My answer to my own dumb question

May 26, 2014

I’m not an avid reader, but from time to time I’ve picked up a James Ellroy book, to enjoy his noir storytelling and deft wordsmithery.  Several years ago, I found myself at a bookstore appearance by Ellroy, but I’d never been to such an event, so I had no pre-conceived notion of what to expect.  Soon enough, I found myself waiting in line to have a book signed and realized that the people ahead of me were actually talking to the man.  I sincerely had nothing to say to Ellroy (or anybody else, for that matter), but knew that I needed to say sonething anything to keep him from realizing what a weird non-reader I was.  So when it was my turn, I stepped up an fumbled out the words “do you think you’re getting better as a writer?”  I don’t remember what Ellroy’s answer to my dumb question was, but I was thankful that the confident, accomplished writer didn’t take it as an insult.

But years later, in my own creative pursuits, I’ve formed my own answer to the general question:  does an artist continue to get better as he continues to work?  I say no.  Based on my own experiences, I think an artist will grow in his early years (perhaps for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) but then the artist reaches a plateau of ability, and must then explore how he wants to use that ability.  He decides how to apply his skills, his point of view, and his life experiences, to create compelling and relevant art.

Obviously gifted artists can create different kinds of work throughout their career, whether we’re talking about the different periods of Picasso’s career, or the various solo albums released by the Beatles, an artist’s work evolves as they change of human beings.  But to question whether an artist of a certain level is still getting better… that’s just dumb.

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