Writing Vivid Descriptions

Good writers should have an “eye” and an excellent memory of people, places, and events that they have experienced in their lives themselves or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions full of images–word pictures–that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses, particularly the sense of sight, but the other senses as well. Descriptions are not window dressing or “filler” that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions detract from the quality of the written piece. On the other hand, exceptional descriptions can compensate for weaknesses in other areas. If there is one quality descriptions should possess it is vividness. Vividness gives writing impact and is memorable.

Woman thinking in sunsetWriting vivid descriptions is a skill writers should strive to refine. Yet it is a weakness of many writers. If your ability to write effective descriptions is lacking it should be worked on vigorously and made a strength. Like painters, writers benefit from maintaining some form of “sketch books,” notebooks to which the writer adds descriptions that could be incorporated into a final text later. Anton Chekhov, master of masters of the short story, referred to “images and scenes which are precious to me and which for some reason I carefully saved and put aside.” Whenever a particularly potent and useful description comes to mind, don’t waste it. Write it down in the notebook before you forget it.

Descriptions are an integral part of the written piece, serving a major role of evoking an atmosphere, a mood, a spirit of a person or places, and establishing a tone and a setting. American writer Stephen Crane was influenced by French Impressionism painting and made it a point to include colors in his descriptions whereas Ernest Hemingway often mentioned the weather in his. Chekhov wrote 588 pieces. He was all business when he wrote them, wasting no words. He did not consider descriptions less important than plots, and his descriptions stand out.

Good writers with a talent for language often find pleasure in writing effective descriptions in an appealing style that readers sometimes find the feature of the piece they remember most. Anyone seriously interested in literary description will probably find their way to the writings of Joseph Conrad and be spellbound.

The following are examples of vivid descriptions from my own writing:

 

Sudden Storm

It was summer, and in summer the lake, so much a part of our childhood, was always inviting. That day the two of us –my sister Sharon, eight, and I, ten– inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy. She was on the shore holding my hand. I was standing in the water. Suddenly a wind Big wavepicked up. Into the air fluttered two hundred gulls with noisy wings. Above us clouds raced each other headlong across the coal black sky. Onto the shore crashed a procession of liquid walls–white-crested, angled slightly off to the south where blocks of limestone twenty feet high lay as if dropped from the heavens by gods. The magnificent waves rose–hills of water that seemed to pause, suspended for a moment at their peak as though they could rise no higher, and then crumbled and broke on the shore like a multitude of shattered stars. The spume spread and undertows slid back like shears below the breakers. Wave upon wave upon wave upon wave rose, lunged, and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind. But now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth. It was a lion of a wind unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a sparkle, bite, and sting–many winds in fact, one gust coming, ending, another coming, another waiting–bringing pouring in to us the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself. The hoarse roar of the foaming waves filled all the air with the sounds of artillery.  Trees on the shore bent as though made of rubber and our drenched bodies glistened.

Everything in our field of vision was in motion–beach umbrellas pulled out of the sand and hurled west, end over end into the high grass where frightened field mice must have cowered in terror. Unattended blankets were lifted up like magic carpets and whipped skyward. Trees shook. Grass was flattened as though pressed by an iron. The canopies of the concession stands snapped. Bathers to our left and right and further up the beach gathered their blankets and loose clothes, and children sprinted with their parents for the shelter of the beach house. Sharon and I lay flat on the ground clutching the earth with our hands and raised our heads and watched men dragging row boats higher up onto the beach away from the waves, leaving behind ruts in the sand: such things making this one day permanent in our minds. Thirty years later when Sharon was dying, that was the childhood day she remembered best.

 

Where I Live

It is a very nice little Midwestern American town, clean and peaceful. To the east, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the houses are very grand, elegant, and old, and the streets are lined with magnificent trees.  The library is in the middle of town next to the town sculpture and City Hall and a rose garden and a facsimile of the log cabin of the first resident.

When you ride the commuter trains up from downtown Chicago, thirty miles south, the uniformed conductors, assembled like partridges in little talkative groups beside their waiting trains, tell each other one last lie, sometimes involving women who come alive only at midnight on Saturdays. Then the train leaps from the dark, oil-reeking station and you, a passenger,  look out the window and see the lines of office and factory workers on the streets and an urban panorama of gray back porches cluttered with terracotta flower-pots and bicycles and broken washing machines. Leaning over the railings of the porches are people–not all of them poor–with the great mournful eyes of cats. The light of day falls dramatically on them, particularly at the moment the sunlight fades and becomes evening, and you find yourself wondering if it is possible these people you can see with your own eyes but will never meet are happy. Disappearing behind you, the wilderness of massive structures towers into the sky as if put there to hold up the clouds.

 

Youth’s Nights of Happiness: Night Of The College Dance

(Reprinted from my short story “The Kiss,” DuPage Valley Review.)

college town“Young couples sitting on benches held each other, kissed, and heard the melancholy saxophone through the open windows of the gymnasium. Past a grove of gray trees, out on the lagoon, among mallards drifting on the water like leaves and bull frogs hidden in the shadows like thieves, students in row boats whose oars dangled free and made little splashing sounds, lay back, their bodies warm and glowing under light blankets. Contented, they were looked down upon by a pageantry of stars that seemed so close together that a finger wouldn’t fit between them. And while laughter floated like smoke through the night, they spoke of the incredible deeds they would one day perform.”

 

The College Town Where I Lived

The night of the dance, I remember, was perfect too–that crispness of Midwest autumn, a small drowsy college set in a little town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets crowded with lovely old gnarled oaks, maples, and sycamores and wild, untrimmed hedges. Pinnacles, domes, and spires of church towers, like the great cathedrals of Europe, rose gradually and wonderfully and were visible everywhere. In the yards, along crumbling stone fences sprouting moss, lichens, and ferns, were an abundance of rose gardens that were sadly withered at that time of year. The town was surrounded on all sides by tractors and threshers left overnight in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.

 

Riding Freight Trains

(The day after we graduated from high school my friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–talked it over in a corner drug store and decided to ride freight trains for a while: college could wait. We took a bus to the Chicago city limit and walked behind a billboard and across an empty lot to a little train yard. A freight train came by and we hopped it, heading due west where we hoped adventures we couldn’t tell our parents about waited.)

 

At The Welcome Inn, Wyoming

Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train, the alluring green neon sign of the Welcome Inn burned brightly. It was a small, squat, one-story square log building that night and day hummed and trembled with pulsing music and in which who knew what went on. But we were curious to find out. This was our second visit. The first time through we had entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar light and clouds of floating smoke, and stood at the bar next to a tattooed woman snapping a bull whip and wearing a black satin cape with shining red lining and had seen a man with a chin scar and an eye-patch get angry and pull a pistol on another man. The second man took the gun away from the first and slugged him over the head with it. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Old cars with dented fenders and gaudy garters dangling on their rear-view mirrors and pick-up trucks with rifle racks cradling ominous shotguns and carbines were parked four deep in the lot. When the door of the Inn swung open, muscular men, their shirt sleeves rolled up above the bicep, sauntered out arrogantly, their arms tight around the waists of conspicuously made-up women, their heads thrown back in exaltation and abandon, and the chime of laughter spilled into the night like water.

 

 

My Childhood: Rag Man

(Adapted from “Edgewater” that appeared in East on Central magazine)

Keeping to no particular schedule other than it be daylight nearing early evening, the old gray nameless Rag Man came down our alley. He appeared to be a rag himself–sitting high atop a large, heavy-laden, horse-drawn, creaking wagon stacked with old lamps, washboards,  card tables, vacuum cleaners, newspapers,  pots and pans, and such. His loud gruff voice preceded him by half a block as he bellowed “Rags, old iron” as though we were all asleep in bed and needed to be woken. As the wagon approached, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse. Its head hung low and swayed to the rhythm of its plodding gait. Passive, not straining or wrenching at the reins, it would lift its head with majesty and shake its harness chains vigorously and musically. But uncomfortably. Then you heard its snorts as it struggled futilely with its bit. You noticed its huge bulbous brown eyes, glazed with an expression of weariness and pitiful sorrow. You noticed too the sunlight shimmering off the sweat coating its flanks and the twitching muscles of its legs and rump shaking flies away. How can I forget–how could you forget were you there too–that elegant parade of a rattling wagon, Rag Man, and Rag Man’s horse?

