Monthly Archives: October 2014

Aligning Your Past, Present, and Future

eiffel-tower-417962_640Even at the age of eight Sarah dreamed of visiting far-away places. She would lie in bed and imagine lush, exotic islands, and grand cities with great cathedrals and towering spires. Her favorite subject in school was world geography, and she would press the pages of her texts open and study the pictures of nomadic Laplanders, ocean-liners, snow-capped mountains, and South Sea Islands. She would stand in front of the family globe, and spinning it, would watch the world race by.

After working in a large department store until she was twenty-two she married and in ten years had four children, two boys and two girls. She was a stay-at-home mother, and was wonderful at raising the children who loved her dearly. For the first twenty-five years of her marriage she was never gainfully employed outside the house. She and her husband were never able to save enough money to travel very far, as she still dreamed of one day doing. She came into her own and found fulfillment as a wife and mother, but when the youngest child reached his teens she realized it was time to change her life and venture outside the home to start a career.

She suffered the same fears and insecurities most people would who had been out of the job market for a quarter of a century, and didn’t know what to do to find a job. One day, on a whim, while passing a travel agency she had driven past hundreds of times on the way to and from errands, she went in and applied for a job. She was hired and now, in her late-forties organizes and accompanies group tours to Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. She is doing what she dreamed of as a child, and is happy. Life offered her the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life path, a second birth, and she took it.

aircraft-74020_640The Wright brothers–Wilbur and Orville–were the first to demonstrate controlled, mechanical flight. But their insatiable interest in building a machine that flew began when they were children. Their father, Wilton, went on frequent business trips, and made it a point to bring home from each trip something for his children. He brought home from one trip–when Wilbur was eleven and Orville seven–a small toy helicopter made from bamboo paddles and a rubber band that when the rubber band was wound and released could lift off the ground. The brothers fell in love with the toy and played with it constantly, until it broke.

Then they disassembled it to see how it was made, and then built endless copies of it, even getting in trouble in school for playing with them. The toy made an indelible mark on them, got them started on aeronautical design, and they never forgot it. Even as older men, long after they had invented the flying machine and were world renowned, they would make helicopter toys for their nieces and nephews.

I asked my nurse in the hospital why she had gone into nursing and she said, “When I was a young girl I was sickly and I had to have a nurse. We were together night and day, and she was a good woman who seemed very happy. We became close, and it was then I decided that when I grew up I would be a nurse too. I’ve had such a wonderful life, and nursing has been so rewarding, that I’ve never regretted that decision.”

When Harry Truman was a boy, while he and his father worked together in the corn fields of Missouri, his father entertained him with exciting stories of the great ancient Greek and Roman orators and statesman, stories which Harry vividly recalled when he went into politics and when he had to make critical war-time decisions as President of the United States. Many times he called those stories his father told the most beneficial education he had ever received and an important reason he pursued the career he did.

woman-304812_640When my friend Rebecca was a young girl she would play “office.” She would pretend to be the president of a company and would have her younger brother play her assistant. She would spread papers every which way in front of her on the kitchen table as if it were her desk and she was very busy. She would call to her assistant-brother, “Bring me my pen” and he would bring it and she would then scribble her signature on papers. In her mid-thirties she founded and is president of what is now one of the most successful mid-size advertising agencies in the Midwest. She still signs papers all day long.

They are professional guitarists who as children were given an old battered guitar by an uncle and taught themselves to play. Or they are accountants who have always loved working with numbers, or a movie director whose parents loved movies and took their child to the show along with them, or a car dealer whose parents owned a dealership.

Innumerable artists–writers, musicians, composers, dancers, painters, architects, performers, and professional people, particularly engineers and physicians–became seriously interested in what would be their adult pursuit as young children.

 Foreshadowing

A distinctive quality of many people leading fulfilled lives is that quite early in life they became interested in the subject matter they later pursued as a vocation. The continual deepening of their interest and the development of appropriate skills was what guided them to their careers and that largely accounts for their success. They find their greatest achievements in occupations which build on their childhood interests.

From the earliest years on, patterns of choices show remarkable consistency, even over long periods of many years. Our lives of today often were foreshadowed and our intended destiny laid out for us years ago. Foreshadowing is a clue to our life’s most important purposes, though at times the path to fulfillment is not direct, but roundabout, with many side-trips, delays, and false starts.

