“No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent, work transforms talent into genius.”
That’s a quote from Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova from the 1956 book “Pavlova: A Biography” edited by A. H. Franks in collaboration with members of the Pavlova Commemoration Committee.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 19 of my series of episodes on creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Enthusiasm, Passion & Madness, about looking for mentors, peers who are enthusiastic, inspired, passionate, mad! Black sheep. How they can help dissolve the Walls of lexical prisons by being enthusiastic, passionate, mad, by embracing the Imagination, moving towards it, not away from it. You may not find too many of them, but when you find one they inspire you, enthuse you with passion and positive madness, because in the end mentors are like friends. They’re there when you’re dejected and down from rejection, or whatever other Wall is stopping you from creating.
So today I want to get into this more, this idea of mentors, and how talent borrows but genius steals, and how mentors don’t have to be alive to inspire us. Their works, their creations are always there, if we only take them up to read, listen to, enjoy and get inspired from.
Influences. Who or what are your influences? When I’m down, when I can’t create, I read. Who do I read? People I love, the masters in my field. Why? Because these other writers are my greatest mentors. They effect me deeply, and when I’m effected deeply the need arises in me again, to create. They make me want to create art again.
Malcolm Gladwell has a famous book, Outliers, where he writes about how it takes the “ten-thousand-hour-rule” to begin to master your craft, your creation, that being about the amount of time it takes most of us to get good at something. Everyone sees Gladwell’s idea as innovative, new. Well, in truth, it’s been around for thousands of years.
Today, before you become a master electrician you have to become a journeyman first. The word journeyman has taken on negative affiliations today, mainly because people are unaware of what a journeyman really is, and was.
Before becoming a journeyman you become an apprentice first. This language comes from the time of the guilds, especially the Florentine guilds of the 12th century and later, but hasn’t stayed on in arts as it has in some building trades. Artists were actually part of other guilds, but the point is the idea of apprenticeship. For example, in Venice, after two years you could move on to becoming a journeyman whereas in Padua you had to do three years. Your master – basically an old school word for what we call a mentor today, begrudgingly – took you in when you were young as an apprenticeship into what they still call a shop in the trades even today. Michelangelo entered the shop, or workshop of Ghirlandaio when he was thirteen. Like all the other apprentices he was a “garzoni”, workshop boy, an apprentice, starting at the bottom, preparing panels or grinding pigments, growing his skills with the years. Then they would draw, create works, but not from life, but by copying, learning from the masters. Michelangelo would copy the paintings of Giotto in the Santa Croce church in Florence and he would have been told to go elsewhere too to copy when commissions brought their masters to other cities, especially to Rome where so many masters had left their marks.
Here in the states an electrician, machinist, carpenter, or plumber usually needs a state or local license as a journeyman or master. The license means they’ve put in their time, what Gladwell calls 10,000 hours.
So, to become a journeyman of a creative pursuit, just like an electrician, or the schools of centuries ago like the Italian shops or bodegas we have to first apprentice ourselves to what we are passionate about. We have to put in the time, until we become a journeyman, and hopefully, one day, a master.
The word journey actually comes from the French word for day, journée. To a journeyman it meant you could charge money for a day’s work. An apprentice however, usually doesn’t get paid a days wage. Instead they got lodging and food and maybe a small stipend for about seven years or so, from a master, because a journeyman wasn’t allowed to employ others. So the title “journeyman” refers to the right to charge a fee for each day’s work.
Of course journey man also meant you moved. From place to place for work. These ambulant artisans are called “compagnons” in France and since the Middle Ages they’ve been traveling all around France as the Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France. Their technical education means they have to take a Tour de France, apprenticing to masters to learn a trade but also being part of a community of artisans.
So, talent is nothing if you don’t put in the time, 10,000 hours as Gladwell would put it, or 7 or 8 years like an apprentice. But even after we’ve put in the time of the apprenticeship we have to become the journeyman. We have to find masters to work for, day to day, so we can master our art, all the time learning our craft from the dead masters, who’s work, creations are on the walls of churchs and buildings wherever we go, if we look.