 

My Dear Father and Me

Man and boy walking along water's edgeThere was a tenderness and manly sweetness in my father’s manner, and too, the restraint of a gentlemanly politeness and natural shyness about speaking of things that moved him most profoundly, and which I knew indisputably he felt toward me, as I did toward him.

 

The Silent Coal-Shoveler

(Appeared in Muses Gallery)

Sometime before the cruel, cold Chicago winter days came each year, the coal-shoveler would appear in the alley. I would walk past him and his pile of coal on the way to school. When I returned home, the coal was gone and the coal-shoveler–his work done–was gone too,

Behind the apartment buildings, beside a pile of coal a story high, toils the always silent, always alone, never-speaking, never-grunting, never-complaining, muscular black coal-shoveler. From chilly dawn, all day long while I am at school or at the playground, in the alley behind my house, that cadenced scrape of his shovel between coal and pavement can be heard, and the coal thumping, tumbling, like pieces of thunder down the wooden chute into a dark, cool cellar.

 

These are some of the descriptions that I first wrote in a notebook and later incorporated in longer pieces. Among other pleasures, descriptions give the writer a chance to play–to play with similes and metaphors and other expressive words.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

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31 Prescriptions for Serious Writers

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night, and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters. Every novelist will have to go through this at least once and in some cases many times before they are published, and since publication itself brings no guarantee of riches or plaudits, it’s not unreasonable to ask what sort of a person would subject himself to such a thing” (Alice Adams).

Prescriptions:

Have a strong belief in and respect and enthusiasm for writing. To many serious writers writing is the central activity of their lives: no other activity compares. It is probably true that the majority of people, young or old or in between, don’t like to write. But there is just something about the act of writing that people struck by the writing bug find irresistible. Many aspiring writers wait all day for the half hour between putting a child to bed and sleep when at last they are free to pound away at a keyboard.

Be patient because all writers who reach high excellence in their craft will have done so via a long, sustained period of learning and application. P.G. Wodehouse wrote that “Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.” “If the promising writer keeps on writing—writes day after day, month after month…he will begin to catch on” (John Gardner.)

Fountain pen on an open book Have a need for self-expression and self-disclosure. Good writers reveal themselves in their work. Readers want writers to reveal themselves. A novel, for example, enables authors to convey a wealth of information that expresses them.  Your writing, even the way you turn a phrase and the metaphors you use (why did you use an image of a fish then instead of a train?) and your vocabulary and points of view, tell the reader what you’re like. Writers have a need to discover exactly what they are thinking by writing it out, and then to artfully communicate it to the reader who wants to know.

Be more self-disciplined in matters concerning your work than most people in other fields .Success in writing is largely a matter of discipline.

Learn to overcome boredom and fatigue, particularly through positive self-talk and physical conditioning. .

Sacrifice for the sake of your writing. Anton Chekhov said, “It is difficult to combine the desire to live with the desire to write.” In A Moveable Feast Hemingway wrote, “On Thursday I was…feeling virtuous because I had worked well and hard on a day when I wanted to go to the races very badly.” For some writers writing is more important than their family.  The family goes to the zoo; they stay home and write. “Generally (Eugene) O’Neill elected to lead an existence completely removed from what the great majority of people would call life, It was centered on, was focused on, organized around work” (Malcolm Cowley). Toni Morrison didn’t do anything but write, to the exclusion of everything else.

Take pride in your extraordinary writer’s memory nature has equipped you with. Your writer’s imagination depends so much on remembering what you’ve heard about, read about, or seen. Whatever happens to writers they never forget it, but store it for future use. Katherine Anne Porter said, “We spend our lives making sense of the memories of the past.” Writers must have a gift to remember sensations and images that were experienced at times many years earlier and to relive them in their original freshness and vividness. Not just memories, but detailed memories: “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender). A writer may not be able to remember a telephone number or to pick up a dozen eggs at the store, but will never all his life forget the expression on his mother’s face as she came in the door that particular day. He has a perfect memory for that. Memory is a writer’s workshop.

drawing of a hand with a penPossess extraordinary energy. No outstanding writing achievement has ever been produced without hard work. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels had 5,000 pages of notes. When writers are functioning at their best they work at white heat for an hour, a month, or years. Creative people don’t run out of steam.  Their enthusiasm doesn’t wane very long.

Don’t spend your time working on easy problems. Good serious writers work on problems that are hard for them because they’re stimulated by things that are difficult. They not only solve problems, they create them because when they solve those they make progress and become better writers. That’s how they create work that no one has seen the likes of before and expands their abilities at the same time. A major intuitive skill effective problem-solving writers have developed is being able to identify the specific point to approach the crux of the problem.

Be resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere. Many writers persist however difficult the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. “Creative people are those who are more willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, to take risks, to seek to overcome daunting obstacles, and to tolerate ambiguity even when its existence becomes psychologically painful.” (Scott Barry Kaufman and James Kaufman)

Enjoy writing’s sweat factor and be able to produce tremendous amounts of work. Writers–creatives–love to work. Production is the writer’s main goal. Usually the greatest writers are also the most prolific.  Cynthia Ozick said, “There is a definite relationship between being major and having a profusion of work to show. You could write one exquisite thing, but you would never be considered more than a minor writer.”  Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms. Ray Bradbury took two hours to write a poem, half a day to finish a short story, and nine days to write a novel.

Strive for the fullest development of your skills. Developing skills leads to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills, you’re less likely to be haunted by self-doubt and your writing will flow more freely.

Young man typing on a laptopHave a strong concern for your technique and style. The reader isn’t meant to notice a writer’s technique, but other writers are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about writers is their style. Toni Morrison said that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.” An appealing style is so important to a writer that writers joke about it:, ”If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Spender).

Maintain an artistic vision and heightened perception. To writers the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. There are dimensions of reality they are sensitive to that other people overlook, perceptions of what might be called “hidden reality.” It’s the business of the writer, who has the creator’s faith that they are seeing a true reality, to find, collect, and communicate that reality in their work. Eugene O’Neill: “I am a dramatist…What I see everywhere in life is drama.”

Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about your work and your abilities. Writers must learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.

Be sensitive to life and open to experience. Insatiably curious, writers plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, sensations, and emotions.  They are not afraid of what ogres they might discover in the world they write about or in themselves.

Be what you are: more self-confident, rebellious than the vast majority of people. Writers who lose their youthful rebelliousness are in danger of losing their talent as well.

Have a large tolerance for ambiguity–larger than the great majority of people. That’s one reason writers are generally such effective problem-solvers.

Be restless because you can’t help but be. Writers often move on to other projects just when what they’ve accomplished becomes clear. (Months may pass, years may pass, but be sure to get back to your project and finish it.) The first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth may have been written 28 years before the last stanza was written.

Strive for competence and constant improvement. Writers are never content very long. They are guided by a persistent willingness to write with more expressive power.

Value independence. Writers must be allowed to move unrestrained in their own direction under their own power. No voice should be more persuasive than the writer’s internal voice saying “X is the truth I must pursue.”

Spend a lot of your time alone. Most successful writers would agree with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger that “everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” Writers often prefer solitude over socializing.

Have the ability to focus. Creative people often learn at an early age that they will achieve more if they focus their efforts on one area rather than dividing them among a variety of pursuits. Writers are capable of intense concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them. They will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it. Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. Focusing is intense. Emily Dickinson said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry.

