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:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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Imagery in the Arts

Painting of boats in water with mountains and clouds behind

Fjord, Norway by Pamela Jones

Some creatives have an ability to perceive images in their environment or deep in their memories and to elaborate them in works with astonishing dexterity. Simple images that are ready for practical artistic use in poems, novels, essays, short stories, and paintings and such pour in unabated rivers from their minds. Skill in image-making comes so effortlessly to superb image-makers that although their ability is exceptional, it seems routine and unexceptional to them. If one image would do the trick, they can easily think of three, four, or five others that would suffice as well.

Skill with images is so necessary to the professional or professional-caliber amateur that if it is a weakness, it must be practiced and made a strength. That is possible to do.

Painting of harbour with buildings behind in pink, blue, yellow, green pastels

Tenby Harbour Pembrokeshire West Wales by Pamela Jones

Creatives differ in the vividness of the imagery in their minds and in their ability to transform imagery. Compared with low imagers, vivid imagers experience large mental images of greater clarity, remember pictures better, and read text more slowly, presumably because they are visualizing as they read. Skill with imagery is a collection of identifiable abilities such as moving and rotating mages and inspecting them. Vivid imagers are able to hold in mind many features of an image at the same time.  People can be good at one or more of these abilities, but poor at others.

 

POETRY OF IMAGISTS

William Carlos Williams
(Excerpt from “Nantucket”)

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow
changed by white curtains–
Smell of cleanliness–

Sunshine of late afternoon–
On the glass tray
a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down

Painting of a couple looking over the water at the moon all in shades of blue

Stroll in the Moonlight Mumbles by Pamela Jones

For image-makers, remembering images and turning them into artistic products is a necessary part of their everyday approach to their work and a gift granted to many artists that surpasses the abilities of the overwhelming majority of people. In a single glance artists with a facility with images encounter a world of pictures, sounds, sensations, and odors that are their raw material.

An Imagist Poet:

“Evening” by Richard Aldington:

The chimneys, rank on rank,
Cut the clear sky;
The moon
With a rag of gauze about her loins
Poses among them, an awkward Venus–
And here am I looking wantonly
Over the kitchen sink.

Poems written in a strict imagist style are spare, elegant, and vivid. They are different from most poetry in that the reader isn’t expected to analyze them or search for symbols in them or explicate them. The imagist poem must be rooted in the ground of reality–must grow from the local and particular, and raise those to the universal, so when looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of significant events.

Painting of a white cottage with blue roof on a pale green field with poppies in the foreground

Cottage, Carmarthenshire, with Poppies by Pamela Jones

There is a juxtaposition of accumulated fragments. The poems require alertness enough mainly to “see” in your mind and don’t require explanation. One can’t explain a bead of water on a leaf, but it can be described, its beauty or mystery captured in words just as a painter captures them in pigment or the composer in notes and chords. Readers will enjoy them better if the poet or writer shuts up and just describes. The poems are complete as they are and need no interpretation. The physical and tangible qualities of the object–colors, shapes, odors, sensations–are identified one by one simply and precisely.

In the poetry of images the reader should not expect lofty sentiments. The poems do not have a regular beat and usually lack end-rhymes. Their language is vivid–plain, and direct.  They calmly describe the scene and the object. They describe them precisely and exactly. Their imagery is compelling. Readers run their eyes along the scene. The poems focus on a short, specific period of time, are free verse, and often have a short poetic line such as my “Morning Glories:”

Sitting on a window sill
Watching people
Exchanging stories
Over white and purple
Morning glories
On the flanks of the hill

The poetry and prose of images emphasize verbs, not adjectives. The writing is clear, not obscure, and it is colloquial.  Images are juxtaposed, one after another. They purposely stay on the surface of things, presenting details with no comments. If there are any ideas, they are left alone to take care of themselves.  The writer or poet doesn’t reflect on them. The writing is not lofty or pretentious. The poet or writer takes obvious pleasure in words like the painter’s pleasure in using a brush.

 

THE VALUE OF MEMORY AND DETAIL

Painting of white cottage with blue roof with white sheep in a valley

Hillside Cottage, Snowdonia, Snowdon, North Wales by Pamela Jones

There is an art underlying all the arts, and that is the art of memory and detail. The writing of the best writers and paintings of the best painters is full of details they recall–detailed images, detailed descriptions.  They needn’t be long, but there must be memorable details if the work is to be convincing. The goal of a writer is to generate in the audience the sense that what the audiece is reading or hearing really happened, or is happening now, or might have happened in “real life.”

Content that is general and not vivid has little real-life effect on audiences or readers. Content like that isn’t convincing and is a misuse of words. But content that is not general, but specific, detailed, clear, unambiguous, truthful, and potent animates the readers’ minds and lets them know that a real person with an active mind and good memory of real things is talking to them.

I think if it were possible to analyze the brains of imagistic artists, poets, and writers, it would be found that the ability to recall the smallest and sometimes the most insignificant detail of lived experience–however long ago it occurred–is a major strength of a fine artist of any kind. A multiplicity of details must be put into the creative performance when art is to be done beautifully. A preciseness of vision is a necessity.

Details must be strategically placed in a written text so that they have maximum dramatic impact.

 

KEEP A NOTEBOOK OF IMAGES

A good practice if you want to animate your writing with images is to keep notebooks of images that  come to mind and that you might one day put to use in writing or art. Here is a sample from one of my notebooks that contain thousands of images:

SUMMER: The warm summer rain pours through the sunlight. At night a fog floats in from the lake and slithers along the ground (like a snake.)… The report of fire crackers and booms of exploding rockets begin at nine: Independence Day… The orange and blues of the sunset were so beautiful at night that it was hard to believe they weren‘t painted…With every gust of wind the butterfly I’m watching is blown to another flower. ..It was morning. Here comes (came) the sun, warming every tree, every leaf, every pebble in the street… …waves scattering like broken glass,

Painting of farmhouse with blue roofs on pale green field

Farmhouse in the Brecon Beacons Wales by Pamela Jones

SPRING: A band of squirrels climbs the trees …Whiter than snow and clearer than daylight was the night when the lightning flashed… Sparrows, blue jays, warblers and humming birds enjoyed themselves on the bushes, in the trees, in the sky. It had been a long day for them, but they seemed contented leading birds’ busy lives. Flowers seemed happy being flowers too. Two chipmunks sat aloof in the grass…The gutter leaked and a small waterfall poured from it… Squirrels shoot up the trees like gray rockets, hop across the branches, come back and bound across the grass where hungry robins stretch worms out of the ground…

SOUNDS Birds calling and playing, winds wafting in trees, lawn mowers humming–commuter trains rumbling, car horns and truck horns, fire engines, dogs barking, people laughing, shouting and talking, footsteps sounding, church bells playing songs.

T.S. Eliot was not an Imagist, but was influenced by Imagism.

From Eliot’s “Preludes:”

The winter evening settles down
With smell of stakes in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days,
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots

Painting of pale green pasture, dark sky and clounds, with white flowering plants in foreground

Farm in the Brecon Beacons with Cow Parsley by Pamela Jones

Some poems of poetry of images are about stillness and some are about motion. The language is colloquial and vivid. The images are fresh and the reader is intended to see and listen freshly. Poetry and prose of images are written by people with vivid sensibilities and are intended for readers with similar sensibilities.

