The Unfinished Masterpiece?

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Synopsis

"The paradox is that the more proficient we become, the easier it is to notice gaps in our knowledge—the closer we get to our goal, the more unsatisfied we will be."

Writing this essay will be difficult. Before I draft the first sentence, I’ll spend hours searching for an idea. Most of what I read will be useless, not because it’s bad, but because it’s boring. Then, a passage will spark an insight that will bring me back to my computer, eager to share my idea, and finish this sentence.

Such is the creative process. It’s a constant tug-of-war between saying something fresh and meeting a deadline, originality versus practicality. We want to sound novel, but we know that true novelty is impossible, so we settle somewhere in between. And yet, even though our creative ideals might be unattainable, we’ll keep striving to bring them into reality.

In The Rise, Sarah Lewis terms the crevasse between work and vision The Gap. It’s what drove the poet Ezra Pound to burn his “failed” novels. On his deathbed, Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his friend Max Brod requesting that all of his unpublished material should remain unread and burned. (Brod ignored Kafka’s request and published three novels: Amerika, The Trial and The Castle.) Lewis quotes Czeslaw Milosz, who captures sentiment of The Gap nicely: “There is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling.”

For business readers who wrongfully pigeonhole themselves as “non-creative types,” Lewis’ musings are more applicable than you think. From Picasso to Steve Jobs, eminent thinkers in all domains have a knack for seeing the horizon… and then a little bit further. The paradox is that the more proficient we become, the easier it is to notice gaps in our knowledge—the closer we get to our goal, the more unsatisfied we will be.

That sense of incompleteness is a powerful motivator. This essay, for example, will bother me. Is it original? Will I surprise my readers? As I approach the last sentence, I’ll sense that something is missing, that I haven’t quite captured the idea I wanted to convey. But maybe that dissatisfaction is a good sign. Maybe the pursuit of mastery is a pursuit without a goal. Or, as Lewis writes, maybe “Completion is a goal, but, we hope, never the end.”

This essay originally appeared at 250words.com 

Tags: creative writing, mastery, proficiency, sam mcnerney, writing ability, writing process

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