The Masterpiece Myth

Ethan Renoe
Mar 14 · 4 min read

When I was in 9th grade, I penned a 32-page epic poem called The Trainman, about a child (the narrator) who is waiting in an underground train station alone with a mysterious man referred to only as “The Trainman.” It was the greatest thing I had ever created. It even made it into my 2017 book of short stories, The Tall People.

For years, I couldn’t top it and thought I had created my masterpiece.

In fact, even today, over a decade later, I have this weird thought in my head that I am only allowed one masterpiece, and I am constantly starting new projects — usually books or stories — thinking it will be my masterpiece.

In 2017, I also published my #1 best-seller, The New Lonely, and assumed that it was my masterpiece. It must be the thing I was put on earth to create. So I sunk into deep depression when my following 3 books didn’t even come close to number one. Or one thousand. I keep creating, thinking that the next thing I make will make it big, that my creative itch will once and for all feel scratched and I can discontinue my pursuit of the one thing I was put here to make.

But what I’ve realized is that this is a terrible way to go about creating anything.

For the past 4 months, I have been writing one blog post a day, and it has cleared this fallacy right out of my system. In fact, the more I write, the more I see that there are endless good things I can create. It may not be great or perfect, but it can be good. I can go into every creation with the feeling that I’m going to create something good, and then I do, I do it well, and then move onto the next exciting project.

If you measure the success of a piece by the audience’s response, then all of my ‘masterpieces’ were totally unexpected to me. My most popular blog post, by a long shot, was a casual one I shrugged off one day because the idea had been sitting in my notes for a month.

What I’m saying is, the idea that you need to build a masterpiece often causes us to live in fear of creating anything for fear that it won’t measure up to your grand vision for it.

The antidote to this mentality is simple: create often. Focus on quantity over quality. Take this anecdote from the book Art & Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

How do you have any chance at becoming a master who may just pop out a masterpiece someday?

Practice.

Often the idea of creating something that is sub-masterful holds me back from creating anything, but this blog-a-day practice has liberated me from that. Today is Day 112, and as I look back over the past 4 months of work, there are a lot of duds…but there are also a few golden nuggets that emerged from the daily practice of writing. Not because I expect to make a masterpiece every day, but because I get to glide my scalpel over the clay of language every day and hopefully become more skilled in the craft.

So whatever your craft is, if you want to get better at it, you need to eradicate this idea floating in the back of your mind that you’re going to create a masterpiece. That pressure stifles all sorts of creativity and can paralyze us out of making anything at all.

So create often; aim for good, not great.

Be patient.

With this practice over time, you’ll begin to make your way to making better and better pieces but without the bloated expectations.

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Ethan Renoe

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Read 400+ posts of mine at ethanrenoe.com!

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