Many highly accomplished people in varied fields find fulfillment pursuing their childhood interests in avocations–parallel careers.

A strategy when you are confused and don’t know which career direction to go in is to remember what excited you as a child, for it may be that in what comes to mind then is the most promising and most fulfilling direction.

********

One warm afternoon when I was five or six I was playing on the floor in front of the television that my mother had left on while she went away to vacuum in another room. I was playing with my fleet of toy trucks, and as poet Dylan Thomas would say, I was “As happy as the day is long.”

But from time to time I found myself glancing up at the screen and then after while found myself putting my trucks aside completely and getting closer to the screen and folding my arms in front of me and watching an old black and white movie very intently. I realize now that the semi-strange language the actors were speaking was British English.

One person in particular on that screen mesmerized me. I wanted to watch him and listen forever—the way he moved, the way he spoke, his voice, how he gestured, everything about him. What was happening to me was beyond me to describe. I was young; I didn’t have the vocabulary. But I still do not have the vocabulary, not because my vocabulary is deficient, but because when you see or read or hear something that is so out of the ordinary, you are unprepared for it and no words in all the lexicons, even the most expressive, are sufficient. You are mute.

All you know is that what you are feeling is jubilation; is joy. In my little child’s way I knew that on that screen before my eyes a performance that was not commonplace, but extraordinary was occurring, and it was because of that man’s skills and his presence, his being. My mother walked by and I touched the screen with my finger and said, “Who is that man?” And she answered. “That is Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.”

How did I know that? How could I tell? What in my little boy’s mind was responding to an artistic achievement of the very best? I was so young. But even when you are so little, true art has a way of breaking through to you and declaring its power, and as you can see, you remember it all your life and cannot forget.

 ********

One day in the third grade my favorite teacher (at any level), Miss Gross, standing in the front of the room, started reading aloud an essay I had written. She had had us describe something that had happened to us, and because I loved to run and could run like the wind and ran whenever I could, I wrote about running while playing football.

I heard her read (very dramatically as only Miss Gross could) my words: “The boys tackled me and I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Then I heard Miss Gross say, “That is poetic language. That is an image. David has made a simile.”

So, I’ve made a simile, I thought. Isn’t that something?

Then running home under the maple trees after school, I got to thinking that if I wanted I could make similes all the rest of my life. So, why do I write, and why do I try so hard, and why have I been doing it with extreme passion and happiness and commitment these years, and why do I find that there is nothing I would rather do than study and learn and write about artists—Debussy, Cassatt, Faulkner, Graham, Baryshnikov, Hepburn Gershwin, Stravinsky, Wright, the Beatles, Satie, Calder, O’Neill, Chekhov, Chagall–any artists at all, and fill my life with their desires and aspirations, their capacity for hard, sustained work, their sacrifices, their single-mindedness and persistence, their devastating setbacks and colossal achievements, their strengths as human beings, and their frailties that all contributed and made possible works that I can actually hear, and look at, and read, and touch?

Because, you see, the glorious experience of that pleasant afternoon in front of that screen—the finest actor of his era and I alone together in my living room–had somehow made a tribute to other creators of such beauty seem necessary and inevitable. And because of my need to make similes, I can’t help myself.

 Let Me Know

These are childhood stories of human destinies being set in motion—a direction, a future–taking shape. I would like to hear your story. I would like to know about the experiences that set you on the right course and led you to what has consumed you most. What key events from your youth led you to becoming what you’ve become?

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Writer’s, Artist’s, and Actor’s Quest for Truth

Painting by Urwana DeBoulans

With kind permission of artist Urwana DeBouclans

An actor in teacher-actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre Company owned a dog that she brought to rehearsal, and it slept all day while the company rehearsed. Inexplicably, every night just before the actors were to end the rehearsal the dog got up and went to the door with its leash in its mouth, ready to be taken home. It puzzled Stanislavski why the dog trotted to the door several minutes before his master called him, just as rehearsal ended. How did the dog know that rehearsal had ended before anyone went to the door?

Eventually Stanislavski figured it out. The dog could hear from the voices when the actors started talking like normal people again. It could tell the difference between the fake and the real. If a dog could, certainly an audience could, and the fake is repulsive in an actor. As the best actors tell each other, “When you are on stage or before the camera, remember not to act. People can tell when you’re acting.”

