In 2009, during an interview, radio host Ira Glass shared rare insights into what it means to be a creative. The kind of insights that are just at the edge of our mind’s peripheral vision; he managed to pull into focus an often overlooked element about the act of creation.
What drives us to create in the first place is not a desire to play god, but rather our hunger for art.
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … 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, OK? It’s not that great. 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, you know what I mean?” — Ira Glass
He later goes on to make his most valuable contribution: the most important thing that you can do as a creative is to produce a huge volume of work until you become good enough to create work of the same quality as the art you consume.
You bridge the gap between the art you produce and the art you admire by producing as much work as possible.
It is true, and this particular insight has become almost myth, being written about over and over again by countless creatives.
Yes, the advice to do more work applies to almost all areas of life, but there’s something that we often take for granted: killer taste is not so easy to develop.
How to Develop Killer Taste
It’s one thing to be able to discern between a good movie and a mediocre one, or to be able to recognize a strong narrative in a novel, but it’s another to understand them in a way that transcends the most obvious elements.
I’d say that most commercial art is made by those who are stuck at this first level; they are great at judging art, but their taste doesn’t go beyond judging art’s fundamental building blocks.
It’s all about the emotional connection that they’ve made with the art they love, and in turn, they create art with a strong emotional undertone.
If you were to analyze last year’s blockbusters, you’d notice that their narratives are tied together by the use of plot elements that are meant to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience.
But there’s another, deeper level, to art. Its details.
This requires that the consumer not only relates to the art emotionally, but also understands the process, its history, and the act of creation itself.
There’s an often used term, “a writer’s writer.”
James Salter and Alan Hollinghurst are among them. There are lines of beauty there, sentences that transcend what the story is about.
In fact, these two writers have developed the kind of taste that urges them to write stories in ways that the narrative itself no longer matters.
Stendhal Syndrome is a term used to define someone who faints when overwhelmed by the beauty of a piece of art.
This goes far beyond mere appreciation. We’re talking about reaching within the most hidden drawers of our souls in order to extract meaning and derive pleasure from a work of art.
That’s killer taste.
When you can read a sentence, over and over again, and think about it, and want to steal it and make it yours, and you find all its facets, just like a diamond, and you notice how the light gets trapped within it.
To develop killer taste is not enough to consume a lot of art, but to stay with it a bit longer than most people. To stay with each piece of art and ponder about it, so you notice its details, its many intricacies and subtleties.
One can, for instance, easily understand just how remarkable The Great Gatsby is as a story. But if you were to read it every year, like I’ve been doing for the past 14 years, you’d notice new aspects, new details that often go unnoticed.
In the scene at the hotel, it’s easy to notice Nick Carraway forgetting about his own birthday, but it’s not as easy to notice the many subtleties that took place in the same chapter a few moments before.
Bridging The Gap
People who create brilliant art don’t just produce a huge volume of work, but they also consume a huge volume of work, and they stay with each individual work longer than just about anyone else.
Their core motivation isn’t to consume good art but to understand art itself. Their child-like curiosity drives them to try to understand art in a pure, romantic manner.
When you can see the beauty in the terrible destiny that produces great art, that’s when you have developed killer taste.
Progress is inevitable. It’s the side-effect of hours and hours of working on your craft. Perfection, on the other hand, is the side-effect of all your senses being overwhelmed by both the art you consume and the one you produce.
In a sense, they become one and the same.
It is this level of commitment to one’s art that often produces the kind of insights and stories and art that we didn’t even knew we needed; it is this level of passion that becomes a way of living and experiencing and understanding life itself.
To those with killer taste, their art is their life, the same way a gourmand will gladly adhere to the cliche that they do not eat in order to live, but the other way around.
To those with killer taste, thinking and doing and feeling and being and loving are one and the same thing. Art and life are so close together they almost touch, they get tangled in one another, and it is at this intersection, during this brief moment that art and life become one and the same, that we are able to produce work of the highest quality.
For a brief moment in time and space, we have acquired the mastery that allows us to create perfection; something we hope could last forever.