I’ve noticed, watching TV talent shows, how many helpers are needed for someone to learn an expressive art or a practical skill. So the celebs in Strictly Come Dancing get hours of teaching and encouragement from their professional partners. And the singers in The Voice have families who book and ferry them to gigs, deal with equipment and cheer them on. My wife, children’s author Sue Hampton, had the same: a wonderfully enthusiastic English teacher who developed her love of literature and a dad who took her to plays and art galleries. These supporters set personal examples as well. So Sue learned the value of redrafting from seeing her dad repeatedly rewriting his poems and the admiring celebs often take on the professional dancers’ impressive work ethic.
A lot of practical skills come from working with someone who gives you tips about what to do when this or that happens. This hands-on, experiential approach works well with learning to play an instrument, controlling a ball or fixing a computer. An expert who also knows what it’s like to start from scratch – and shows it – can help to build up your skill, step by step. I remember my piano teacher, John, who got me to practise a piece in bite-sized chunks, repeating each phrase until it became automatic then running the whole thing together. He told me to start off practising a phrase very slowly, to avoid any mistakes, and speed up later. His point was that if you rushed it and introduced an error you’d have to erase it by repeating the correct pattern, several times. He reckoned that every error took about four undos.
‘Don’t rush it’ is a good rule for learning anything from typing to DIY. In writing, my experience is that if you set yourself a high word target for the day, by the time you reach it you may have got side-tracked or introduced dozens of clichés. I prefer to edit as I go, and reread. Even then I may have to go back and begin again from an earlier point, before I lost the thread. Like Rothko’s paintings, writing is layered: it’s a question of knowing where to strip back, where to build up and where to stop.
The problem with my piano teacher’s approach was its defensive nature, guarding against errors and not allowing for joy, feel or interpretation. That’s why the Suzuki violin method teaches children to listen and enjoy music, as well as the correct hold on bow and instrument.
As a teacher I always found that to work through a student’s strengths was more effective than finding fault. But there does come a point, as expertise increases, where ruthless self-criticism sets in. At this stage it’s no good fooling yourself something’s wonderful when it’s OK-ish. So top football teams are driven by players scrutinising each other’s moves and demanding high standards, which can make dressing rooms very tough places to be! Keeping morale up can be difficult in these circumstances, so these teams sometimes implode. But the highs when the obsessive criticism pays off are huge.
In the end we’re a sociable species. It’s all those helpers with their practical and emotional support who make the performance possible. But you have to keep your feet on the ground. In The Chimp Paradox Prof Steve Peters suggests that in every group of five you’ll find one person who will give you unconditional support, one who will never understand you and three who will be more fair-minded and balanced. In my view The Chimp Paradox is too focussed on head over heart, but it helped the British cycle team sweep the board at the Olympics!
My advice to anyone trying to improve their creative work is to listen politely and ignore a) people who jump in with how they would have done it b) the odd nit-picker who uses a single fault to dismiss the lot c) the middle-of-the-road people who claim ‘It’s all a matter of taste’. I’d say, look for a critic who understands from the inside what you’re attempting and can suggest improvements. That person, and the unconditional helpers, are the people who make original work possible.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here