Be playful and value the simple and the unaffected. Writers are in love with simplicity and bring to mind a Chinese proverb: “A truly great man never puts away the simplicity of a child.”

Computer, cup of coffee, and woman's hands writing in a notebookBe able to muster an abundance of physical strength and stamina. Often it’s the end of writers’ endurance that stops their working day. Novelist Thomas Wolfe would turn in manuscripts a million words long . He claimed that the physical demands on the writer made the writer’s life seem to him to be the hardest life man has ever known.

Adapt and make adjustments. An experienced writer has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.

Be studious in the sense of studying to develop your craft. All writers study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree. Composers and fine artists are likely to have been taught by masters; writers are likely to have taught themselves.

Establish rapport with readers. Your writing is always for someone–yourself certainly. But also the audience, the reader. Skilled writers are aware of whom they are writing for and establish rapport with them within the first few sentences of the work.

Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account. Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.

Pencils, pens, markers and other writing toolsHave or develop a business sense. You have a career to manage and responsibilities and expenses. Study marketing and salesmanship–read. Take business classes.

Feel deeply; be emotionally rich. Writing, like music, must convey emotion–from sorrow to joy and everything between. Writers have strong feelings. For example, they often have fiery tempers.

 

If I asked you what you think are the qualities that it’s most important for writers to possess, how would you answer?

I, myself, would begin with “hard worker.”

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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What Makes a Writer a Writer

Components of a Certain Kind Make a Writer a Writer

A Monte Python skit tells the story of an accountant who was dissatisfied with accounting because he felt it was so boring. He went to a service that analyzed an individual’s personality and capabilities and advised the person on the occupation that would best suit them. The tests revealed that he was a very boring person, which made him perfect for the accountant’s job. The skit gets a laugh, but also illustrates the fact that certain personal characteristics do equip people to perform well in a pursuit.

A number of components come into alignment to result in the direction of a person’s life and career. The components making a social worker are different from the components that work together to make a diplomat or a baker. Why do you happen to be a writer and not an acrobat or botanist? You didn’t become the writer you are willy-nilly. There are reasons. Why were Picasso and Monet painters and not novelists?

Pink lotus on green backgroundBuddhism sets up qualities a life must have if the person is to find fulfillment. One quality is “Right Livelihood:” to be most fulfilled the person must be in the occupation that most suits them and is most beneficial to them. My wife and I have four children. Each is very different than the others but is perfect for their occupation. The analytical one who loves mathematics is the director of revenue for a city. The organized one manages a number of people. The one who wants to help people is a therapist. The most sociable one is a real estate agent helping people find the home they will be most happy in.

You’re a writer because you have components of a certain type—an unusual type—of many personal qualities, interests, motivations, values, attitudes, abilities, experiences, and other elements equipping you specifically for the writer’s life, which I needn’t tell you is anything but an ordinary, typical, or easy life.

Jigsaw puzzle piecesAll necessary components have to be present if you are to excel at the writer’s craft. If just one component is missing, you no longer have an ideal writer. If you are to succeed in an art there must be a fit between the talent you possess and the talent necessary to participate with distinction in the art.

The existence of serious writers is atypical. Most people do not live a serious writer’s life. They do not keep artist’s work hours.  They are not absorbed in words, paragraphs, style, and sentences. They are not concerned with publishers’ deadlines. They do not worry about the rhythms of sentences, their music. Their training is different.  Their friends are different, as are their ambitions and dreams. They are not so self absorbed as writers are. Writers’ lives are like other writers’ lives.

Ernest Hemingway—quite probably the most innovative stylist of all–had all the components. William Faulkner had them all.  Shakespeare had them all, and Marcel Proust, Eugene O’Neill, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad and James Joyce and centuries before them Sophocles and Euripides. No component was missing.  Stephen King, Joan Didion, and John Grisham have them. People who win Nobel Prizes have them. Do you have them?

Louise Nevelson said: “My theory is that when we come on this earth, many of us are ready-made…Some of us–most of us–have genes that are ready for certain performances. Nature gives you these gifts.”

Needed Writers’ Skills

Tree and grass near a pondWriters and other artists should be able to recall many thousands of detailed memories that form a basis of their writings–a gift to recall sensations and experiences from many years earlier and to reconstruct them in their original freshness and vividness.

A seventy-five year old writer may describe the expression on her mother’s face at her fourth birthday party. And if a photograph of that face that day were held up it would be identical to the skilled writer’s written description.

If you don’t have the writer’s components and wish to excel as a writer you’ll have to acquire them–if you can. For example, having a rich imagination, being comfortable working in solitude, and being inquisitive are qualities that writers should possess. (If writers cannot be productive working alone for long periods they will have problems.)

But not everyone who wishes to be a writer is able to easily acquire all the components. For example, to be considered a good writer, a writer must possess a range of identifiable technical capabilities such as the ability to create an effective dramatic scene.

silhouette of writer working at a typewriterGood writers can do that, but not all writers can, even some writers who work very hard trying to learn how to. Think of any writer’s skill–some people will master it easily, some only with great difficulty, and some will never master it. Whatever they do, some writers’ scenes are not effective.

They become known as novelists or short story writers who though perhaps superlative in other respects, write scenes that are flat. Some writers are masters of the sentence. Their sentences seem to pop out of the text and startle you with their beauty. Thomas Wolfe could not handle the plots of his novels but wrote wonderful episodes.

Or the writer’s descriptions of characters and landscapes are always poor because they have no facility for creating images, metaphors, and similes although a good writer should have an “eye” and know how to write vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to readers’ senses. Some writers must struggle to create a single image while others–painters in words–are able to pull five good ones out of the air at will. They are asked, “How are you able to do so easily what is so difficult for me?” It is a gift.

Hands of woman writing in a parkA writer should have an insatiable passion to write and the skill of persistence. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of fifty-eight novels for a reason. She has good writing practices, and finds no reason why one who professes to be a writer shouldn’t be writing all the time. She says, “When writing goes painfully, when it’s hideously difficult, and one feels real despair (ah, the despair, silly as it is, is real!)–then naturally one ought to continue with the work; it would be cowardly to retreat. But when writing goes smoothly–why then one certainly should keep on working, since it would be stupid to stop. Consequently one is always writing or should be writing.”

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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Does Lockdown stifle or encourage creativity?

Janet Weight Reed always does wonderful work–beautiful paintings and thoughtful and intelligent narratives. I want to share this timely post of hers with my readers.

My Life as an Artist (2)

It’s been one year since the pandemic began and lockdown became a part of our lives….time enough to ask the question ‘Does lockdown stifle or encourage creativity’?

Birthday flowers given to me by a neighbour – perfect for my daily warm up exercise to get the creative juices flowing.

I believe the answer to this question ultimately lies in the attitude we bring to each day. This applies whether in lockdown or not.

Most importantly do we have a routine that works for us? Pre lockdown many might have had routines imposed upon them. Certain trains to catch, times to be at the office/school etc…but without those imposed routines, life is quite different.

A year ago, at the beginning of the first lockdown, I was very aware that many people were in what I call the ‘New Years resolution’ mode. Excitement reigned as people ordered all sorts of art…

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A Better Way to Overcome Fears And Worries

My book Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work And Life had just come out, and I was on a TV show publicizing it. The host said, “I read your book last night. You say in it that in the martial art called aikido you “harmonize” your movements with your opponent’s movements. Can you demonstrate to me what that means?”

hands of Aikido martial artistWe were sitting about three feet apart, facing each other.  I said, “I’ll be happy to.” The host said, “Should we go over there where we have more room?” I said, “This is fine. I won’t have to get up out of this chair. Throw a punch at me as though you are mad at me and want to knock me down. Don’t hold anything back. Really throw a punch.”