These skilled writers are describing what is occurring during specific moments of life, and pay close attention to the surfaces of physical things, as does  my poem “Waitress in a Café in Kayenta Arizona.”

Fingers like sausage links,
Face round as a tire,
Hips the breadth of a moving van,
Elaborate, beauty-shop hair,

 

HAIKU AND IMAGERY

Haiku are made up almost always and almost completely of visual images. The three greatest haikuists were Basho, Buson, and Issa.  The meaning of a haiku, like that of an imagist poem, is direct, clear, and perfect without interpretation or reference to other things.  The meaning of haiku, like that of the imagist, is unmistakable and complete,

A few stars
Are now to be seen–
And frogs are croaking. (Basho)

Ah, how glorious
The young leaves, the green leaves,
Glittering in the sunshine. (Basho)

Paintng of a river running into a bay with three cliffs on the left

Three Cliffs Bay, Gower South Wales by Pamela Jones

Haikuists keep their eyes steadily on the objects. There is great art in the selection of the facts presented, but no “coloring.” The incidents, situations, and details are chosen from common life. Haikus describe things in themselves, not as symbols of other things.  Haikus show modesty, simplicity, lack of affectation, no striving for effect, no trying to impress, no showing off.  The haikuist just writes the story or sketch as plainl and as true to the haikuist’s vision and to life as he or she can. There is gentleness, and using the eye in particular, distinctness of the individual thing. Directness is in everything, snow, sky, clouds, sun. Each thing is simple and true:

The harvest moon–
Mist from the mountain foot
Clouded patties” (Basho)

The haiku must express a new or newly perceived sensation, a sudden awareness of  the meaning of some common human experience of nature or man. Importantly, it must above all things, not be explanatory, or contain a cause and effect. There are nothing beyond phenomena. They are not symbols of something beyond themselves.

Flowers and birds
There among them, my wild
Peach blossoms. (Buson)

 

PROSE AND IMAGISTIC WRITING

Imagistic, highly descriptive prose augments writing that might otherwise be bland and lifeless. No material is dull in the hands of an imagist.  Such prose is not just added on to the text like a pretty trimming, but is crucial to the meaning, the “feel” of the writing, and its impact on the reader.

Ernest Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises:

“Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square. It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high up above the Theatre Gayarre, across on the other side of the plaza. The ball of smoke hung in the sky like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket came up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight, I saw the bright flash as it burst and another little cloud of smoke appeared. By the time the second rocket had burst there were so many people in the arcade, that had been empty a minute before, that the waiter, holding the bottle high up over his head, could hardly get through the crowd to our table.”

From my “Wolves in the Rocky Mountains:”

“We sat at a table in the inn and ordered coffee.  The utensils were gold. From the windows we watched through the falling snow eight stalking wolves winding down the mountain in single file, slowly, like liquid through the spruces and evergreens. It was getting late. We had stayed too long. We didn’t want to stay around until dark when at that elevation it would be really cold, and the wolves were on our mind. We paid and left on foot.

“Looking over our shoulders we saw the wolves streaking among the trees and circling and wheeling around and teasing and tormenting a young deer they had separated from a herd. We could hear the wolves and the deer breathing and see the wolves when they weren’t attacking the deer playfully burrowing their snouts in the snow. There was nothing we could do to save the deer. We didn’t want to watch.”

Blue water with purple cliffs in the background and dark sky full of stars

Starry Sky, Three Cliffs Bay, Gower by Pamela Jones

The prose and poems of images depend on the power of a clear perception of concrete–not abstract–things seen, heard, smelled, or touched by the creative to capture and hold readers’ attention and convey meaning. An imagistic writer’s, poet’s, and painter’s “eye” and “ear” in particular are capable of reproducing a sensual world they have experienced at some time in their lives and have not forgotten.

The artist whose work is featured in this post is Pamela Jones, a superb landscape artist who ives in West Cross Mumbles in Swansea, Wales. In her enchanting paintings, she is influenced  by the beautiful scenery in Wales and the UK. She says, “I have a slightly impressionistic style, staying away from the photographic copying of a scene. I simplify what I see. I feel the artist must balance skill and imagination for there to be feeling in the painting. Colour harmony is most important. I give the impression of the place. I hope the viewer sees this when they look at my paintings.” She says that she just has to paint; it is a sort of obsession, and she paints every day.

 

© 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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July 23, 2020 · 12:50 pm

2 Psycho-Techniques for People in the Arts

Man alone at sunsetFrom childhood on, there have been moments in my life–and I think you have experienced this in your life too—when I’ve had to perform and no one could help me—not my mother, not my wife, not a friend.

The responsibility for what would happen next was completely my own—standing alone on a stage in an auditorium looking into the 12,000 eyes of the 6,000 people who had paid money to hear what I had to say, for instance. Or standing at the starting line of an 800 meter race with seven highly trained athletes that in a couple of minutes I would be trying hard to beat as they would be trying just as hard to beat me.

Runner in blue running suit at starting lineIt’s very lonely knowing that whether or not you will succeed depends solely on your own skills, your own personality and character, your own preparation, and your own strengths. Then no one can help you, no one can write the novel for you, no one can paint the portrait for you today, or dance in your place, or perform your role in tonight’s play. You’re on your own, my friend. Will you be at the height of your talent today or won’t you? Will you have it? Will your work be good? Will you be satisfied?

At crucial moments–beginnings, endings, changes of direction–everything you are, everything you know and hope for, everything that drives you, and all the capabilities you’ve worked so hard to develop and refine to the highest possible level are brought to bear on that always-ultimate artist’s goal–to produce a work of which you will be proud.

I’m a great believer in using psycho-techniques to help performance and wrote a whole book about them that an internet poll named “best motivational book evert written”–Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life.

I’d like to recommend two psycho-techniques here that I find useful: Think Aloud Strategies and Brief Performance Cues. They will be helpful whatever your art, whatever your occupation.

 

Use Think Aloud Strategies to Inspire Yourself

a mouth talking into an earWhen you write, you’re asking yourself, “Does it sound right?” “Does it flow?” “Is it a good quality?” You’re also “self-instructing.” Self-instruction is talking to yourself to guide actions and telling yourself what strategies you should use. A writer may self-instruct to use more imagery in the story, and self-monitor to count the number of images or tell herself, “My mind is starting to wander. I should focus my attention better.”

“Think aloud” strategies involve verbalizing “private speech,” the kind of speech you don’t usually use in public. People don’t generally talk aloud to themselves, and when they do, their speech is often incoherent. But sometimes thinking aloud to yourself clarifies your understanding and activates problem-solving.

A think-aloud strategy often entails reciting out loud the chatter that’s going on in your head. Describing to yourself how to proceed and execute a task should improve performance.  For example, you might say aloud, “There are too many long sentences: mix long and short sentences.” Self-verbalizations such as self-praise statements—“I’m really doing well”–verbalizing the strategies you’re using—“I’m keeping track of time”–and actions you’re taking—“I’m stopping to review the paragraph before moving on”– are extremely  helpful kinds of thinking aloud.

