plateau jumping

when i was kid, i liked to draw cartoon characters.  batman, roger rabbit, garfield, calvin (& hobbes), archie, the super mario bros.—that kinda thing.  i was kinda okay at it.  or, at least, these drawings on campaign posters were enough to win me the vice presidency of my grade school student council.  i drew fairly often, but i never really drew anything that was, strictly speaking, original.  i saw an image in a comic book, and i reproduced it on a clean sheet of white paper.  i wasn’t tracing, mind you.  but essentially i wasn’t doing anything that a xerox machine couldn’t do.  so i stopped.

in college, i tried to learn how to play guitar (to help with meeting girls, obviously).  i took lessons, and the teacher told me i had excellent (read: abnormally long) fingers for guitar playing.  it was easier to hit chord positions, he said, with longer fingers.  but i felt like the trouble was with my other hand, the one for strumming.  i had no rhythm.  years later, a musician friend of mine asserted that rhythm could be taught (which maybe is true), but i certainly didn’t believe it at the time.  so i only got as far as learning bush’s “glycerine” before i gave up the guitar.

working for an early education non-profit organization, i’ve learned a fair amount about brain development.  that is, i’ve discovered what a terrifying amount of it happens in the birth to three years, before any of us remembers even being in this world.  synapses are set then that can affect our ability to learn for the rest of our lives.  baby humans go through this process of neural blooming and pruning which more or less sets up the brain architecture they’ll have forevermore.  more than 700 new neural connections form every second in the early years of life.  but it’s important to note that scientists have no idea what percentage of brain development happens then vs. later, and that your brain does grow&change throughout your life.

greg spatz wrote a piece in the september/october 2012 issue of poets & writers advancing the argument that creative writing absolutely can be taught.  and i think he’s right.  my own experience in an mfa program is, at the very least, anecdotal evidence of as much.  i know i graduated as a far better writer than when i entered the program two years previous.  other people could see it in my work.  and i could feel it.

in infinite jest, some of the young tennis players have a discussion about plateaus (or “plateaux” if you’re french canadian):

His point is that progress towards genuine Show-caliber mastery is slow, frustrating. Humbling. A question of less talent than temperament.


…you proceed toward mastery through a series of plateaus, so there’s like radical improvement up to a certain plateau and then what looks like a stall, on the plateau, with the only way to get off one of the plateaus and climb up to the next one up ahead is with a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.

the idea of repetitive experience echoes what ira glass has said about improving one’s skill.  but that doesn’t make the gap between plateaus seem any smaller to me right now as a writer of fiction.  part of me worries that my time in an mfa program was like those early years of brain development for babies, and that maybe if i’d just had one more year of study…

dfw was already bemoaning an “endless succession of flash-in-the-pan” writers sprouting from mfa programs—in 1988.  so i’m sitting here wondering what can be done to avoid that fate?  not just for me, but for the hundreds(?) of mfa grads produced every year now.  i worry that “part-time” dedication simply won’t be enough to spur significant artistic development.  and i worry that economic realities prevent anything but part-time work for all but a very select few (who may even be “selected” for reasons unrelated to their potential as writers).

continued reading & writing (and much of it) is a given.   but is there something else?  at my non-profit job, we always stress the importance of “secure relationships” and parental involvement—pretty broad concepts which can be realized in a variety of ways.  but we also use science to come up with activities for very young children that are (a) age-appropriate & (b) proven effective at skill-building.  and everyone says doing crossword puzzles is supposed to help with memory, or ward off alzheimer’s or something, right? (that last bit i can’t exactly cite sources for.)

so is there another thing besides “hanging in there” that can propel plateau jumping?  if we accept that mr. wallace (a) was right & (b) wasn’t just talking about tennis, then maybe the answer is “no.”  but i’m curious if the multitudes out there with an mfa now have discovered another answer.

if we accept that there is a creativity “muscle,” rather than a “gene,” i wonder if there aren’t some exercises, as it were, that are better than others—and if some of those “exercises” are more effective when done in one circumstance vs. another.  but i’m no scientist (i gave up that pursuit around the same time i stopped drawing super heroes).  so, all evidence—from a sample size of one to proper scientific studies on artistic development—is now being accepted in the comments box below.  and thank you in advance for your submission(s) to the wealth of human knowledge.




  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:


  • Nicole Hardina says:

    Ditto to Sam. Also, I think community helps, and if that’s true, then you and I are both benefitting by writing (you) and reading (me) Bark. Part of what we get from an MFA is a community of readers, and, if we’re lucky, one or two lifelong friends with whom we can share our work. In other words, we get people who help us grow, help us stay motivated, and keep asking the nagging question: “So, what are you working on?” I think community is key. It’s been true for me as a writer, and a runner, as well. Every Monday morning I get up at 4:45 and hit the track at 5:30. It sucks, every time, to get up at 4:45 on Monday. When I start running, my body literally does not understand. I stumble around. I feel like I’m going to be sick, sometimes. Then there’s the added embarrassment of being the slowest one on the track. Every time. Getting lapped on your first 800 meters is a pretty awesome ego check. The fast people whiz by me kindly. They offer “good jobs,” and “keep it ups,” and I appreciate it so much, because without them, I wouldn’t make it to the track at all. In running, it’s about getting to the starting line. For that, I need my friends. I think it’s the same with writing. And today, I noticed I was running a little faster. :)

  • Bonnie says:

    I got hung up on the first paragraph a bit. What you described as your method and essentially as the reason you stopped, is how I’ve heard nearly every comic book artist and many commercial/fine artists describe how they got their start.

    I kind of feel like you answered the question of your last paragraph in the first. Don’t stop. Evolve. Input what you love. Output what you love. End up making what you love.

    Honestly, almost everyone I talk to who seems to have “made it” on some of their own terms pretty much just advocates that exactly.

  • Bonnie says:

    Correction, in my first paragraph, it should read “nearly every comic book artist and many commercial/fine artists *that I respect*….”

    Because honestly, I’ve also heard many artists and writers go on and on about how they invented their completely OMG so original, so different, never done before!!!! style out of nowhere by just having a stroke of complete brilliant genius… but I have trouble listening to those assholes for too long. So I don’t know if they ever get around to talking about work or process.

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