The host said, “Are you sure you want me to?” He was a very big, muscular man who was obviously a body-builder. I said, “Go ahead. I’ll be all right.”

The host stood, reared back, and threw a punch; still sitting, I reached out and grabbed his hand that was coming at me and pulled it forcefully. The host went flying to the floor. Lying on the floor, he said, “Wow.”

I helped him up and said, “You see, I harmonized with you by not resisting you but instead by going with you, following your intention, the direction of your movements, pulling your hand rather than blocking it. That is called extending in aikido–that pulling–going further in the direction of the opponent’s momentum and force. That is not the normal Western way to defeat an opponent. In the West we are trained to oppose force with force. You punch me and I punch you.  Then the stronger person wins. In aikido the weaker person can win.”

The host laughed: “I certainly know now how effective extending can be in defeating an opponent.”

I said, “You can apply the technique of extending to overcome everyday emotional difficulties like fears and worries that may have been causing you problems that even for a long time have interfered with your living.”

The host said, “That’s interesting. How does that work?” Then he added, “You’re not going to throw me again are you?” I chuckled and said, “That won’t be necessary.”

 

Some Applications

The fear of public speaking is a major problem for many people. Surveys have shown that some people would rather fall 32,000 feet from an airplane than give a speech in public. (In other words, they would rather die.)  The only greater fear among most people is the fear of sharks. I’ve known people to turn down promotions into lucrative executive positions or teaching jobs because giving speeches or lectures would be a necessity of the new job and that they cannot imagine themselves doing.

I know of a PhD candidate who spent eight years researching and writing her dissertation, but after finishing it was so afraid of the interview with department faculty that was required before that degree could be awarded that after all the work was done she quit the program. She had worked hard for a long time and never had the fulfillment of a degree because of the fear she could not cure.

Man holdng head, worriedI’ve seen emotional extending used successfully to overcome the fear of an upcoming speech many times. Go into a room by yourself, sit on a chair, and alone, worry and make yourself afraid. Tell yourself things that scare you. Exaggerate. Do this for five or six minutes, or longer, if necessary. After a while you will find the fear disappears. Extending excites emotions that are troubling you, then calms them down. The fear of asking for a promotion or a raise, of having an upcoming job interview or of asking for a date can be dealt with the same way. Whatever the fearful situation is, extending will help.

 

Excerpted from Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life:

“All your emotions are forms of energy. Each and every one of your emotions is power. Your positive feelings of excitement, pleasure, joy, courage, optimism, confidence, and love can fill your actions with an almost unbelievable power. You know that yourself without even having to think twice about it. When you’re filled with really positive feelings, there’s hardly anything you feel you cannot accomplish.  Hardly anything can stop you.

Your negative emotions are also power. But they’re destructive. Your fear, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, nervousness and even stage-fright and all the other of what the samurai called inner ‘dragons’ are power that’s being used in the wrong way. They are energy that’s pointed in the wrong direction. It’s directed inward, against you. It holds you back. It keeps you down.

What I call emotional aikido is a way of transforming negative, inward-directed emotional power into positive power pointed outward. It transforms your harmful emotions into helpful ones, and it does so by going with your harmful emotions, not opposing them.

Neurologist Dr. Viktor Frankl points out that, paradoxically, trying too hard at something often makes it impossible. For example, the person who is afraid of blushing and tries hard not to when he enters a room full of people will actually blush. The person who is afraid of stuttering, and tries hard not to, will stutter. Frankl calls this “hyper” intention. It’s intending too much and too hard. A classic example of too much intending is the man who is so damned intent on impressing his partner with his sexual prowess that he tries too hard and fails miserably.

Frankl realized that hyper-intending could be a very useful way to rid people of emotional impediments: If a person stuttered when he tried very hard not to, wouldn’t he be unable to stutter if he tried very hard to make himself stutter? And that’s exactly what happened. A man with a lifelong severe case of stuttering stopped only when he tried very hard to force himself to stutter. A man who had suffered from writer’s cramp for some years was cured by trying not to write neatly and legibly, but in the worst possible scrawl.

The moment he deliberately tried to scribble, he couldn’t. Using the technique of hyper-intention, Dr. Frankl even cured a healthy man of his terrifying fear of having a heart attack. He had him try to induce one! The man worked at it like the devil. He huffed and puffed trying to make it happen. What happened was that the heart attack didn’t happen, but the man lost his irrational fear of one.

In going into battle against a disturbing inner emotion you have a choice to make. If you’re a direct force-against-force stylist you’ll probably attempt to overcome the emotion directly through willpower. You’ll tell yourself, “I won’t let this thing get the better of me. I will not blush this time . . . will not stammer . . . will not feel nervous, afraid, worried, depressed,” etc., etc., etc.

According to Frankl, that approach only increases the problem: “Pressure precipitates counter-pressure.” But if you use the indirect, extending style of hyper-intention you stand a far better chance. To use it, you (1) take the frontal approach by identifying the emotion that’s disturbing you, and then you (2) go with it and exaggerate it. If you’re feeling afraid of something tell yourself things that will make you even more afraid. Fear your guts out. Fear to beat the band. Do the same thing for any feeling that’s troubling you. All your emotions have a saturation point which when reached will stop the emotion. Emotional extending is over-saturating them.

You can’t ignore the troublesome worries, fears and anxieties that get in your way and interfere with your functioning and feeling well, just as you cannot ignore any opponent without risking defeat. They’re real. They’re blocking you. And to win you have no choice but to deal with them. You can’t will them out of existence by pitting your willpower against their power. But you can extend them out of existence. Don’t attempt to suppress them or beat them down. Do the opposite—exaggerate them, hyper-intend them, over-saturate them, extend them.”

 

pink lotus flower on green If you choose to use the aikido approach to overcome external and emotional adversaries, be aware that the way to “serve” one’s adversary in the aikido style is to understand what they want, and to give them more of it to get what you want. Remember: the extending technique or process can be an antidote to the emotions of fear, worry, anxiety, the blues, and depression.

Using emotional extending aikido the “intention” of your fear is to make you feel afraid. Give it what it wants. But go further. Make yourself feel more afraid .The fear will grow greater for a while as you think thoughts that induce fear, and then if you persist the fear will disappear. Make yourself be more anxious and the anxiety will grow greater and then as you continue extending, the anxiety fortunately will disappear.

If the PhD candidate who dropped out of the program rather than face her fear of speaking with the department faculty had been familiar with emotional extending it may well be that she would have had a wonderful career she had worked so hard to prepare for.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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A Style Is About All There Is to Art

Style is everywhere in art and everywhere in everyday life. There would be no art without style. Picasso’s Guernica has a style, and Pride and Prejudice does too, and the building you are in has a style. Whenever you speak or send a text or dress or brush your hair, you have a style. You’re reading a style right now. It is mine, and just as, whether you know it or not, you have spent probably Interior livingroom with stylethousands of hours developing yours (so that I’d recognize anywhere that it is yours), I have consciously spent many hours developing mine.

A core reason you are attracted to one painter over others or one writer over others, or why you like Sinatra, or Chopin or Debussy or The Simpsons is their style.  Speaking of style, short story specialist Irishman Frank O’ Connor said, “One sees that the way a thing is made controls and is inseparable from the whole meaning of it.” In the same vein but more emphatically American Nobel Prize writer Toni Morrison said, “Getting a style is about all there is to writing.”

The total effect of what a writer says will depend to a considerable extent on how the writer says it. Style is the manner of saying what is said.  Some styles are appealing, but many are unappealing. The writer should always want to write with an appealing style. It needn’t be beautiful, but it should be appealing.