The Actor’s Truth

Stanislavsky was the most significant figure in the history of actor training. When he used the word “art” it meant “life” to him, and life meant the truthful, the real, the authentic, the genuine.

“Life” is all he wanted, and life is what he struggled to get to flow through the actor, and between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist as well as for the audience. Actors should behave as though the character is real and what he is doing is real, as though the conditions and circumstances of the character’s life are real. That the dagger Othello stabs himself with is real. That everything is real. Stanislavsky said that the judge of the truthfulness of a performance is not the actor or the audience, but the actor’s fellow actors on stage with him. If you have an effect on your fellow actor; if he believes in the truth of your performance, you’ve reached your creative goal: truth.

Many Paths

A household name in his time, John Ruskin was a 19th century English art and architecture critic and wonderful stylist whose beauty of expression ignited the creativity of Marcel Proust. Ruskin believed that what distinguishes great artists from weak ones is first their sensibility, second, their imagination, and third, their appetite for hard work. He might just as well have added a fourth, their quest for truth. All great artists in every art are aiming and have always aimed to achieve that object of their quest. What that truth is to them—how they conceive of it—varies from artist to artist, and is the basis of their distinctive work. A Zen adage reads: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain. “ There are also many paths, many routes, to artistic truth. You are on a path.

To Ruskin the artist’s truth lay in his/her self-expression, the revelation of the artist’s being, such as the painter’s special talent to convey every shadow, every hue, every line, every impression of “visible things around him ” and secondly his ability to communicate his every emotion. Painter and print maker Edward Hopper too believed that the aim of great painters was to attempt “to force the unwilling medium of paint” into a record of their emotions. A skilled writer, a skilled dancer, a skilled sculptor works an entire career to express every shadow and every emotion—in words, in motion, in an object.

Truth and the Artist’s Vision

In Fire in the Crucible: The Alchemy of Creative Genius, John Briggs sees the artist’s quest for truth and beauty as the artist’s important motivation to communicate his/her vision. That vision is based on “themes” which are the artist’s “fingerprints.” The vision is a strong part of the artist’s identity and may well have become a part of him in childhood, and may well too, be reflected in his work all his future life. In early life future artists accumulate experiences, people, places, key episodes, and ideas which they will draw on the rest of their lives, endlessly recapitulating them in their work. These are the origins of their craft. Anyone who knows an artist’s work well is able to identify the artist’s recurring themes and subjects—his preoccupations that are everywhere in the work.

Your work has themes in it that are inseparable from your personality and creative spirit and life. Those themes and that vision affect everything about your work down to its smallest detail. Every part of the artist is revealed in his/her art and cannot be hidden. And if it is really art, its truth is that it is in close partnership with the whole being of the audience that the artist is trying to reach, the beauty and truth in the work resonating in the sensitivity to truth and beauty in the audience.

Hemingway’s Truth

No artist talked about or wrote about or was more consumed with the quest for truth than Ernest Hemingway. The writer’s job, he said, is quite simply “to tell the truth,” to speak truly. To tell the truth was to tell about what he had personally experienced, or what he knew from going through something similar. Most artists are concerned with subjective truth more than literal truth, but Hemingway used no other information from any sources than what had happened to him, not literary sources, not academic. Truth was transcribing accurately and simply for the reader “the way it was,” and “the real thing,” putting down what he saw and felt in the simplest way he could. He could invent and elaborate as any artist does, but he elaborated from the reality of what he actually knew from having been there. He said that a writer’s “gift” was a conscience, a “built-in, shockproof bull shit detector” the “writer’s radar” that went off in his mind when the writer was not telling the truth, but “faking.”

Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck, and if you stated it purely enough, always.”

Similar to Hemingway, many painters paint only what is before them and is true and visible, and refuse to paint from memory. Are you an artist who sticks to “the way it was” and “the real thing”?

Henry Miller/ Gertrude Stein/ Paul Cezanne

Novelist and essayist Henry Miller felt that the artist’s truth lies in finding a “voice,” and that the discovery of one’s true voice doesn’t happen easily, but requires boldness. Miller imitated every style in hopes of finding the clue to the gnawing secret of how to write. Then:

“Finally I came to a dead-end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known because there was no divorce between myself as a writer and myself as a man: to fail as a writer meant to fail as a man…It was at that point…that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those I loved. Immediately I heard my own voice…the fact that I was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad had dropped out of my vocabulary…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.” (Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing)

Gertrude Stein also found truth and beauty coming out of the artist’s spontaneity: You “have to know what you want to get; but when you know that, let it take you and if it seems to take you off the track don’t hold back, because that is perhaps where instinctively you want to be and if you hold back and try to be always where you have been before, you will go dry.”

