In his book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkeman quotes the Finnish American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen on the topic of artistic originality. Conventional wisdom presumes that originality is something you either have or you don’t, but Minkkinen proposes an alternative view through the metaphor of Helsinki’s bus routes.
In Helsinki’s city centre there’s a particular bus station and every bus that comes out of that station follows the same route for a while but, past a certain point, they diverge and go their own way. We can imagine ourselves as one of those buses and each bus stop as one year of our artistic career. Whatever our craft may be, we all want to be recognised but, if we take a shot for recognition, we may be rejected because, for one thing, our work isn’t original enough.
Discouraged, we get off the bus and hail a taxi back to the station where we board a new bus, try a new style or craft, and soon the same thing happens again. What to do?
Minkkinen advises this: Stay on the Fucking Bus.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.
Your vision takes off.
And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!
You regain the whole bus route in fact.“Finding Your Own Vision“
Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio show This American Life, made the same point:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, 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. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.“What Every Successful Person Knows, But Never Says“
Stay on the bus.