Painting of field by Claude Monet

Claude Monet

The writer’s style expresses his or her temperament and his or hers alone, and reveals verbal abilities, methods of writing, enthusiasms, and even self-doubts. By analyzing a writing style you can analyze the writer. Painters leave their print everywhere in their paintings. Style is the whole artist that is made recognizable in the work. You can see from a work that a Cezanne temperament is not a Monet temperament.

There are good styles and bad styles. .  People do not generally like weird, eccentric styles. When artists discover the style that best expresses them (which may take years to happen) they experience a breakthrough and feel a new sense of power and confidence over their work.

A sign for writers that they are on the right track is the emergence in the work at hand of their characteristic style.  When they see their style taking shape in the work, they feel secure. I’ve always felt that when I get the first paragraph under control (in my style), the piece is basically written.

Simplicity

Artists who are interested in styles today are almost automatically interested in SIMPLICITY, claiming that works of art should not be unnecessarily complicated. Speaking of simplicity, writer Willa Cather said that the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification.

portrait of Anton Checkhov

Anton Checkhov

Anton Chekhov is considered the master of the short story–the greatest, the best to learn from. He wrote to his brother, also a writer, “A strange thing has happened to me: I have developed a mania for brevity–everything strikes me as too long.” He practiced “maximal conciseness.” His phrases are simple, such as, “The sun set,” “It got dark,” and “It started to rain.”  Novelist Somerset Maugham thought that writing simply was more difficult than it might seem. He said: To write simply is as difficult as to be good.”

Chekhov believed that not only should a short story’s style be simple, but the plot should be simple too. He said, “The more elaborate the plot of a given story is, the less effective it tends to be as a work of art.” In many of his stories precious little happens.   He said, “You should take something ordinary, something from everyday life without a plot or ending.” He said a story should have a man and a woman, and a little action. Some of his most admired stories are mood-pieces in which plot is barely present.

Frank Lloyd Wright building

Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designer of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was interested in simplicity not only in architecture, but in all arts. He believed that there could be but one best way for the artist to express anything, and that the way could include only what was absolutely necessary to express the essential meaning of the thing. That requires stringent simplification. By eliminating the inessentials, the artist arrives at the nature of the object—its pure form. But the artist must know when to stop simplifying. Wright said, “Less would ruin the work as surely as would ‘more.’”  So, simplify but don’t go too far.

Accessibility and Artworks

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Artists who are interested in style and interested in simplicity are also interested in ACCESSIBILITY of their works. In any of the arts, the artist has to decide–as do you–if it is important to appeal to an audience, to be understood by an audience. Should the work be accessible? How accessible? Leo Tolstoy, whose novels are sometime considered the greatest ever written, said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.” Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz thought what many people think: that so-called great works are too pompous, too stiff, and are not accessible. Ford Maddox Ford was all for accessibility and said, “You must have your eyes forever on your Reader. That alone constitutes Technique”

William Faulkner felt differently. He said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on mine or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.” (And he won a Nobel Prize.) But his work is accessible only with difficulty–long, convoluted sentences and rhetorical style. But Francois Mauriac disagreed with Faulkner and said, “An author who assures you that he writes for himself alone and that he does not care whether he is heard or not is a boaster and is deceiving himself or you.”  (And he won a Nobel Prize too.) Delacroix wanted accessibility. He said. “A picture is but the bridge between the soul of the artist and that of the spectator.”  How accessible will your work be?

The Author’s Intensity and the Production of Literature

The artist’s INTENSITY is reflected in style.  Some artists’ style is laid back, but others’ style is red hot. Raymond Chandler turned hard-boiled detective writing into critically-accepted literature and had a lot to say about the writer’s craft.  He wrote: “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be perfection over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over a ball.” Painter George Innes said, “The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge…but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impression of a personal vital force that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation.”

Advice Regarding Emotions, Plot, and Understatement

Van Gogh self portrait

Van Gogh

A style conveys EMOTIONS. Chekhov wrote, “The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must show in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need to lay it on thick.” Other Chekhov quotes: “Avoid describing the mental state of your protagonist.” “Avoid describing emotional states…one should make these apparent from action.“ “To get strong emotions from the reader, try to be somewhat colder.” Thinking the same thing as Russian Chekhov, Frenchman Gustave Flaubert said, “The less one (the writer) feels a thing, the more likely one is to express it as it really is.”

The two other greatest writers of short stories–Guy de Maupassant and Ernest Hemingway–also advocated emotional understatement. Hemingway wrote “Dispassionate prose,” prose always less emotional than the events seem to demand. Understatement elicits strong emotional responses from the reader.

Emotional states in writing are amplified by brevity.  American writer Flannery O’ Connor said that the fiction writer has to realize that compassion or emotions cannot be created with emotion. The style itself must be emotion-free.

Artists Can’t Help It: They Repeat Themselves

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a highly successful writer by the age of twenty-four. He said, “Mostly, we authors repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before”

Claude Monet painted the same subject over and over. As an Impressionist he was interested in conveying the effect of light on objects, and would often  set his clock to be at  the place where the subject was at intervals so he could catch the light at noon, say, and ten minutes later and ten minutes after that. He might paint seven or ten paintings of the very same thing in different light.

All Artists Need Taste

Picasso painting

Picasso

Obvious in a work of art is the artist’s aesthetic judgment, which  he/she develops over time and experience.  “At the higher levels of creativity it is probable that few besides the creators themselves are able to assess a new creation, and it is necessary that they should learn to adopt an objective critical attitude toward their own work…(the creators’ self-criticism) must be based on  sound insight and aesthetic appreciation–what one would call ‘taste” (R. Ochse).

Some Writers Are in the Wrong Art

“Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or person, as if he were painting what he is saying because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors” (Pablo Picasso). A good example is Joseph Conrad in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness.

Miscellaneous Insights About Writing

 “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent” (Pat Conroy).

Flannery O’Connor said, “A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should the action be less complete. Nothing essential to the main experience can be left out of a short story.”

“Since Stephen Crane’s time [late nineteenth century] all serious writers have concentrated on the effort of rendering individual scenes more vividly” (Caroline Gordon).

“A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them” (Anthony Trollope.)

“It has been through Flaubert that the novel has at last caught up with poetry” (Allen Tate).

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first” (William Faulkner).

“Only when the moral beliefs of the reader tally exactly with those on which a story is based will the reader have the whole of the emotion which it is potentially able to produce in him” (Montgomery Belgion).

A personal style that makes you comfortable and confident helps you accomplish whatever you wish to accomplish in your art. An artist’s style evolves over a lifetime of work. What it was when you were twenty-five is not the same as it is now when you are fifty. This post and the ideas and experiences here of many important artists may help you strengthen and perfect your own style.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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The Swing of the Advantage  

I know this much about you: at one time or another your chances for a better life, once very high, changed and seemed dim. Your spirits plummeted because whatever advantage you once held had slipped away. On another day you regained the advantage. Then your spirits instantly soared, and you were the one thing you had always wished to be: happy.

The swing of the advantage–to you or away from you–is something that-occurs in every aspect of your life and mine from childhood through old age. The advantage is like aWoman swinging attennis racket on tennis court ball passing back and forth between you and life. No one ever holds the advantage all the time. The advantage can swing to you or away from you at any time. Sometimes you hold the advantage, and an ideal life and great achievements in your career or personal life seem so near you can touch them with your fingers. Then you suffer a setback, a crisis, or a major problem, and you’re driven down into the dark depths of discouragement. You have lost the advantage, and your need now is to get it back.