Truth doesn’t lie in “careful thinking,” But “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition.” It “will be a creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing.” (John Hyde Preston, “A Conversation with Gertrude Stein”). In the same way, 19th century landscape painter George Inness found that the truth of art is the artist’s “personal vital force” that if left alone comes out of the artist spontaneously without fear or hesitation.

A creator must necessary possess tremendous drive, determination, and persistence because exceptional creativity requires a tremendous amount of effort. Paul Cezanne’s truth was the perfection of his craft in a lifetime’s work: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping, and it would still seem to me as if I knew nothing…I consume myself, kill myself, to cover fifty centimeters of canvas…I want to die painting…” All great artists are spurned on by a single-mindedness, but few can match Cezanne in that regard.

An Architect’s Truth

new-york-115629_640Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Not one given to easy goals, Wright’s architectural goals were , he stated, “the rejuvenation of architecture, the creation of indigenous forms to express and suit life in the United States, and the destruction of Fakery and Sham (that) rule the day.” To Wright, truth didn’t lie on the surface of things. Surfaces were deception. Truth was hidden and capable of being discovered only by probing deeply. “For the architect the patient analysis of nature would reveal the true meaning of functional structures.” Wright found in nature and the machine the two inseparable cornerstones of his search for truth. (Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture.)

A Dancer’s Truth

Isadora Duncan’s quest for a dancer’s truth was lifelong and intense. “My art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one true movement…I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement…I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the center of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of the vision for the creation of the dance—it was from that discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.” (Isadora Duncan, Autobiography)

Commitment and Sacrifice as Truth

Artists exhibit ferocious concentration on the task to be accomplished and will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it.

“I have always put the requirement of what I was writing first–before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has always been the case with me.” (Saul Bellow)

“What one bestows on private life—in conversations, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” (Novelist V.S. Naipaul)

“Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Your Artist’s Credo

It should be apparent from what you’ve just read that great artists are precise and clear and quite serious about what they are striving to accomplish—what truth they’re seeking–and can describe it succinctly in a paragraph or two.

How would you describe your overall artistic vision, the truths you are trying to express in work after work? And what are the handful of most important recurring themes that are so much a part of you?

“What I’m trying to get across is…”

“In all my works I find these themes again and again…”

You might ask people who know your work well their opinion. Put the answers down in writing, a statement of your artist’s credo.

Let me know by leaving a comment about the truth you are seeking, your artistic vision, and the themes in your work. I’m writing a book about art and artists of all kinds and want to see what your thinking is. If you are not an artist but are interested in the subject, I would like to hear your opinions too.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, Writers

To Think, To Decide, To Act: Trust Only Movement

Living at White Heat

highway-393492_640“A motto for man: to do and through doing to ‘do’ himself
and be nothing but what he has made of himself.” Jean Paul Sartre

 

Katherine is such a good woman, a kind-hearted woman, obviously very bright, and likable, friendly, and generous to a fault. There is so much to her, so many gifts, so much to offer, so much promise, but she’s snagged, she’s caught, she’s trapped, and she is not looking for a way to escape. And the days pass.

Someone asked her if she’s happy and she said she is. But the next morning she thought about it and realized she isn’t. It’s no mystery to her why. She knows she’s not nearly as ambitious as she might be, and hasn’t found a heartfelt purpose to get up for in the morning. And she’s in a job she doesn’t like, but makes no attempt to find anything more suitable. Her partner abruptly ended their long relationship, and she’s lonely. But she’s made no effort to find someone else or to look for an activity she would enjoy and would divert her attention from her loneliness. She has friends, but none of them close.

Her life has settled into a tedious routine. From her building’s elevator over to the garage, the mile to the office, lunch at the Greek restaurant, the mile home, and the elevator. Laundry Wednesday night about seven and shopping on Saturday morning, the newspaper on Sunday, and on Monday at 8:30 her favorite TV show.

She looks in the mirror twice a day and sees she’s gaining weight around the middle, and doesn’t like that, but doesn’t do anything about it. No different from a billion other people, she never stops to ask herself, “Why am I living this life when I could always a live another.” She could be leading a better life, a life with meaning, if she made new decisions and followed through on them, no more apathy and no excuses.