This is not something only for artists and sculptors. The Beatles found a mentor, a master very early in their career. People say it was their business manager Brian Epstein that catapulted them into success, but this is ignoring probably their greatest mentor, George Martin. Early on, The Beatles put in the hours, apprenticing themselves to Martin but also by learning from others, or learn by doing, and journeying to Hamburg. The 4 young English men in a band who played every night in Hamburg came back not as a band, but as The Beatles. Their apprenticeship was put in over in Hamburg. It’s hard work. It takes a long time. Like Shakespeare with his plays being tested in the provinces before being put on for the King, the Beatles were tested and changed in front of an audience, night in night out, until songs like a “Hard Days Night” came out of the actual act of creating to an audience, learning on the job. In an interview on Desert Island Discs later in life George Martin said he didn’t really think much of them musically when he first met John, Ringo, Paul and George. But he still signed them to Parlophone because he taught they were funny, and that he’d just give them a chance because he could. And from there on out they had one of their great mentors. He taught them so much and added so much classical music to their songs to create completely new kinds of songs. So, a mentor can literally pull you out of obscurity and evolve your talent.
Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway had the same thing in Paris. Instead of a stage to learn on they had the salon of Gertrude Stein. Hemingway always talked about being in his room to do the work, but never mentions the community he had to get better by discussing his work, like people do in MFA programs, or Improv sessions, or workshops. When we get honest constructive feedback, we get better.
So, until recently people used to apprentice themselves to a guild, to be mentored by a skilled artisan. In France I know a master carpenter who can draw a straight line to the centimeter, by eye. He learned this, being mentored for fifteen years until he begun, his verb, to get what he called the “sensation” of the work. He got mentored by craftsmen skilled in the art of carpentry. As he put it, it takes so many years to get good at something and even then many people don’t find success, or the sensation for it. One of his friends who he saw as one of the great master carpenters just lead what he called an unlucky life. Just because he created amazing furniture doesn’t mean people bought it, or that he was able to sell it, or that he had a supportive family. He didn’t. So he failed, even though he was the most talented carpenter he ever met. He also said to me once, sometimes people are just bad at something and it takes years for them to realize because they got it into their heads they were great.
If you were to see any of his many ateliers you’d think he was mad. He throws nothing away. It drives his wife crazy because their second little house beside the one they live in is literally stuffed with stencils, and tools going back to the middle ages that he actually still uses. The first time I went into this atelier I had to sit down I was so blown away by the sheer immensity of stuff in there, everywhere. A museum within a museum and on and on. He handled each tool as he explained its use to me as if it were a baby, gently caressing it and pointing out how it was made, not by a machine, but by a human being, what he called master artists. You can’t hide imperfections in this kind of tool he’d say. They had to be made exactly, perfectly, artfully, with sensation.
Today we’ve lost this appreciation of craft as art, that is, having to put in our time to learn. It’s become demeaned by speed and lack of respect and carelessness. People literally aren’t careful. They don’t care enough to look at how an old tool is an actual work of art in itself. My neighbor back in France would never see himself as an artist. He’d frown upon being called an artist. To him, what he created was the most natural thing in the world. This natural creative appreciation goes all the way back to the Renaissance guilds in Europe. If you didn’t get into a guild you couldn’t get paid for what you created. That simple. You had a hobby, not a metier as they say in France. Even back then competition was harsh. Some people say unions are the same thing today. I don’t agree. People in unions are not thought to think, or sorry, feel the same away about wood or electricity the way my old friend does. And it makes sense because the union is there to protect the rights of the worker not to inspire them to create. It’s economic, not creative. It became more about how quick you can produce something rather than how good you created something. Now, with technology this has reached its zenith. Guilds are good and so are unions but they need to be seen for what they really are as opposed to conflated when one is more a mentoring of creation where the other is a defense of the creator. If I were to enter into the Author’s Guild it would be akin to this, but a very much watered down version of the Renaissance version, or the mentoring my friend received. Presumably I’d have to enroll in an MFA or enter through the gates of the culturally accepted avenues for that is generally the way for writers to get what I call the rubber stamp of approval. However, even though I’m not a member of the Writers Guild, I still register all my books with them, because that’s what they’re there for, to protect the writer, to strike, to defend the payment of the writer.
So, as opposed to learning how to create in my field from a guild, which no longer functions the way a guild used to, in a concrete and effective way, I learn from a very small number of living mentors, but even more so from dead ones, from the creations they created that are still alive in books and films and especially autobiographies of people in my field. Which leads me into the other thing I wanted to talk about today.
“Talent borrows, genius steals.”
There are many attributions for this “quote”. There’s even a well-known book, “Steal like an Artist”, by Austin Kleon. The main idea, that one should copy, or imitate other creators, is an idea that goes all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. They even had a word for it “mimesis”.
I read Kleon’s book, after writing the shitty first draft of my own book. One of our writers on retreat gave it to me saying, “You need to write a book like this, John.”
