Closing the Gap Between Your Taste & the Quality of Your Craft

Craft. To me, there is no more foundational of a word to describe the PROCESS of not only becoming a better writer, but becoming better at communicating with and connecting to the world. Craft is a skill set (or series of skill sets) that you hone slowly, often over the course of years.

Craft isn’t a trick, isn’t a shortcut, isn’t a ‘best practice.’ It is experience and the wisdom that comes with it. (Along with, let’s face it: loads of small failures & frustrations!)

I have been thinking a lot about the other essential ingredient that filters into what makes great work: TASTE. And how craft and taste are interrelated. Today, I want to reflect on how three masters of the creative process frame the value of taste…

Ira Glass: The Gap Between Taste, And Great Work

Ira Glass explains this infinitely better than I ever could:

“All of us who do creative work get into it because you have good taste. There is stuff that you just love. But there is a gap, where for the first couple years you are making stuff, what you are making isn’t so good. It’s really 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, like you can tell it is still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point, they quit.”

“The thing I would 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, but they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be, it fell short. It didn’t have that special thing we wanted it to have. Everybody goes through that, and if you are going through it right now, you got to know that it’s totally normal, and the most important thing you can possibly do, is to do a lot of work, do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline.”

“It’s only by going through a volume of work that you are going to actually catch up and close that gap, and the work you are making will be as good as your ambitions.”

In the video, Ira goes on to critique his own work from early on in his career in public radio – taking apart how bad his own writing and delivery is on air. He underscores the point that it took him way longer than others to begin to get good.

The work he is critiquing is from his EIGHTH year in public radio – imagine publicly reviewing your work after EIGHT YEARS of effort, and calling it “moronic” and saying it was “executed in the worst possible way.” By actually hearing the tape he plays, you experience two things at once:

  • An earnest and hard working reporter trying to do their very best.
  • Proof that their work is failing on many levels

Too often, because one has good taste, they feel that work must obviously reflect the quality of their taste. Yet very often, it doesn’t, and that is where CRAFT comes in. The years of honing, of effort, of experience, of feedback, of experiments, of small failures, of small successes.

Taste is what is embodied in the WORK you craft as a writer or creative professional. But more and more, it is a choice you have in how you connect your work to the world. Whether this is “marketing,” or simply how you choose to engage with colleagues or readers of your work. Taste is key decision point in everything. It is also the decision of what you choose NOT to do.

Here are two example from my own experience this year – where I tried to change my habits in order to match up my taste with what the world experiences of my work:

Steve Jobs: Taste is Understanding the Subtly of Better Things

Steve Jobs reflects on the value of taste in this 1995 interview. The context is how he describes Microsoft:

“The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste. They don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their product. Their products have no spirit of enlightenment about them.”

What is so compelling about this interview is that it happened in 1995, before Steve Jobs’ famous “second act,” before the iMac, iPod, iPad, iPhone, App Store and so much else. And in the interview, you do not hear from a man who is trying to get back on top. He was not about to retake Apple, he is a man who seems comfortable knowing that his biggest accomplishments were behind him. Yet, his comments are almost premonitions as far as consumer products go, and his role in them for the next 15 years:

“The way that we are going to ratchet up our species, is to take the best, and to spread it around to everybody, and everybody grows up with better things, and starts to understand the subtly of these better things.”

Now, it is arguable about Apple’s products being “better things,” but I think that the biggest thing that Steve & Apple contributed broadly to culture is an appreciation of TASTE. Even if you reject Apple’s products, likely that choice is based on a deeper appreciation of taste as it comes to product design and function – DUE to Apple’s affect on our culture. Perhaps you prefer open source mobile operating systems, or a design set that Google provides you over Apple. Awesome! That level of appreciation to detail did not exist as broadly in 1995 as it does in 2014, thanks to Steve.

John Cleese: Creativity is Not a Talent. It is a Way of Operating

While taste and creativity are different topics, I do feel they are related in this context. John Cleese adds something to this conversation that both supports what Ira and Steve said:

“Creativity is Not a Talent. It is a Way of Operating”

He expands it to consider the tone of how one creates a large body of work (as Ira encourages) and how one challenges every detail (as Steve encourages):

“Creativity is not an ability you have or do not have. It is an ability to play – to be able to play with ideas, to explore them, not for any immediate practical purpose, but just for enjoyment. Play for it’s own sake.”

He talks about different modes of operating: closed and open, and the value of each, including the ability to move back and forth fluidly between them. Here is the full talk:

Selling Out

Whenever you work in the creative arts, there is often a sensitivity to the concept of “selling out.” In this context, I would say that oftentimes we lose taste when we make decisions solely for economic purposes.

For instance, when a new store opens, the owner often creates a front counter that is sparse and spotless. It is elegant, and with good taste. Over time, it get crowded with more products encouraging last-minute impulse-buys.

In the beginning they made counter-design decisions based on taste. “This looks elegant and professional.” Over time, the realities of the economics of running a shop took over: “Getting more revenue makes this entire venture sustainable.”

And I think that for writers, musicians, artists and other types of creators, this gets further confused with the distinction of what is economically successful is not always in good taste or of high quality. We seek validation, but that validation may exist outside of our own personal barometers of taste and craft.

I never said any of this was simple.

Developing Your Taste

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I feel that taste and craft are closely linked, and that for writers who want to be read, there is more than one craft at work here. Clearly, there is the craft of creating wonderful stories and writing. That is primary.

But there is also the craft of producing a great book – a physically great object – as well as the craft that I focus on with authors – of how they connect to the world in a way that is meaningful to both them personally, that does justice to the work itself, ensuring it has an effect on the lives of their readers.

A lot of writers resist anything having to do with connecting themselves to readers because they are worried about becoming over-promotional. What is sometimes going on here is that their TASTE is to be elegant and unobtrusive. They fight the idea of taking an active role in developing their audience by saying statements such as “shouldn’t a writer JUST write?!” Now, clearly, that is a personal choice. But for those who want to develop their audience, they have to establish the CRAFT of connecting their writing to the world in a way that is meaningful, and not overly promotional.

As Ira, Steve, and John all talked about: the craft of good work takes time. I have written about this topic in the past in a variety of ways:

What has your experience been of trying to close the gap between your taste and the quality of your craft?

Thanks.
-Dan

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