To think, to decide, to act, to do something, to get things done, to attend to what needs attention, to reduce the distance between where you are now and where you want to be in life–that’s a human being’s inherent nature. You were not created to be stationary, to be limp and weak and unmoving, but were brought into this world with movement in mind. Action is your natural inclination, a fulfilling life your true destiny. It’s what you’re body and mind are designed for: to make choices and changes, take risks, accept responsibility, exert energy, and achieve purposes. You only reveal the person you truly are in decisive action. Only then do you reach your enormous possibilities. But you must trust only movement.

If we cast a glance at people in general we find the opposite of a continuous advance toward a better life. Standing still in life and doing nothing is plainly the common condition, resisting change even if one’s life is quietly unbearable. Letting opportunities to explore new ways of being and discover new strengths, new people, and new pleasures slip away, and slip away again.

 Recognize the Clues

No one has to tell you there’s a discrepancy between the life you’re leading and the better one you have the potentials to be leading. You know something is wrong before anyone else, and you know it better than anyone else. And if you are intelligent and aware, that knowledge never leaves you alone. Some people intend to change their life, and may swear to others they will. “Someday,” they say, “I’ll do this and then I’ll do that and things will get better.” But when they cast an honest eye on their life in progress they see certain indications that their life is going wrong, certain clues.

An Inappropriate life

There comes a moment when you realize that you could have just as well have lived a thousand different lives but have lived this one, that you could just as well have taken a thousand different paths but took this one; that perhaps they are the wrong life and the wrong path.

Running Out of Time

From time to time you have to ask yourself if you’ve have made the most of your limited time here on earth. Then in a moment of quiet panic some people realize they haven’t. Entering the Garden of Eden, God called to Adam, “Where art thou.” He was asking Adam to account for himself. We all have to account for ourselves. X days and years of the time allotted to you have passed. How far have you gotten?

Hideouts and Cover Stories

People often go to extreme lengths to fabricate a cover story to explain why they’re not making the most of their lives. They hide out. You know people who are hiding out. You can even recite their cover stories, you’ve heard them so often: “This didn’t work out and that didn’t work out. My luck was bad, and things were so dead set against me. I’m as smart as anyone else, but I didn’t get the breaks.” During moments of clarity they become aware that the best part of themselves has never come out of hiding. They cower behind the cover stories they invented and escape to hideouts. You want to say, “Wake up! Stop hiding. Don’t settle for a crummy life.”

Cancelled Dreams

At some point some people give up and abandon their dreams. They continue the rest of their days recalling how pleasant their dreams once had been. Dreams are frail things that disappear if they aren’t turned to reality.

Inaction

You may be a person of action. If you are, when there’s something to be done, you do it. Hard work is necessary if you are to have the life you deserve, so you work hard. You have purposes to attend to and you attend to them. There are obstacles to conquer, so you conquer them. But this man is paralyzed by inaction. He doubts himself and is afraid. He doesn’t do what’s necessary to improve his life. When he is set back he gives up trying and doesn’t bother anymore. His determination withers away. He can follow routines–up at six, home at six–because routines require no imagination or initiative; no risks, no commitments. But when it comes to stepping out of the familiar stream of daily routine and taking action to make more of his life–changing careers, starting a business, leaving a disappointing life behind, moving to a different place, for example– he’s in over his head, he’s helpless There’s procrastinating over the small things–failing to return a library book on time–and there is procrastinating over the big things–failing to make important life-changing decisions and take action, procrastinating your existence into oblivion.

Disillusionment

There’s supposed to be some vital meaning to our lives. But there comes a time when some people are forced to ask, “Is this all there is?” They realize that their lives have little meaning, and without meaning there isn’t much to life. They long to be breathless with desire for–something, anything.

 Unfulfilled Promise

In high school Kim was somebody. But now she realizes that something somehow happened, and she’s been left behind. She’s nowhere near the bright future that once seemed so clearly, like a beacon, to lie ahead. She can’t shake that off. She lives in the past, in her glory years. She’s snagged; she’s stuck. She makes no progress.