Then you shake off discouragement and take decisive action. Once you’re in action, opportunities appear like jewels you pick up off the ground. The advantage is yours once more, and a better life unfolds like the petals of a rose. Your dreams are no longer mere fantasies but facts that you now incorporate into your life You turn directions, changing into a new being. For example, the success you wanted was to publish a book. You work hard. Your book is published, and now the identity that will never leave you is yours: “published author.

swinging pendulum“The Swing of the Advantage” is a concept from my print best seller Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life (now available as an eBook). From the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries Japanese samurai (bushi) were fighting men and women in service of a lord, a “daimyo.” They were the greatest warriors who ever lived, and based their expertise on physical, psychological, and Zen spiritual insights and techniques that they acquired through as demanding training as there has ever been in any discipline. Their skills were legendary. Fighting To Win prescribes their spiritual/psychological insights and adaptations of their techniques for overcoming obstacles to a productive and fulfilling life.

Samurai tactics never changed. They are a philosophy and life style–a “kamae,” a battle stance or posture,” a “Way.” They are “zan totsu“–which means “rushing straight ahead into action”  and “mo chih ch’u,” which is “going ahead confidently without hesitation.” The samurai were conditioned to confront, not avoid, difficulties, to embrace them, to race directly and swiftly to what you fear most. Were we to rush into our fear without hesitations many of our problems would be dispensed with quickly. When you approach your life and your work mo chih ch’u, fearlessly, your strength increases fourfold and you go straight to your goal.

Samurai were taught “Trust only movement” and “Test your armor, but only test the front” because you are not in action–in your everyday life, in your occupation and other pursuits–to run away and hide from “inner dragons.” Dragons are the sum total of all your fears, anxieties, and inhibitions. Seeking freedom from dragons, samurai “strike through the black silhouette of a dragon head with open mouthdragon’s mask.”

You can use this samurai concept of the swing of the advantage to gain victories. Like samurai you can face up to difficulties and rush to the attack—confronting and overcoming obstacles, not hesitating, not hanging back, but solving problems–dispensing with useless patterns  of thought and action that have led you from your goals rather than to them. Then you will be filled with the exhilarating surge of the powerful energy (“ki’) of a man or woman on the attack. You are not looking back, not fearful of facing up to what lies ahead in the fog of life, but committed in spirit and mind to the  action in front of you not tomorrow, but in this single fleeting moment of time, gaining back the swing of the advantage before this moment ends.

Let’s say you’re afraid to take a chance and the opportunity slips away. You’ve given up the advantage. But then you take the chance and succeed. You’ve seized the advantage back. Sometimes your diet is going well. But at other times you ravenously raid the cookie jar Once again fattening food has gained the advantage and your self-esteem and health are in jeopardy. But then you get a little angry and recommit yourself, and achieve your target weight. You have regained the advantage.

Prescriptionsseesaw with red seats

  • Recognize and be prepared for swings of the advantage–sometimes to you and other times away from you. Because you and I are alive, neither of us is a stranger to the swing of the advantage.
  • Make the loss of the advantage only a temporary impediment. Say to yourself, “Oops, there goes the advantage.” Then quickly, without stopping to bemoan your plight, use your determination, spirit, and decisive action to get it back. And when it swings back over to you–when you have solved a longstanding problem, for example, or overcome an obstacle that has stopped you for as long as you can remember–don’t stop to congratulate yourself. Don’t stop at all. When you’re gaining ground on a better life say, “You can’t escape me. I’m on your trail.” Just keep moving in the only direction that matters–forward toward your goals.
  • Don’t delude yourself into believing you have the advantage when you don’t. Life is to be looked at in one way–squarely in the eye–and a fool’s paradise is hell in disguise.
  • Maintain a powerful spirit–confident and daring–that cannot be stopped however far away from you the advantage has swung. It couldn’t matter less how often you’ve lost the advantage or how far away from you it swings, only that you have it when it matters most.

Application

wooden swing on a background of green grassIs there any area in your personal or professional life right now in which the advantage has swung away from you? What will you do to get the advantage back? Whatever it is, don’t delay. Run straight toward it zan totsu–boldly.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Useful Writing Prescriptions from Two Major Authors

John Gardner was the winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, and author of four innovative and yet best-selling novels. He and Ernest Hemingway, the most important innovator in 20th century literature, once named “the greatest writer since Shakespeare,” and 1954 Nobel laureate, were both interested in passing on to other writers insights and prescriptions  on a variety of topics pertinent to serious writing.

A helpful way to incorporate the prescriptions and insights here is described at the end of the post.

  1. Spend as much time as possible writing. It will pay off.

Photograph of John GardnerGardner: “If the promising writer keeps on writing–writes day after day, month after month–and if he reads very carefully, he will begin to ‘catch on.’”  Hemingway, convinced of the value of persistence, wrote, “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t.  Professionals write regularly. Amateurs often write sporadically.”

Hemingway: “Work continuously on a project once you start it. The hard part about a novel is to finish it…There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.” Hemingway: “Write every day until you’re so pooped about all the exercise you can face is reading the papers.”

  1. If your work is rejected often, get help, particularly emotional help.

Writers often do their best work when they are intense and feeling good, but intensity can be worn down by rejections. Gardner: It is a terrible thing to write for five or ten years and continue to be rejected–and so at last goes another good writer.”  “Only a strong character, reinforced by the encouragement of a few people who believe in the writer, can get one through this period.” Gardner also said, “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, after the beginning stages, a writer needs social and psychological support.” He felt that writers need to be part of a community that values the things they value.

Hemingway endured many rejections. That is understandable since his work was original. Nothing like it had been seen before by editors, and editors generally avoid writers who are not “proven.” Hemingway said that every day “the rejected manuscripts would come through the slot in the door…I’d sit at that old wooden table and read one of those cold slips that had been attached to a story I had loved and worked on very hard and believed in, and I couldn’t help crying.” But he never lost confidence in his talent. His reward was fame, wealth, and the highest literary award, the Nobel Prize.

Gardner: When writers are ready to give up, they need four things from an editor or mentor: trustworthiness, reassurance that their work really is publishable quality, a clear understanding of how editors work, and the strongest possible support.

  1. Expect to run into a powerful force–the urge of other people to evaluate your writing, tell you how good or bad it is, and to change it.

Gardner: “No depressed and angry writer can fail to notice, if he raises his heavy head and looks around, that fools, maniacs, and jabbers are everywhere–mindless, tasteless, ignorant schools of critics…misreading a great writer.”

Hemingway said writers may slant a story away from the way they want the story to please a magazine editor so the editor might accept the work for publication. Hemingway’s advice was never do that: “That’s just a lot of shit; I never slanted a story in my life. I never think of publication until I’ve finished a story. Write a story exactly the way you think it should be written, not as an editor would want it.”

  1. Be knowledgeable of the powers and uses of language, and have skill in using words. That is a requirement if your goal is to write potent prose or poetry.

Photograph of Earnest HemingwayHemingway: “The hardest thing in the world is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn.”  The vocabulary in a Hemingway work is simple, the sentences clear and uncomplicated. And short. The style is non-literary, and is colloquial American English. His rule was that his language must be readable, accurate, and economical.

Gardner: A writer “is interested in discovering the secrets words carry, whether or not he ever puts them in his fiction…One sign of a writer’s potential is his especially sharp ear–and eye–for language.”  But writers must be cautious because if they care too much about the words they use and call attention away from the story and toward their style, they become “mannered.” Eventually readers tire of them.

  1. Aim for the polished, tasteful, “middle way” that most readers prefer. Some writers write poorly and are not read, and some write too well, too beautifully, and are not read.

Hemingway revolutionized fiction writing by purging it of displays of virtuosity, simplifying it, and avoiding “poetic” prose writing styles, preferring simple Anglo-Saxon English that was used in daily life by “the common man.”

Gardner said, “Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance…but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way…If the writer has too much verbal sensitivity, his success…will depend on his learning to care about other elements of fiction so that, for their sake, he holds back a little…or on his finding an editor, and a body of readers who love, beyond all else, the same things he loves, fine language….The writer who cares chiefly, or exclusively about language  is poorly equipped for novel-writing in the usual sense because his character and personality are wrong for writing novels.”