 

Use Brief Performance Cues

Performance cues are important reminders that you repeat silently or say aloud. Focus on a few simple reminders–summaries of the main things you’re trying to accomplish—that you should bear in mind: “I want my writing style to be simpler.” The cue you’ll repeat to yourself, “Simplicity!” Completing a project brings the artist elation. A project cannot be a work of art until it is finished.  Not starting, but finishing works, is the artist’s credo. The cue is “Finish!’ “Finish!”  Above all else, if you are a writer your writing should always be clear. The writer’s cue is “Clarity.”

Thumb up with a smiley face on the thumbBoil your whole performance down to a few statements, words, phrases, or images:

 

“Relaxed and confident”

“Good work today”

“Stay focused”

“Organized and sharp.”

Patience!”

“Persevere!”

“I’m in the groove

“Grit and guts!”

“Take risks.”

Boldness

 

The cues will excite your spirit. They will improve your performance. Begin by writing out performance cues you will use when you’re working.

 

Those psycho-techniques along with the insights you can find in Fighting To Win should help you make the most of your talent.

 

© 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

 

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Selected Poems by David J. Rogers

 

Hobos in a Clearing in Wyoming

We reached the crest of the hill at dusk.
Below us like the camps of infantry
Burned the scattered fires of forgotten men,
Each a separate picture.

They lived in the open or in
The opulence of tarpaper lean-tos against a tree
And migrated as punctually as geese.
They wore black–perhaps it was the soot of freight trains–
And squatted on their haunches like crickets
Beside the snapping flames.

Cicadas chirped in the grass.
Streams of smoke trailed off high into the trees.
Embers flickered and faded, flickered and faded
In the harsh bite and sparkle of a sudden wind
And glowed bronze on the men’s untroubled faces
Late into the night.

 

Bed

Danger in the air today.
Madeline woke to morning fear,
Passed into afternoon fear,
And came to evening fear.
Unspeakable really-
+++++She’s going to bed.

As always her friend
Called at noon.
If Madeline answered she was still alive.
Then Madeline was hungry
And went down to the kitchen
But didn’t have the strength
To make a peanut butter and jelly
Or ham and cheese sandwich
And heard voices in the walls so
She gave up and now
+++++She’s going to bed.

She tried especially hard today,
Did her best
As long as she could
As she promised
She would
And now
+++++She’s going to bed.

She is sorry
She let her friend down
(He cares so much)
But nevertheless
+++++Bed is where she’s going.

She’s left her friend a note
Because she has no one else
To write notes to before
+++++Going back to bed.

Danger inside Madeline too so
Bed is where you will find her.
Bed is where she will be.
+++++Bed is the place she is going.

 

Lady at the Fair

At the history museum in Chicago
I turned into a gallery and
I saw your life size photograph, you
Coming toward me
Holding a parasol in the rain
At the World’s Fair in 1893.

What I wonder
Do you mean to me now.
What do your long lace gloves
Flowing textured white dress
Plumed floral hat
Pleasing face
Parasol
And eyes meeting mine
Signify to me?
Why does the memory of
The image of you in that picture
Take hold of my heart?

Why do I feel
Affection for you
(I don’t know you)
And wish I too at that moment
Was turning that corner
Under those rain clouds
Onto the fairway
With you whoever you were
Close to me
That day a century
And a quarter ago?

 

Friendship

My dog and cats are dead now
But the squirrel who loved them
Comes every morning to sit on the fence
Awaiting their return

 

Morning Glories

Sitting on a window sill
Watching people
Exchanging stories
Over white and purple
Morning glories
On the flanks of the hill

 

Woman Sitting at a Table in China Town

I saw you
Looking at me
Knowing I had
Looked at you
No chance ever
To see you again
Or you to
Look at me again
With your dark eyes.

You, who had I
Known long ago,
I would have run
My finger over so carefully
Then cupped in my hand
Like an orchid.

 

Fish

Down on the docks of Puget Sound
The air is pervaded
By the smell of
…Fish.

The trawlers, the warehouses,
The cutting houses, the waves and wind–
Everything–
…Fish.

And all the people there,
Are the color of
…Fish.

After work this fish population
Assembles in schools
In restaurants along the water
Where they eat
…Fish.

And when you walk down the street
Afterward you realize,
Laughing, in high spirits, that
You too have become a
…Fish.

 

Wolves In The Rocky Mountains

We sat at a table in the inn and ordered coffee.  The utensils were gold. From the windows we watched through the falling snow eight stalking wolves winding down the mountain in single file, slowly, like liquid through the spruces and evergreens. It was getting late. We had stayed too long. We didn’t want to stay around until dark when at that elevation it would be really cold, and the wolves were on our mind. We paid and left.

Looking over our shoulders we saw the wolves streaking among the trees and circling and wheeling around and teasing and tormenting a young deer they had separated from a herd. We could hear the wolves and the deer breathing and see the wolves when they weren’t attacking the deer playfully burrowing their snouts in the snow. There was nothing we could do to save the deer. We didn’t want to watch.

 

Lovely Ambition

I think I will write a masterpiece
After lunch today.

My readers will no doubt sigh and say
“This poem’s well-nigh beautiful,
The play of language across the page,
A rage of genius.”

It will not be frivolous and light
As other poems I’ve read,
But of love, birth, and death,
The major topics so to speak.
But first I’ve an appointment to keep–
Laundry in the corner piled steep.

I will begin with the delicates
As I am prone to do,
Then pen my masterpiece
In the afternoon.

 

Waitress in a Café in Kayenta Arizona

Fingers like sausage links,
Face round as a tire,
Hips the breadth of a moving van,
Elaborate, beauty-shop hair,
Said her name was Anita Valaquez.

She said:
“Shove over handsome” and sat down.
She said: “I know you’re thinking just look at that woman,
She’s got an ass you could set a table on.
But that’s okay with me. You can’t argue with reality.”

Then she said: “Got a minute?
I want to tell you kids a story.”

 

Woman Suffering Badly In Diversey Parkway Apartment

Day by day, event by event,
Milestone to milestone–
New Year’s Day, Independence Day
Birthdays and anniversaries-
Year by year and slowly
Like jelly tumbling from a jar
Illness interminable
Pain unceasing
Friends departing
Lonely.
Watching her soul dying
She asks
“Can one return safely from hell?”

 

The Snow Fort

As a boy
I built a snow fort
Under my porch
Working all day
While others played
And hosed it down
So it would survive
And I was proud

It was a sturdy structure
But not sturdy enough
I suppose because
When I went to admire it
In the morning
It was shattered
By whom I would never know

I wondered and often have
Why someone
Would be so cruel
As to destroy
A snow fort like mine
And never built another

 

The Joys of Puttering in Closets

Old clothes
Are the best clothes–
Ketchup on sleeves,
Rips on knees,
Mustard on trousers
In the shape of flowers,
Frays where frays belong.
Ah, there is nothing wrong
With wearing old jeans
Tearing along the seams.

 

Woman in the Garden

We are all so complicated and sealed up
In the little disguises we wear
That we can truly know in one lifetime
Only a person or two, and they not always

But only in momentary bursts of understanding.
All the others we reduce to a few strokes:

That woman in the garden is lovely, has a lovely smile,
Owns a lovely dog.

