In the great Coen Brothers movie “Barton Fink”, the head of the Hollywood studio holding the title character’s screenwriting contract demands him to write like the Barton Fink everyone knows. He says, “We all have that Barton Fink feeling, but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.”
One would think so.
Successful invention makes people want more of what they just had. That prompts creators to repeat themselves, which in turn ossifies the sensory inputs creators use to fuel new inventions. Once a person creates something genuinely new, he or she risks getting stuck re-living that creation for a long, long time.
After you finish writing your first novel, the second one is supposed to be easier. That may be true. You now know a lot more about the process then you did the first time around. But writing a good one will never be a sure thing, and the moment your last success convinces you that your next effort is going to be a hit is the moment you’re doomed.
Innovators often ride sine curves of success. As audiences ask for more of what they had before, they grow tired of the same old same old. Innovators fade as fickle tastes move on. This is the strange trend Hollywood seems to be following with ultra-pumped superhero movies. After the Avengers smashed New York in an effort to save the world, city smash ups are so been there, done that.
If an innovator isn’t simply a flash in the pan, audiences may return for a second look when a supposed has-been makes a comeback. Renewed, refreshed, re-invented, reinvigorated: when a creator emerges a second time—or third, fourth, fifth—he or she sometimes emerges with a more refined sensibility. Audiences already know something about the work, and the creator knows something about what happens when a new idea gets hot. Great creators understand that ideas always reduce to labor, and no amount of solved alchemy from the last project will insure that the next thing matters one whit. Being good requires being good. Legacy and a positive track record help, but only insofar as it gets you noticed faster (and maybe helps you find funding).
Many second acts fall flat. Some people only have one great song to sing, nothing more after that. That’s not a crime, by the way; most people don’t produce even a single great song. But the challenge of being a successful, repeat creator is being able to learn from the process that enabled invention the first time around without getting stuck on repeating yourself for a cheap moment of fading applause. The challenge of being a successful creator is recognizing that every new idea requires new solutions and new initiative, every time. Ideas are easy to generate; everyone has some. Great ideas are harder. Most never come to life. Great creative accomplishments, small or large, are rare. If you’re someone who’s successfully made something that never existed before you organized your thoughts, pay attention. Those cheering crowds love you for what you did, not who you are.
Or, as Yoda put it, “Do or do not. There is no try.”