  1. Be disciplined. Discipline is the serious writer’s necessary quality. If you’re not disciplined your writing career will probably fizzle. 

The most successful writers from the Romans to those writing today were disciplined. It’s possible that discipline is more important to writers than talent.

Gardner:  ”If one is unwilling to write like a true artist, mainly because one needs to, one might do well to put one’s energies somewhere else.”

Hemingway: “I happen to be in a very tough business where there are no alibis. It is good or it is bad and the thousand reasons that interfere with a book being as good as possible are no excuses if it is not. You have to make it good and a man is a fool if he adds or takes hindrance after hindrance after hindrance to being a writer when that is what he cares about. Taking refuge in domestic successes, being good to your broke friends, is merely a form of quitting.”

  1. Aim to be as prolific as you can if your goal is to be considered great. There are prolific writers and writers who produce very little. You’re more likely to be thought great if you are prolific. Hemingway and Gardner were both great and prolific. Gardner talked about reasons why some writers are not prolific.

There is a definite relationship between being a major artist and producing a number of works. There are writers who produce one exquisite work. Their writing is exceptional, but there is so little of it that almost never are they considered major writers. The greatest writers generally get an early start, producing their first major success sooner than less great writers produce theirs, and have long and fruitful careers into their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Gardner said that not caring much about the kind of novel most experienced and well-educated readers like to read, the “linguistic novelist,” lover of language for its own sake, brings out in his lifetime only one or two books, or none. ”The brilliant artificer’s novel either is never written at all or is spoiled by sentimentality, mannerism, or frigidity.”

  1. Read the best writers. They will rub off on you. 

Both Gardner and Hemingway advocated writers studying other writers, particularly the best of them so that the writer would take from them what they needed to improve. They both believed that would happen as the writer who was willing to learn developed “a new way of seeing.”

Both men were conversant with the classics. In his teaching, Gardner required students to read them. Hemingway was an insatiable student of literature and painting. He read voraciously and believed that all American fiction was derivative of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He felt that studying the style of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne helped his writing considerably. 

  1. Be an autodidact and educate yourself to write skillfully (as many writers have), or be educated via some other means, but be educated. 

Hemingway did not attend college although his parents, both well-educated–his father a physician–wanted him to. But he felt that he would learn nothing in college that would benefit him. Immediately after graduating from high school he began writing for the Kansas City Star. The paper’s brand of journalism was a strong influence on Hemingway his entire career, teaching him; “Use short sentences; use short first paragraphs; use vigorous English; be positive, not negative.”

In Paris in the nineteen twenties Hemingway had an intense four-years writing apprenticeship with luminaries Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddux Ford, and other writers. With that background he began writing The Sun Also Rises with a sense of confidence and a knowledge of his craft.

Gardner had a PhD and taught writing at universities. One of his students was short story innovator Raymond Carver. But asked if a writer should study creative writing and literature at a university, he said, “If the person means will he become a better writer, yes. But if he means, ‘‘Will I be able to support myself,’ the answer is ‘possibly.’ “

It is helpful to become familiar with prescriptions in this post and strive to apply them.  You could write more often and for longer periods, develop stronger skills with language by acquiring a more expressive vocabulary, write in a more appealing style, find emotional help in responding to rejections (a friend, a family member, or a coach or mentor), be more disciplined about writing through a planned schedule of work, read high quality writers, and develop a study program to improve your capabilities.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

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13 Questions to Ask When Your Artistic Career Is in a Rut

What could be more discouraging to a writer, painter, ballet dancer, actor, or composer who is striving to survive and wishes to excel in their craft than to realize that she’s not nearly as successful as she would like and may never be more successful than she has been in the past?  This post looks at the situation of a writer. But the ideas and approaches are just as useful for people in other arts.

Face of woman thhinkingAndrea, a friend—“Andy”–seemed to reach her peak when she had two short stories published in prestigious literary journals at twenty-four and a novel that sold moderately well at twenty-eight. She didn’t think then it would be her peak, but assumed it was a preview of other successes soon to come. But they haven’t come and she’s been wondering what’s wrong with her.

She’s frustrated and anxious because she knows—she can feel—that she has potentials in her that are waiting to be expressed. But there she is, at a standstill at the age of thirty-three  She asks herself privately what she won’t ask in public: “Is this as good as I’ll ever be, experiencing only those three successes?”

But she is not beaten. She hasn’t quit writing as she’s seen so many other once-hopeful writers do. She’ll try to find out what’s wrong and correct the problems she identifies. She’s already on the Car stuck in the snowpath to solving the problem by admitting she’s found herself on a performance plateau—in a performance rut.

She realizes that what she needs now are new ideas, new approaches. Being an intelligent woman, she begins problem-solving by trying to understand the problem. She’s a believer in cause-and-effect and starts with the effect: she’s stuck in the mud. She is not giving up trying to improve and achieve greater success as many writers would in her position. But she is not as successful as she would like to be.

She noodles the problem and takes a frank look at herself. She asks:

  1. Do I have the skills I’ll need to be the writer I want to be? If not, what specific skills should I develop and refine, and how can I acquire them? In each art there is a finite number of basic skills that the person MUST possess if they are to excel.
  2. Do I have sufficient knowledge of my art–making it, sustaining it, and marketing it? Over the long run, superior achievement depends on superior knowledge.
  3. Do I have enough talent, that recognizable flair that underlies a good creatives’ life and their every quality work?
  4. Am I working hard enough? If you study successful people in the arts you will almost always find that they were prodigious workers from the beginning of their careers to the end. Or am I working too hard and burning out (not getting enough sleep and relaxation)?
  5. What are the main goals I’m trying to reach? Are they the right goals and are they difficult as goals are supposed to be, or are they too difficult for me? Goals should be “moderately” difficult–not too easy and not impossibly hard. What exactly are my goals? Andy decides her main goal is not necessarily to “excel” and it is not to be “successful,” but to write as well as she’s able. She feels that if she does that, success will follow. A basic question she asks is: am I pursuing goals at all or am I feeling nervous and drifting?
  6. Am I powerfully motivated to succeed as an artist? Or have I lost my zest? If so, how can I get it back?
  7. Am I able to focus my attention on my work like a narrow beam of bright light or do I have too many irons in the fire? What can I eliminate?
  8. Am I one of the 15% action-oriented, decisive creatives who make up their mind, take the initiative, and make things happen, or one of the other 85% who delay, postpone, and wait for things to happen?
  9. How confident an artist am I, ranging from “not very confident” to ‘”exceptionally confident?” These are the indicators of success in the arts: a desire to succeed, skill, resilience, and confidence. Artists fail more because they lack confidence than because they lack skill.
  10. Am I getting specific, helpful, and honest feedback regularly? Have I made arrangements to do that?
  11. When I meet setbacks and disappointments, am I discouraged, or do I persevere? Do I sink my teeth into my objectives and never let go?
  12. Do I know how to overcome creative obstacles–am I good at analyzing problem and impediments in my way and finding solutions?
  13. Everyone needs encouragement, particularly when their career is dead in the water. Andy asks, whom will I turn to when I need encouragement?

Answering those questions helps Andy dig out of creative ruts she finds herself in from time to time. First thing, she sits down and compares her successful works with her current work and Pink shovel in grey dirtdecides they are different. The earlier work was simpler and more heart-felt and sincere. She  realizes that she has fallen into a trap of “showing off”–of trying to impress readers with what a good writer she is and how brilliant she is rather than in telling a story in a simple, direct, “Here’s my work, take it or leave it”  style.

Andy decides that a big problem usually in recent years has been poor motivation and a lack of confidence because she is so discouraged. She feels that she hasn’t lost her talent and that she is still a good writer and realizes that one or more successes will increase her confidence immensely.  Also, she’s not good at concentrating on work. She wastes a lot of time, including moping. She remembers reading a post I wrote about “programming” to increase productivity. She liked it and plans to re-read it and take steps to become a more efficient writer.