 

Summer Scene

Monarch of the
clothes pin

servant of the
breeze;

white sheets
muttering,

white shirts
fluttering

on the
line.

Mother at her
dearest

on the gray -painted creaking
porch

on a sunfresh
afternoon.

 

The Lessons of Birds

One cannot help but suffer desolation
As dreary as the land itself
Standing alone in barren places

And feel the sincerest admiration
To see rising from a yellow hill
A large black bird whose wings open wide
And show a bright vermillion underside
That cries loudly with delight as it takes flight

To live most admirably it seems
One’s soul must be to desolation
And barren places
As a bird ascending joyfully
From yellow hills

 

Mom

She bends over
The washboard
Exuding love

Uneasy with words
She has no other way
Of expressing it
So she scrubs and scrubs

 

Old Man in Shorts In Wilmette Illinois

Odd to see
An old man
With knobby knees
In Bermuda shorts
Thumbing a ride
On a busy street
At three PM

 

Butterflies

Butterflies you and I
Fluttering over a garden–
Our little world–
Flower to flower
One person then another
In search of that one who is to us
Though perhaps to no one else
The loveliest

And when we find that flower
That is enough

 

Sister and I Impatiently Waiting for a Bus

Slush
On the street and sidewalk
Soft and hushed

Down the street
Before the red brick fire House
Clanking chains lashed
Around softly humming tires
Splash past

A warm Christmas Eve
End of day
Grandma and Grandpa on their way

 

Friday Calls

813-629-5162
813-629-5162
813-629-5162
Every Friday night
813-629-5162
But now my mother has died
And O, I’ll never hear her voice again from
813-629-5162

 

We say goodbye to life in increments

We say goodbye to life in increments
A daily departure
And others in our absence
Ask when and how we went

We can’t return
Even if we wished
All hope spurned
Plot finished

 

Hiking Along the Timeless River


“We felt we were above the world, above reality, in pure, pure ecstasy.”

Then the river in the forest was back with us, coursing in its channel from north to south, country to city, undulating, serene, immortal, as though on our return that night it would sweep us along in its steady current past what had ever been and was ever to be, immune from time.  Overhead the trees cast long, thin shadows that swayed on the moving surface like dancers.  Sweat flowed in streams down our backs and we were as optimistic and happy as the wind was hot.

My father took off his knapsack and rubbed his shoulders where it had cut into them and reared back and flung a twig into the air and far out into the river. Then we took off our shoes and socks and put our feet refreshingly into the ceaselessly passing water. Laughing, we splashed each other.

We felt we were above the world, above reality, in pure, pure ecstasy. We lounged back on the bank, contented, centered, listening to the river wind, and gazed up at the eternal sun displayed in the sky like a burnished coin while below it the timeless river flowed on, bearing Dad’s twig swiftly away to eternity.

 

© 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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Advice and Other Odds and Ends on the Literary Life

Writers have a great deal to say about the literary life which may be of interest to aspiring writers reading this post and to veteran writers too.

 

Make a Bundle of Money–At Least Try (Why Not?)

Many agents and publishers told a friend of mine that his manuscript was unpublishable. He had faith in himself and didn’t believe them. He persevered. It was published. It sold 25 million copies Stack of hundred dollar billsand he suddenly was rich. On the other hand, when Ernest Hemingway was young and poor in Paris and unable to support his family with his stories he would catch pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens when the gendarme on duty went into a café during his break, and then take them home and cook them. Some writers, like painters such as Pablo Picasso, love being rich. Picasso said he wanted to work without material worries “like a pauper,” “but with a lot of money.”

Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Novelist Anthony Trollope said that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort. But poet Kenneth Rexroth said, “I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” Jules Renard said: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Irvin S. Cobb wrote: “If writers were good businessmen they’d have too much sense to be writers.”  “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business” (John Steinbeck).

Blaise Pascal said that anything that is written just to please the author is worthless. William Faulkner (was usually out of money): He said “I began to think of books in terms of possible money. I took a little novel and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks”–the financially successful Sanctuary.

Interfering with an author’s desire to be solvent if not rich is the difficulty of getting books published: commenting on the difficulties of getting his play Auntie Mame on the stage, Patrick Dennis said, “It circulated for five years through the halls of fifteen publishes and finally ended with Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep into the alphabet.”

A consolation is that your book may be too good to be popular. It’s silly to think that most successful writer is necessarily the best writer: “A best-seller is the gilded tomb of mediocre talent” (Logan Smith.)

 

When At a Party of Artistic People, Talk Like a Genius

Two dogs looking like they are having a conversationWhat do geniuses talk about? Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso attended the same Parisian party in May, 1922. Proust complained about his indigestion and Joyce about his headache. Picasso admired the women and Stravinsky snubbed them all.

 

Make Sure You’re Writing Has “Zing”

An agent told a writer-client that his books weren’t selling because there wasn’t enough sex in them. The writer said, “Are you kidding,” and opened his book and showed him the scene on the first page: the countess races out into the street naked with the hero also naked and in a state of arousal chasing her.

“Yes, yes” said the agent, “but look how far down the page.”

 

Take Criticism of Your Work and Yourself with Grace

Charles Lamb’s first play was hissed off the stage by the audience. Lamb was in the audience and hissed too because he didn’t want to be recognized.

White swan on smooth blue waterOne of the problems superb writers face is that they–and no one else–are the best judge of their work and yet they must endure sometimes ignorant, amateurish editors and critics. Henry Miller found himself being abused by editor after editor he submitted work to. He snarled, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off saying such things to me?”

What is a critic’s function? Screenwriter Wilson Mizener said that a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant.

The French critic Saint-Beave was challenged to a duel by an angry author and given the choice of weapons. “I choose spelling.” he said, “You’re dead.”

Writers want to be treated courteously, understandingly, and considerately, and why shouldn’t they be? But a literary critic burned Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and sent him the ashes. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s work are often compared, but she didn’t like his writing at all. She said Ulysses was “The work of a queasy underclassman scratching his pimples.”

 

Be Truthful and Accurate

English novelist Arnold Bennett bragged that his description of one of his character’s death couldn’t be topped for its accuracy because he had taken infinite pains over it, basing it on his father’s death. Bennet said that all the time his father was dying “I was at the bedside making copious notes.”

 

Be Prepared for Mishaps and Misjudgments (No one’s perfect)

Ernest Hemingway lost and never recovered a trunk full original manuscripts of his short stories he forgot on a train. John Steinbeck’s dog chewed up half of the first daft of Of Mice and Men. Cat with eyes wide openSherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick with a hors d’ oeuvre at a cocktail party.  Katherine Mansfield married a singing teacher eleven years older than herself and abandoned him the morning after their wedding night. George Bernard Shaw said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.”

 

You Must Focus on Writing Above All Else (Are you a writer or aren’t you?)

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for her living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art” (Playwright George Bernard Shaw.) “Everything goes by the book, honor, pride, decency–to get the book written.  If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies” (William Faulkner). At ten in the morning a writer friend of Shelley left him standing by the mantle in his study as he read. When the friend returned at 6:00 p.m. Shelley was standing in the same place reading and hadn’t moved an inch the entire day.