So, what you’re listening to was inspired by books like Kleon’s, but also Aristotle’s “Poetics” and other books that focus on creating. But the main inspiration are the many creators I’ve met at our retreat over the years. Even though Kleon’s book wasn’t where I first learned about “Talent borrows, genius steals”, I give him credit. Why? Because it’s important to give credit. If you don’t, you’re stealing in the wrong way, plagiarizing.
So, this quote: Was it Oscar Wilde? T. S. Eliot? “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism” has this: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Picasso? Stravinsky? “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” To tell the truth who cares? It’s the idea that’s inspiring, because it’s about inspiration, influence as inspiration.
People confuse this idea. They think you’re plagiarizing another creator when you “steal”. They see it as negative. But that’s not the point. The point is to steal the right way, to take an idea, image, and make it your own. To copy, borrow an image, idea, sample of music, is to simply imitate. There’s nothing wrong with being a copier. Just like Michelangelo in that church in Italy. Just don’t duplicate a creation and say it’s yours. No. Learn from other creators, like Michelangelo and every other creator before and after him has done.
Picasso, who supposedly said great artists steal, copied Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, over twenty times. Haydn taught Beethoven. Is it any wonder Beethoven’s early work sound like Haydn? Does that make Picasso a bad artist, Beethoven a bad composer? Were they plagiarists? In art courses they call it “Learning from the Masters”. You copy great works of art to see how the artist did it. Eventually you break away and find your own style.
The point is to “steal”, absorb from other creators. You have to learn from them. They will inspire you. Inspiration comes when we combine old ideas into new ones from looking at them in a different way, seeing different relationships.
This is why writers say if you want to learn how to write a book you have to read a lot of books. Musicians? Listen to a lot of music. Business people say start your own business after interning and studying others. Architects? Intern at an architecture firm.
Business people do it every day. They study the “competition”, then do what they do, but better. However, they only study the competition they’re really interested in, what they call niche markets. It’s the same with creation.
What’s your niche? Historical novels set in first century Rome? Read the competition. Soon, you’ll know your whole niche world. You then feel a part of that world. Put the amphitheater on your office wall, a centurion’s uniform, the list of emperors. Read the wonderful Marcus Aurelius every day. That world then becomes as real as the one we’re living in today. The fun is in the hunt for that world.
When I was a kid I used to copy out poems from books when I thought I wanted to be a poet. Try it. If you want to write a business plan you copy the business plans of others. Again, you don’t build a house without a plan. You can, but you’re probably going to end up with a few walls or windows in the wrong place.
Look at all the painters in museums copying the masters. There’s a reason they’re there. You have to find out how they did it. The best way to do that? Copy. Soon enough the copying will disappear and you will appear, your creation will appear. When you were sitting in a classroom they made you copy the letters off the blackboard.
As I said before, Shakespeare only wrote his first play after acting, directing, and managing a theater for over ten years. He learned by doing, like every musician and school kid since. As Emerson once wrote of Shakespeare: “Genius borrows nobly.” He said Shakespeare was more original than the originals he copied. “He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.”
Who you copy is your decision. It’s easy. Who do you love? Now, what thing have they created, what book, business? Study it, copy it. Repeat it for other creators you love in the field you love.
You become what the Muses called “possessed”, by the new possession you’ve stolen, to create new work, new creations. Take inspiration from everywhere. Bits and pieces of things you see in magazines, books, online, stuff in the street. Put it all together to create your own work. Or be like Truffaut with Hitchcock. Interview your idols if you can, or other creators in your field. Learn from them. Cameron Crowe did the same. He interviewed the great Billy Wilder.
Be curious. Again, as curious as a child. At first it may be confusing, but with time it will make more and more sense. Don’t trust me, trust the masters who went before us.
We didn’t become retreat directors in a foreign country after doing a three year course in the hospitality business. I had no skills. I had no idea what it all meant. I, we, just did it. We renovated, marketed, hosted, created it all by doing. We got out of our comfort zone. Your skills have to get better to get to a new level of competency in what you want to do. Are you stretching yourself?
There’s an old Roman proverb that goes something like this: “If a man were able to see his whole life he’d never live it.” If I’d known how difficult it was going to be to create a retreat I would never have started it in the first place. I would probably have decided to keep working at “Vanity Fair”.
You always have to be challenging your skill-set. If you don’t know how to do something, learn. How do you learn? Copy, read, steal from the masters. Get their skills, to the best of your ability.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a Russian ballerina, but like last time, I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
Don’t show your teeth until you can bite.
Ná nocht d’fhiacla go bhféadair an greim do bhreith.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.