Wednesday, May 8, 2013

After the Masterpiece

I recently watched an interview with former NBA player Charles Barkley on the eve of his 50th birthday Sir Charles at 50. One of the hardest things for Barkley was coming to terms with how getting old impacted his athletic performance. I think he summed up every athlete’s struggle with this when he said “What’s really happening is your ego is like let me have a good year then I can walk away. But you don’t have any more good years.” What really blows my mind is Barkley had to contemplate this at the age of 37. At 30 he was the MVP of the NBA; seven years later he was out of the game. Obviously athletes hit their peak performance when they are comparatively young. While most of us can expect to reach our peak performance (in terms of financial compensation) later in life, athletes hit their peak in their late 20s and early 30s. I’ve always thought it would suck having to go from being on top of the world at 30 to being retired at 37.

Authors on the other hand can often be productive throughout their lives. However, one of the challenges authors often face occurs when they write what many consider to be their best work early in their career. I often think of Stephen King, who published his first novel Carrie in 1974 and is still publishing new books almost 40 years later. I wonder what Stephen King thinks when lists ranking his books often put The Stand (published in 1978) or It (published in 1986) on ranks all 62 Stephen King Books. How would it feel to publish a new book almost every year for 35 years and always have to deal with comparisons to your 35 year old masterpiece? Maybe that’s why Harper Lee never wrote another novel. Perhaps she looked at the universal acclaim To Kill a Mockingbird received and thought, well no way in hell I can top this. Why bother? Better to leave then wanting more than leaving them disappointed.

I bet musicians can sympathize. How do they feel when after playing five of their greatest hits from 20 years ago an audible groan erupts from the crowd after they say, "Okay, time for some new stuff!". Perhaps it would be better to walk away on top. One of my favorite comic strip writers Bill Watterson did just that. At the age 37 Watterson walked away from Calvin and Hobbes and hasn’t released anything since. He explains it in this way:

"This isn't as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of ten years, I'd said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It's always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, ten, or twenty years, the people now "grieving" for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them. I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it. I've never regretted stopping when I did." 2010 Cleveland Plains Dealer Interview with Watterson

So what do you think? Is it better to retire on top or should you keep cranking out new stuff knowing full well that you’ll most likely never achieve the same heights you once did?

No comments:

Post a Comment