 

You Might Have to Work at Odd Jobs Before Hitting It Big

Novelist /teacher John Gardner said almost all full-time jobs are hard on writing. Henry Miller dug graves for a living. Vachel Lindsay traded poems for bread. Erich Maris Remarque sold tombstones. Novelist William Burroughs was an exterminator. Poet Carl Sandburg was a janitor. William Faulkner was a bootlegger and postmaster of a university post office. Raymond Carver worked in a morgue. George Bernard Shaw said, “You must never suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living.”

 

Like Athletes, You Must Warm Up Before You Get Started

While writing The Red and the Black, Stendah,l in order to acquire the right tone, read two or three pages of the Civil Code every morning. Willa Cather had to read from the Bible before she was Athlete stretchingready to start writing. Ernest Hemingway had to first sharpen all the pencils he anticipated using that day. Edgar Alan Poe petted his cat before he started. Thomas Wolfe took long walks to get ready.

Like most writers Honore Balzac had to have coffee first. He overdid it, though, drinking fifty cups a day, and eventually dying from coffee poisoning. Samuel Johnson drank twenty-five cups of tea before starting his writing day.

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t get started unless the pen’s ink was very dark. Alexandre Dumas, pere needed rose-colored paper to start if he was writing nonfiction, but for fiction he had to have blue paper and yellow paper for poetry.

 

Writing Is Not Easy so You Might Need Something to Motivate You

The great innovator Gustave Flaubert said it was a delicious thing to write. I’ve never known or heard about or can conceive of or imagine a writer who didn’t feel that way. There’s just something about the act of writing that is motivation enough for most writers. But Victor Hugo needed some other motivation too. So at the beginning of his work day he gave all his clothes to his servant who was ordered to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of several hours.

 

You May or You May Not Need Solitude

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, went a year without talking to anyone. Truman Capote’s advice to young writers was to socialize and not “go up to a pine cabin all alone,” because “You reach that stage soon enough.” Voltaire preferred the company of his mistress. He wrote in bed using her back as a desk.

 

Make It a Point To Please Your Publisher and the Book Buyer

Victor Hugo wanted to know if his publisher liked Les Miserables whose manuscript he was submitting. He wrote on its cover “?” His publisher answered “!”. That is the most succonct literary correspondence in history. A publisher’s salesman said, “I often think how shocked authors would be if they listened to the book store clerk selling their books. They’ve worked a year on their book, two years, three years, maybe longer, and there it is. A word or two and a decision is made.”

Your book must match the taste of the person who will buy it. The author of the sensationalist best-seller Peyton Place said, “I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have lousy taste.”

Popular W. Somerset Maugham said that he had never met an author who admitted that people didn’t buy his book because it was dull.

 

If You Have a Grudge Against a Fellow Writer, Here’s What to Do

“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. Sender).

 

You May or May Not Have First Book Overwhelming Success, But Be Patient

Maurice Valency thought that failure is very difficult for a writer to bear, “but very few can manage the shock of early success.” P.G. Wodehouse said that success comes to a writer rather gradually, and that it is something of a shock to him or her to realize the heights to which they have risen.

Humorist Robert Benchley said, “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

 

Your Main Goal Is Production of Text, so If You Write Very Fast, You Can Produce Lots of Books

In his life Alexandre Dumas, pere wrote 1,500 volumes. British author John Creasey and French author George Simenon each wrote more than 500 books. Earle Stanley Gardner wrote 140 books. He dictated 10,000 words of text a day and once worked on seven books at the same time.

 

As You Can See, Writers Lead Fascinating Lives. But Don’t Believe Them

Playwright Lillian Hellman said writers are “fancy talkers about themselves.” She said that if she had to give advice to young writers she would say, “Don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”

 

 

© 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

Fighting to win Amazon

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or

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fighting-to-win-samurai-techniques-for-your-work-and-life-david-rogers/1119303640?ean=2940149174379

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Raymond Carver: Teaching and Mentoring a Writer Whose Goal Was Greatness

More than any other writer, Raymond Carver (1938-1988) revitalized the American short story when in the last third of the twentieth century that genre had grown stale. Carver’s subject matter had never been a part of American literature before and his writing techniques were also unique. In the 1980s when he was most active he was referred to by a British literary critic as “the image of Raymond Carver From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositoryAmerican Chekhov.” Another critic considered Carver “one of the greatest modern short story writers.” Poet Hayden Carruth wrote, “Among the great American writers of the 20th century, no question, Carver is the most endearing. He carries our humanity into the 21st.”

From the age of sixteen until his death, Carver’s goal was to be a great writer, and if need be, to sacrifice everything else to reach that goal.  He married young and had two children before he was twenty. According to biographer Carol Sklenicka’ s Raymond Carver: a Life, Carver and his  first wife Mary shared that goal “not to sell out Ray’s writing, to not have him get involved in some other career that would make him forget what he really was here on earth to do.”

“Mary had had a big dream that her husband was going to be not just a good writer, but a great one, and she was willing to waitress and sell encyclopedias, and do all this while he was back home drinking, dickering with his short stories…Whether you say her motives were religious or altruistic, she was completely devoted to having Ray become a great writer. She worked tirelessly to that vision and gave the best she had to give.” It was Mary Ann’s role to earn the money Carver needed to start as a writer’s tenuous career and to support him and see that “he got things done.” We will never know if Carver would have reached the success he did without her support.

Few writers have had such an impact on a genre of writing in America as Carver had on the short story in that era. He was not a novelist. Although he is best remembered for his eight books of short stories including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, he also wrote essays, plays, reviews, a screen play, and seven book of poetry, including A New Path To The Waterfall. Ten films have been made from his stories. About his poetry, the Times Literary Supplement found it “infused with a largesse of spirit that adds a new dimension to the impression the man left by the cool perfection of his stories.”

You cannot talk about Carver without mentioning his many troubles. Throughout his adult life Carver struggled with alcoholism, marital problems, divorce, and bankruptcies.  Drinking calmed his anxieties and resentments and allowed him to have fun, but his need for booze became more powerful as it helped him to medicate his feelings.  His private life was difficult and the strains destroyed his first marriage. As many artists are able to he had the ability to find literary material in the suffering he lived through. A stylist, he was able to relate his life’s conflicts to readers in direct, carefully-crafted stories and poems.

 

The Approach and Impact of John Gardner

A major turning point in Carver’s life and writing career was discovering the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov; another was his being taught and mentored in 1958 in a John Gardner From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositorycollege class at Chico State University by John Gardner (1933-1982). In years to come Gardner, then twenty-six, would become an important and influential person in American literature. Carver said that a good writing teacher is something like a literary conscience, a friendly critical voice in your ear, and that after being taught by Gardner, all his writing career he sensed him looking over his shoulder when he wrote, showing approval or disapproval over words, phrases, and strategies.

Gardner would write philosophical fiction best sellers Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and esteemed books for writers The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. When Carver met him, Gardner was an advanced thinker who worked day and night to refine his aesthetics and to communicate his sophisticated, yet practical knowledge to students.  He believed that “Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved.”

