How We Get Better, Part Two
On the artist’s journey, we don’t get better by increments, we get better by fits and starts.
The trajectory is not a smoothly-ascending curve, but a herky-jerky spasm-fest marked by seeming dead-ends, plateaus, dark nights of the soul, intervals of boredom and stasis, not to mention bouts of terror, despair and self-doubt, which are followed, if we’re lucky, by quantum leaps to the next level.
In other words, we advance by breakthroughs.
In last week’s post I talked about my friend Paul, who overnight leap-frogged two or three levels in his writing. What I didn’t say was that that leap was preceded by months and years of toil that had built up to an explosive bursting point.
Have you ever read Laurens van der Post, the South African writer? Among his books are two of my all-time faves, The Lost World of the Kalahari and The Seed and the Sower, which was made into the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring David Bowie.
One of Mr. Van der Post’s theories is that every true change we experience in our lives is accompanied by a fever. A literal fever. Temperature over a hundred.
Van der Post’s idea is that something in us needs to be transformed at the cellular level if we are to permanently evolve aesthetically, emotionally, morally or spiritually.
I believe it.
My own theory is that we progress as artists by mini-“hero’s journeys,” one after the other. Each graduation takes us to the next level, where we find ourselves enrolled again as freshmen—and we start the process all over again.
Like climbing Mt. Everest, we claw ourselves up a brutal vertical ascent, only to realize that we stand at the threshold of a plateau of ice that we must now traverse, one harrowing crevasse at a time, to get to the next ascent.
When we improve as artists, what is happening is less a process of adding layers of skill or technical expertise (though certainly that is happening, and it’s very important) but more an evolution that is characterized by the shedding of false self-conceptions and the jettisoning of self-limiting ideas.
We are finding our voice.
We’re becoming who we really are.
What happened with Paul was that he hit the wall, fell into a bout of fever, his head exploded—and when he sat down again, he started writing for the first time in his real voice.
It’s really hard to write (or paint or dance or shoot film) in your true voice. It takes tremendous courage. That’s why most of us only get there, if we do at all, after an ordeal that pushes us to our limits until, in despair, we give up on the self we have been clinging to so desperately. When we let go of that false self (which is constituted of others’ expectations of us and our own conventional expectations), a breakthrough happens. The fever breaks, and we wake up new.
The catch is that this new self has not achieved nirvana. We’re just one level higher, faced now with the challenges of this new plane.
That’s how the game works, at least in my experience.
We get better one hero’s journey at a time, one breakthrough at a time, one fever at a time.