Andy feels that if her concentration improves and she absorbs herself in her work, she will become more excited about it, her motivation will climb, and she will complete more works. Her mother is Andy’s biggest supporter in times of disappointment and discouragement.  Her mother inspires her. Andy plans to talk to her more often.

Woman in aqua sweater writing in a bookShe also plans to read biographies and autobiographies of writers living and dead who will inspire her.

She is aware that one reason she hasn’t had successes recently is that she doesn’t submit enough of her work to magazines and publishers. She has become afraid of failure. Overcoming her fear and submitting more will increase her chances of being published, so she will do that too.

Thinking carefully about the answers to these 13 questions sets Andy on a path out of her rut and on to future successes. Perhaps these questions can be useful to you as well.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

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The Misery of Writer’s Block and Possible Antidotes

This post has three parts:

Part 1 is an introduction which explains that a sizeable number of amateur and professional writers say they are blocked, but other writers say there is no such thing as writer’s block.  Part 2 is a description of what happens to writers snagged by a dreadful writer’s block. Part 3 describes possible antidotes, or ways out of writer’s block that are suggested by accomplished writers.

A writer’s main concern is production of text. That production ebbs and flows. Some days for most writers the words pour out in torrents. You’re in overdrive and every word is perfect. Other days they wouldn’t come out were you to use blasting powder, but that is not writers block, but a temporary pause. When the pause is prolonged beyond the writer’s comfort zone or doesn’t end, that’s writers block.

Part 1: Introduction

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, said, “The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students give me four pages a day, every day. Cat resting next to a computer screenThat’s 3 or 400 thousand words a year.” Novelist Thomas Wolfe produced many millions of words and wrote, “The point is solely and simply to get a piece of work done at the rate of 1,000 or 1,500 words a day. If you do that—then brood, grieve, mourn, curse God, everyone and everything all you please. But get the work done.”

And  writer/writing teacher John Gardner said, “Theoretically there is no reason one should get it (writer’s block) if one understands that writing, after all, is only writing, neither something one ought to feel deeply guilty about nor something one ought to be inordinately proud of.” His approach to combating writers block would be: “Write but don’t get emotionally involved.”

But those optimistic words are disturbing if you’re someone who claims to be a writer and find yourself unable to write even a quarter of an hour or produce even 50 or 25 “good” words because you’re in the grip of an impasse, a writer’s block you dread thinking may continue for days, weeks, months, or years as has been known to happen to even perfectly competent writers.

It’s easy for never-blocked writers to brag to the blocked writers, as they often do, “There’s no such thing as what you’re talking about. I’ve never been blocked.” But blocks are reported by so many writers, artists, inventors, and scientists, that blocks must exist. And it’s easy for the never-blocked writer to say, “Quit griping and snap out of it” just as it’s easy to say to a depressed person, “Cheer up.”

But a depressed person doesn’t want to feel miserable and writers facing a creative impasse are trying their best to get back to work, but just can’t. What are they to do short of resigning themselves to being unable to work or ending their career?

Part 2: Writers Block Can Be Dreadful

There are writers on every continent on earth who, whatever their native language and rules of composition, will not be able to write creatively today and have not been able to write for months or crumpled papers on a desk and also making up the head of a person typingyears. They worry and doubt themselves. They are discouraged and anxious. The act of writing does not excite or enchant them as it usually does. They have suffered agonies and are growing hopeless because of the dreadful misery called writers block that has taken hold of their mind, imagination,  and spirit and will not let go.

To a person who considers himself or herself a writer and hopes to make a living out of the substance of their life, who has an urge to do good work, whose foremost virtue is persistence, whose very being and every ambition is to be a professional literary person for whom written expression is the light and reason of their existence, those few words–“I can’t write”– which may seem ludicrous and pretentious to anyone who is not a writer, are tragic.

When you’re engaged in creative work and have announced to the world that is what you’re doing and eyes are upon you and judging your merit, you’re up against it. You’re a pregnant woman and you’ve gotten yourself in a fix and now it’s time to deliver. No one can do what has to be done for you. There’s no going back and no possible compromise and no way out but straight through.

Your strength, courage, and endurance must come out of yourself. You try to work because work is a writer’s religion. Work gives a man or woman a chance to find their authentic voice, their authentic self, their place in society that is separate from anyone else’s and which no one looking at them can begin to imagine.

Your work room is full of the utensils a writer needs: a computer and references books and such. You’re trained to write, not in sporadic flashes of casual inspiration, but consistently, with exhausting concentration. But you can’t write a word. You fight, sweat, nearly kill yourself and perhaps do kill yourself trying to accomplish something, but you can’t. You aren’t to blame; it’s not your fault. There is simply nothing you can do, nothing great, nothing small, nothing at all. You’re knotted up. Your faith in yourself is battered and then disappears and is replaced by a dejected resignation.

You live in terror and dread of the absence of words, of needing them so desperately but no longer having access to them as you once had, of groping without effect for a good sentence, a decent paragraph, a finished text. You wait to get unknotted, but nothing happens.

Every aspect of your life suffers if this goes on long enough: your professional life, your personal life and social life and; then lastly, your love life.

Part 3: Some Possible Antidotes: What Professional Writers Have To Say

Professional writers have theories about the causes of blocks. The blocked writer may be too impatient: “I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely it just won’t come. Certain Hands typing at a keyboardsubjects just need time, as I’ve learned over and over again” (Joyce Carol Oates). This opinion says that there are “half hour” writing problems— problems that need a half hour to be solved—and “six month” writing problems that won’t be solved in less than half a year. These writers believe that you can’t solve the problem until it has reached its allotted time.

The never-ending repetition of regular writing (going over a text seventy or eighty times, for example) may cause a block because you’ve become saturated with the piece or with the routine of writing itself. Your mind is bored sick and tells you, “I am damned tired of this” and refuses to write.  I’ve had that happen many times.  Get away from the work and come back to it rejuvenated.

Poet and essayist William Stafford believed that “writing block” was caused by having standards that are too high for your abilities. The answer, he said, is to lower your standards until they are no longer too high. He adds, “It’s easy to write. You shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.” It’s well-known that it is senseless to pursue goals that you lack the abilities to reach. Lower your sights until you develop the abilities. Work on something else.

The writer may be blocked because he or she has nothing worth writing about: “I question the assumption behind writer’s block, which is that one should be writing all the time, that at any given time there is something worthwhile to be made into a poem” (Louise Gluck).The solution if this were the reason for the block would be to find something worth saying. Then the block would disappear.

Historian Barbara Tuchman thought that blocks are caused by organizational difficulties; that the material was “resistant” or that she didn’t adequately understand it, and it needed rethinking, additional research, and a new approach.

Annie Dillard, author of The Writing Life agrees with Tuchman: “When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things:

Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split in the middle—or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse and you do not know about it yet.” Try an entirely different plan.

I have found too after decades of serious writing that when I am about to make a mistake a subliminal alarm goes off and my mind and motivation to continue on that course shut down and will not let me continue until I go in another, more fruitful direction.

One of my blogs describes a technique for overcoming writers block that makes use of the person’s mental imagery that may be useful. A second post describes an atypical block.

Curiously, two opposite strategies each may be effective antidotes to writer’s block. Man on a pier jumping for joy One is to simply persist. Sit down at the computer every day and hack away without any self-judgment. Don’t worry or get anxious or depressed. Do this until your block cures itself. Another way is to completely cut off your involvement with writing. Don’t allow yourself to think about it. Forbid yourself from sitting down and writing at the computer or by hand. Don’t talk about writing. Do that for a specified period of time you set for yourself–ten days or two weeks. At the end of that period you may feel so deprived that you will develop a new enthusiasm and energy that may help you get on track again.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

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