In a relationship such as Gardner and Carver had “a master transfers the knowledge, expectations, and experiences of a science, art, skill, or philosophy to a protégé who may eventually establish a new frontier in the field, break existing records, and create new traditions” (Donna Rae Clausen). The process of matching a promising novice with an expert challenges the novice and provides encouragement in the development of his or her talent.

Gardner’s teaching, personality, and work routines affected Carver profoundly. Gardner believed that to be successful writers had to possess something on the order of what I call “inner skills of the artist:” certain psychological traits such as a sensitivity to language, accuracy of observation, the special intelligence of the story-teller, and a writer’s intuition.

He said, “Art depends heavily on feelings, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rules, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green. It is feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportion of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things” He believed he could help students develop those traits through his teaching.

Gardner would begin the school year by assembling his students on the lawn, ask them a few questions, and tell them he didn’t think that any of them had what it took to be a writer, that as far as he could see none of the students had the necessary fire. He said he would do what he could for them, that they were about to set out on a trip and they would do well to hold onto their hats.  Starting the class that way was meant to intimidate students who weren’t serious.

Cartoon of man watering can as head watering man with plant as headGardner thought that a novelist needed “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” He was energetic and charismatic and his students responded. One student said “he was born with a quicker ratio to the passage of time than the rest of us.” Carver said that Gardner’s teaching “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously…I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”  He considered Gardner the teacher who first inspired him and intimidated him, teaching him to be tough on himself.

Carver said, “I was simply electrified…(Gardner) was out of a different cloth from anyone I’d ever met…He was very helpful…and I was at that particular point in my life when nothing was lost on me. And changed the way I looked at things…my life was pretty boxed in, but I learned things from him and even if I couldn’t put these things into practice immediately, the things I learned were longstanding and abiding.”

Gardner taught Carver that the best writers discover what they want to say in the process of “seeing” what their writing is saying, that writing was more than self-expression, and that the best writing had always come from a serious attempt to write in a particular form. Gardner believed in traditional plots and drew plot diagrams.

Gardner believed that art could have a moral impact (in 1978 writing the book On Moral Fiction), and was a believer in the importance to the would-be writer of what could be learned by a serious study of the best writers literature had to offer. Carver said that Gardner “was here to tell us which authors to read (such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Henry James and Camus and Proust) as well as teach us to write.” He taught Carver to prefer plain words over pseudo-poetic words–(“ground”, not “earth.”)

Carver was sensitive to criticism, but Gardner always found something to praise to balance the criticism. He wrote “nice” or “good” in the margins from time to time. When Carver saw those comments his heart would lift. The single principle that Gardner applied to all the stories was “If the words and sentiments were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn’t care about or couldn’t believe in. then nobody could ever care anything about it.” Gardner believed that writers should be aware of the battle that goes on in the writer between “those age-old enemies, the real and the fake.”

Possibly the lesson Carver learned from Gardner was that a serious and passionate writer might also be an unpublished writer. Carver was desperate to publish but the stacks of manuscripts in Gardner’s office gave Carver reason to hope and have patience in the years to come,

Gardner recognized that Carver had an exceptional talent, but was “desperately poor” and needed a place to work. He invited Carver to use his college office and typewriter on weekends.  Carver and Gardner did not become personal friends. There was a five year difference in age and other differences between them. Gardner with a Master’s degree and Ph.D was far better educated.

Gardner, who was to die at forty-nine, was supportive of Carver’s writing, and applied pressure on him to excel.  He deleted some of Carver’s words, phrases and sentences, and made it clear to him that the changes were not negotiable. Carver said, “We’d discuss commas in my stories as if nothing else mattered at that moment.” Carver became more and more committed to writing excellence. He said “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but it interfered with his writing.” Through his perseverance he was eventually published prolifically.

Carver was to teach writing at universities when he became established and more widely known and his stores were being regularly published.  Like Gardner Carver believed that to be successful writers must come to the role with certain traits. He said, “No teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place. “

Jay McInerney, one of Carver’s students, said of Carver, “He mumbled. I think now it was a function of a deep humility and a respect for the language bordering on awe, a reflection of his sense that words should be handled very, very gingerly.” Carver taught that literature could be fashioned out of “real life, whatever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup.”

Carver didn’t believe that the work of a student should be negatively criticized. He was not there to discourage anyone. His harshest criticism was “it is good you got that story behind you.” Another of Carver’s students said, “He taught me passion and anger and focus.” Just as Carver received invaluable help and feedback from john Gardner, Carver, in turn, provided that type of assistance to his students.

In the spring of 1982 a student happened to stop by Carver’s house a few minutes after Carver had heard that Gardner had died in a motorcycle crash. Carver was distraught and couldn’t sit still and he talked about Gardner. He said that before he met Gardner he didn’t even know what a writer looked like, but “John looked like a writer.”

Every writer will benefit from feedback and active help. A writer of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly from someone whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that?  If not, I must. Am I receptive to constructive criticism?  If my mind is closed I won’t benefit.”

No one on earth has achieved anything significant without help.

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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Writing Efficiently

APPLY THIS PROGRAM FOR WRITING REGULARLY IF YOU DON’T HAVE A LOT OF TIME

 

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together’” (George Eliot).

When a young William Faulkner met the famous short story writer Sherwood Anderson and learned that Anderson worked only a few hours and had the rest of the day to do what he pleased, Faulkner thought that was a pretty good deal and decided the writer’s life was for him. But you are probably not a person of leisure and must work on writing during the limited time available to you, which may not be much.

Round orange clock with sign saying 30 MinIn Publish and Flourish, Tara Gray advocates a writing program of a short 15-30 minutes rather than waiting for large blocks of time longer than three hours. Her interest was mainly academic writing and her little book was aimed at academics writing scholarly articles. But the research findings she cites and her prescriptions are pertinent to any writers who don’t have the luxury of lots of available time.

Gray refers to a survey of a college faculty engaged in research who estimated they worked almost 60 hours per week, including half of that time on research. The subjects were asked to keep records of their work weeks by jotting down every fifteen minutes whether or not they were working.  Although writing was supposedly to be the main emphasis, only a small fraction of their time was actually devoted to writing—30 minutes per week. The subjects agreed that they weren’t as busy as they thought and had free periods or periods of time spent on low-priority activities, time that could be used for writing.

To avoid irregular writing, program the activity–write on a regular basis. Writing every day even for a quarter or half hour will greatly improve your production. In one study people who wrote for a quarter hour to a half hour wrote twice as many total hours and produced ten times as many published articles as people who wrote for more than three hours, but sporadically.

Two women having coffee togetherForm a pact with a buddy. You’re more likely to achieve your writing goals—or any kind of goals–if you make clear to another person or persons what you’re trying to accomplish and share your results with them. And ask them to support and help monitor your efforts. In one study writers who wrote daily and kept records AND also made themselves accountable to another person for writing daily, outperformed the writers who wrote in blocks and didn’t keep records 9:1.

A group of writers were studied over two years. In the first year, they wrote occasionally in big blocks of time. In the second year, they wrote 15-30 minutes daily, kept records, and held themselves accountable to others. The percentage of participants who finished manuscripts rose from 10% in the first year to 100% in the second year.” (C.R. Boice “Strategies for Enhancing Scholarly Productivity.”)

