is hope. If your old stuff sucks WAY more than your new stuff, you're getting better! It will also show more clearly what your tropes and 'besetting sins' and bad habits are and at least give clues on how to fix them.

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Paul Kalanithi puts it brilliantly in _When Breath Becomes Air_. "You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." To that end, take solace in the pursuit rather than the arrival. Per Rilke, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

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I really liked the depth of your response. There is a lot to do (or stop doing) based on your advice. The context (pandemic, newborn) impacts differently people and that's good to be reminded that it's important to accept the different stages of creativity. I'm also wondering if T. found her audience I mean the readers who like her writings and could tell her from a honest and authentic viewpoint what they enjoy so that she builds on that leveraging the core of her style. Thoughts from a marketer !

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Thanks, Marjolaine! I think you're right that finding one's audience can help a great deal, too — or, perhaps even better, finding some synergy or overlap between what satisfies your own ambitions and what your readers respond to.

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Feb 18, 2021Liked by Mason Currey

Mason, I love your advice to rest, however strongly that goes against the grain of our capitalist culture. The idea of letting things simmer at the back of the stove while I go out and hike, learn to meditate, get into nature, watch shows....that's been awesome for me. It can't always be conscious work. I find myself caught with best work bubbling up right after or during times when I'm not thinking about writing at all.

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"It can't always be conscious work" — so true! I think we all have to find our ideal balance of head-down, focused work time plus unstructured wandering, letting things bubble up, etc.

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