Tara Gray suggests that the buddy should have certain characteristics:

  1. Should understand the absolute importance of writing daily.
  2. Should hold you responsible for your daily writing without shaming or blaming.
  3. Needn’t be a writer.Two gray tabby cats

One writer said, “Just having to tell someone the silly excuses I have for not working on my research helped me quit allowing it to happen.”

  1. Get the most benefit from your time no matter how little of it you have. French chancellor Henri Francois D’Aguesseau noticed that his wife came down for dinner ten minutes or so late every evening. Over a period of a little over a year he completed a book of three volumes while waiting for her, and the book became a bestseller in 1688.
  2. Don’t stop writing. “Once at the desk…you will find your subconscious drawing on various reserves to persuade you to stop: fear, boredom, and the impulse to track down that trivial point by adjourning to the library… Don’t.”( Deirdre N. McCloskey, Economical Writing).
  3. Write first thing in the morning. What you do first every day without exceptions gets done. Almost all writers are successful when they write in the morning. Many people who write at other times experiment and find that morning is best.
  4. Keep daily records and weekly summaries. Writers who keep daily record of time spent writing outperform writers who don’t keep daily records 4:1. A format to use: Jot down the exact minute you start actual writing, not your warm-up, not your review of yesterday’s writing. Doing that will be a message to yourself: “Now I’m focusing on writing.” Note the time you stop for a break and when you resume. And the time when you quit for the day. Write from the first day of the writing project.  Note every day the amount of time you spent writing.
  5. Treat yourself to something pleasant as a reward for staying with the program.
    Sun   Mo   Tue   Wed   Thu   Fri Sat   Total for week Shared with partner
Writing time

 

 

Minutes Writing

 

 

 

 

Old fashioned drawing of a woman at a writing tableIf you need to do research, keep your research minutes to the barest reasonable minimum and your writing minutes to a maximum.  You needn’t write for long periods to be more highly productive than you might expect.

 

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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15 Strategies for Breaking the Bad Habit of Avoiding Work or Quitting Too Soon

Creative people begin projects with the goal of finishing them. No writer or artist has ever thought, “My goal is to quit this project when I’m halfway through.”  If you find you’re consistently not Jigsaw puzzle piecesfinishing, you’ve developed a bad habit and you’d better do something about it.

Creative work may be joyous. Yet it is sometimes tedious and unenjoyable.  It’s natural to prefer what’s easier. The easiest choice is not to work at all today.  But that usually results in feeling guilty and irresponsible. The works you may be devoting a good part of your life to never gets done.

Productivity is the creative’s main purpose—bringing all the training and talents into the act of producing finished works of the highest quality the artist is capable of at this time.

High-achieving creatives exert more energy from the start of a project and work steadily without long interruptions for a much longer period than the majority of creatives, often producing staggering amounts of their best work.

How do you break a habit like avoiding writing or painting or quitting before you should? There is only one way, as pointed out by the foremost American psychologist Willian James, and that is to Woman working at an easelstart another contrary, more fruitful habit. To break the habit of consistently not writing, you develop the habit of writing regularly. To combat the habit of quitting too soon, you make yourself not quit.

No one is saying it will be easy and that you will not encounter resistance. But you are not helpless. You’re an adult, and what is needed is a mature, adult, rational approach to production. Production is a necessity not only to increase artists’ volume of work, but to enhance their talent. The more work artists generate the better their skills become.

Here are 15 strategies to help you break the habit of avoiding work or quitting too soon:

  1. Keep your production goal in mind. If your goal is to work for an hour or to produce X number of words before you quit for the day, make yourself accountable. Don’t be satisfied with less. As you become accustomed to reaching your performance goals, your motivation will climb. It’s exciting to set a goal of writing 200 words a day and to write 250. And more exciting to write 275 or 300.
  2. Take regular breaks. Relax. Get up and stretch. Walk around. Artistic performance improves after rest periods. Even if you’re tempted to work straight through without a break, take one anyway. Even if you’re working for a long, sustained stretch of time (say four or more hours) work in short, intense, concentrated half-hour spurts, with short rest periods between spurts. That is the most efficient, healthiest, and most productive way to work.
  3. Set reasonable goals–moderately difficult–not too high or too low. And no goal you set should be beyond your current capabilities to achieve it.
  4. Get in the habit of saying, “Work is my friend. Idleness, lethargy, and avoiding work are not my friends. Work is my friend.”
  5. Ignore your past reactions. In the past you may have let yourself off the hook if you weren’t in the exact mood to stay with your work session’s goal. And maybe you were in the habit of not setting work goals at all. Don’t be a slave driver, but don’t let yourself off the hook so easily.

computer keyboardYou’re not a child or hedonist, a worshipper of permissiveness and pleasure who doesn’t have any will power. There are many writers who write not the traditional four or fewer hours daily, but put in eight hours a day, much longer than the majority, considering themselves no different than their parents who worked eight hours a day and the majority of the work force who work eight hours daily.

  1. Seize the first opportunity to break the old habit of avoiding/quitting and start the new. When you feel that first urge to lose your focus, that first, “I’ll put this off till tomorrow,” DON’T DO IT. Continue working. Be strong.
  2. Set aside time to be alone. For high quality uninterrupted work to happen, most creatives need isolation and solitude.

Texting, emails, and phone calls are subversive and can destroy creatives’ best work intentions. Whether you let yourself be delayed by interruptions or not is a reflection of your motivation and drive. Interruptions are one of the biggest enemies of creative thinking. Creatives with strong drive are able to persist steadily without interruption whereas poorly motivated creatives will interrupt their work more often and avoid working on it for long periods.

distorted clock facesIt takes longer to completely absorb yourself in an ambitious project than in an easier, less complicated one. And during that period, distractions seem to come up out of the ground. Any intrusion on the delicate world of a creative mind can make that world disappear. Every intrusion not only robs you of time, but also of the time it takes you to recover. If you set a goal of working a three-hour session and have three interruptions you may be busy for three hours but only do fifteen minutes of actual work. If you try to do four things simultaneously, you’ll probably only finish one, at most two.

One study showed that following an interruption for an email or phone call, people were so distracted that 40% of the time they didn’t get back to work, but moved on to something else. If you quit 40% of the time, how long will it take you to finish your novel?

  1. Commit yourself totally. Artists will exert themselves and overcome impediments when they are on fire with the incomparable excitement of creating. It’s excitement or necessity or both, excitement over the production of a work or the necessity of overcoming obstacles to produce it—and the habit you’ve developed of working through impediments such as tiredness. Either you’re committed to writing or painting regularly or you’re not.
  2. woman sitting at the edge of waterDon’t let a lousy mood prevent you from working. When I’ve written about the effects of moods on your writing, I’ve shown that no matter how you feel before you start writing, once you get started your mood almost always improves and you feel good. You may begin with depression or sadness and end feeling elated.
  3. Start with success. Failure the first time you attempt to break an old habit of avoiding work or quitting too soon makes your commitment weaker. But success on the first attempt makes it more likely that you’ll try again. Be sure that the first day and first week you’re starting the new habits of working and not quitting you stay with it. If your goal is to work forty-five minutes do not work fewer than forty-five.
  4. Be consistent. Bad habits are incorrigible and don’t disappear without a fight. They have strength. They may have been a part of you for years. If you don’t win the battle with avoiding work or quitting too soon, your ability to replace the bad habit will soon disappear. You must not flinch from making the consistent effort.  But when you make no exceptions, the new habit settles into your personality and you become a highly efficient creative person.
  5. Motivate yourself to finish a project by having something better and very appealing to go on to after you finish this project. Don’t let yourself do B unless you finish A.
  6. Use positive affirmations and helpful self-talk: “I’m doing well. It’s taking shape. It’s becoming easier for me to begin difficult projects and to stick with them.”
  7. Make the act of not only starting work (which is easy) but finishing it (which is harder), become second nature. Pick the unfinished project or activity you find the most important to finish. Then when you finish that one project, pick the next one and finish it, paying no attention to anything else.
  8. Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit. The majority of writers and artists eventually quit completely, but the artists you remember and talk about did not quit.

Over the course of your life you’ve learned to manage yourself and to do what is in your best self-interests. And if you are an artist, what is in your best self-interest is to choose work over idleness, Sculptor at work in studiowork that leads to the fulfillment of your gifts over the avoidance of work.

You can be strong. Our commitments falter when we are weak and self-indulgent. You are aiming to create art. If you’re working, you’re doing the right thing.  Most artists love to work.

© 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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Pursuit of Perfection in the Arts

Masks representing theater (blue and redActor Lord Laurence Olivier aimed at perfect performances, as did Peter O’Toole, Olivier’s successor as the world’s greatest actor–the perfect performances in the perfect tragedies as the perfect characters–as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, or Iago. One night Olivier felt that he had achieved perfection in a performance. Others in the cast also told him he had.  He said, “What I’m thinking is I’ve done it, but will I be able to do it again?” Perfection is difficult and rare. It is hard to repeat. It is a concept that grows in importance to artists as their skills and accomplishments ascend to high levels.

In her essay “Dancers and the Dance” Susan Sontag states that dance differs from the other performing arts. The standards which dancers measure their performance against is not that of the highest excellence as it Is with actors, singers, and musicians. Sontag believes that the dancer’s standard is perfection. She says, “Every serious dancer is driven by notions of perfection–perfect expression, perfect technique.”

Sontag says that dance demands more of the dancer than any other art or any sport demands.  She writes, “While the daily life of every dancer is a full-time struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (Which are inevitable) dance itself is an enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammeled, effortless, at every moment fully mastered.” When performing, dancers must hide their pain behind a performing smile. Injuries must be hidden. The dancer’s performance smile is “a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing.” Behind the grace of the dancers is much discomfort and pain they endure while training themselves for such performances and while performing.

A male and a female ballet dancersIt is true that serious dancers currently and throughout history have aimed at perfection, but other artists–usually the best in the art, those that are aware that they have a significant talent–also aim for perfection in their work, I believe. Those who do aim for perfection in their novels, musical composition, and paintings and other art works let it be known through their obsessions with their work that they are extremely serious about their art, and are willing to face its challenges with drive and commitment.

The urge for perfection begins, I think, with a niggling, Then the artists become increasingly aware after a number of works have been produced and (usually  but not always) thousands of hours have been put in,  that perfection is within their reach and not merely a remote fantasy–that THEY–Faulkner, Picasso, Stravinsky, Cassatt, Proust, Cezanne, and Virginia Woolf–have  what it takes.

To be an artist seeking perfection you have to possess art-relevant traits that will equip you for a creative life. If your ambition is perfection, and you are not self-critical and self-demanding, you will have problems. The artist aiming to produce perfect works has to be self-critical, always looking for faults in the works and in themselves that will have to be corrected. When Sontag had praised a dancer for a superb performance she heard “a disconsolate litany of mistakes that were made–a beat missed, a foot not pointed in the right way.” Sontag adds: “In no other art can one find a comparable gap between what the world thinks of a star and what the star thinks about himself or herself, between the adulation that pours in from the outside and the relentless dissatisfaction that goads one from within….Part of being a dancer is this cruelly self-punishing objectivity about one’s shortcomings, as viewed from the perspective of an ideal observer, one more exacting than any real spectator could ever be.”

Intense concentration is necessary too if you hope to produce a perfect artistic performance; this is true of every art. All you need do is look at the intensity of the eyes of an artist painting, or a writer at the keyboard to realize that. Everything in the artist’s mind that is not needed for the artistic performance is ignored, and only what the performance requires is brought into attention.  Anyone who produces great works that are the result of the mind in action such as archers, mathematicians, and artists of unrivaled talent like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov project a state of extreme (yet also relaxed) focus. Sontag says that state is not just something that is necessary for a great performance, but, “It is the performance, the very center of it.”

Painting of Frank SinatraWhen they are watching the performance of a play what the audience hopes to see more than anything else is a virtuoso performance they will not be able to forget however long they live and how many plays they see. The virtuoso performance is the single most exciting and popular feature not only of drama but of any art, and the most thrilling feature of a virtuoso performance is not the possibility that the artist may fail. Rather, it is the spectacle of succeeding in an extraordinary way–a performance that is perfect because it has no errors. All the time I am listening to music as I do all day long or reading a narrative I think is great such as James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” and Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” I am thinking, “Keep it up James and Frank. Don’t fail. Continue being great until the story or the song is finished and perfect from the beginning to the end”

Playwright Eugene O’Neill, America’s greatest and most innovative dramatist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.  Long Day’s Journey into Night was his masterpiece. One of his experiments was revealing the characters’ interior  monologue. Another was making the speech of poor, uneducated characters a part of the drama. Another Nobel Prize winner–Saul Bellow–who said that writing was more important than his wife and children–aimed to write perfectly. A third Nobel Prize winner–Ernest Hemingway–made no secret that his aim was to produce perfect works and be the greatest writer in the world. Many critics believe he accomplished that goal. Writer Joan Didion thought his every sentence was written with such craftsmanship that it was perfect.  Many critics, teachers, and writers consider the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, the founding father of modern theatre, and the leading prose writer of his era, perfect. It is hard to tell what a Chekhov story or play “means” because he does not judge or clarify meanings; meanings are left to the reader or audience.

Perfection in the arts is always attributable to the personality of the artists that filters through their talent. The artist aiming to produce perfect works must keep the audience clearly in mind. Critic Gilbert Murray said that writers who have the powers of revelation are the ones who have experienced–seen or felt–more than the average run of intelligent beings. Behind every work, whether poor or great, are the tastes and the disposition of the person who created it, as well as a sensitivity to the audience. In the theatre the actor’s aim is through the performance to jolt the members of the audience–to please in a powerful way, to be accepted as though a friend, to lodge securely and permanently in their memory, displacing less important things.

The days and nights of everyday living of the artist seeking perfection must be filled to the brim with their art. More than likely, the artist has grown up with it, seen it mature, and watched it take over a good part of his or her being. Short story master Raymond Carver reflecting on his career put it this way: “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but interfered with writing.”

 

© 2019 David J. Rogers

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