A Mechanical Existence

There’s a saying: “Be sure you’re riding the horse and the horse isn’t riding you.” Some people choose to be ridden by the horse. They’re living all right–their heart is beating and they breathe– but they’re not leading their life at all, but are being led. Their lives are too easy, too predictable, and too uneventful, and are headed nowhere. There’s nothing in store, no excitement, no surprises.

A Phony Life

Many people live one way while their true self urges them to live a truer, more authentic, more suitable way. They often stay busy in a whirlwind of activity that unbeknownst to them is designed to allow no time to stop and ask, “Am I doing the best I can, am I going right, or have I just gotten good at leading a phony existence?”

 Living with White Heat

When you put behind you an inappropriate life, hideouts and cover stories, cancelled dreams, inaction, unfulfilled promise, a mechanical existence, and a phony life and disillusionment and choose to live a decisive style of life, you become committed to your actions with your whole person. You live with white heat. When you decide with your whole being, all that you are and all that you can be and hope to be are right there with you. You throw yourself completely into the decision. You’re in this thing to the end and your commitment knows no bounds. You focus, you bear down. There’s something out of the ordinary about you that people recognize, a seriousness of intent, a rare intensity. You’re not fooling around, you’re deadly serious about your life and its goals, and you’re not run of the mill. You’re a different breed of man, a different breed of woman, and that’s obvious. Your determination is as hard as granite. You’re unbendable. You never deviate from your decisiveness.

We’re born and hurled into the future. What’s unique about you sets you apart and launches you in a direction. Always follow where your gifts, your talents, and your intelligence lead you. You were meant to let yourself be drawn in that direction. Why resist?

A man was curious and attended an art show to ask a famous sculptor if he had advice for his son John, a sculptor who was just beginning. The sculptor said, “Yes I do have advice. It’s very simple. You tell John to pick up his mallet and his chisel and make chips.”

We’d be better off, you and I, if like a sculptor sculpting our own lives, we too made a decision to make chips.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Finding a Creative Second Life: Parallel Careers

rails-407242_640This post is about realizing what marvelous talents and gifts you may possess and may not yet be fully using, but may wish to. It tells the stories of people who felt the same.

People from many countries will read this post and there is no doubt in my mind that they will think of similar examples from their own countries. I’d be interested in learning about them.

 George Bernard Shaw

Before settling down to a playwright’s life and eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, Irishman George Bernard Shaw drifted aimlessly and unhappily from one occupation to another, including selling men’s clothes in a shop. He thought of becoming a novelist, so dutifully while selling real estate, he wrote one novel each year for five years and submitted the manuscripts to a publisher. Each was rejected, and he was discouraged.

Finally a sympathetic editor accompanied a rejected manuscript with a note stating that while the publishing house would have to turn down this manuscript too, the dialogue was superb. The editor asked, “Did you ever think of writing plays?” Shaw had written little plays as a boy that he and his friends would perform to entertain his family, but he hadn’t written one since.

Encouraged now, immediately he turned to using his strength–writing dialogue. He wasn’t meant to sell men’s shirts or real estate. He wasn’t even meant to write novels. He wasn’t meant for a thousand things. He was meant to write plays. (In my language, that was his intended destiny.) That’s what he was best equipped to do, just as you are best equipped for certain undertakings.

Core Strengths

An important way to find fulfillment in life and perhaps stumble upon a new identity is by making regular use of your principal strengths–your main aptitudes, talents, gifts, personal qualities, and capabilities, and doing so freely, without inhibition, without conflicts, without being interfered with.

Your strengths are what, in particular, out of all you’re capable of, you do better than anything else, and perhaps are happier doing than anything else. They are whatever you’re doing when you feel deep down, “Now, at this moment, I’m doing what I do especially well. I love it. It makes me happy.”

You have many strengths, but one is dominant. It is your main strength, your core strength. You’re at your best when you’re making use of your core strength in an occupation, or while pursuing a purpose that is important to you, or in an abiding interest, all of which bring fulfillment.

From your earliest years you have gravitated toward activities that enabled you to make use of your core strength. As a child you enjoyed building bridges with blocks. You never forgot the joy you felt. You became an engineer so that you could feel that the rest of your life. Or you liked to paint; or liked sports; or liked to sing; you liked to play in the garden; you enjoyed being with friends and showing them your poems. You were particularly good at math.

The life pursuits of people who excel were often foreshadowed by what deeply interested them as children. A chord was struck; something crystalized; a future was laid out. At times, like Shaw, they drift from one field, one occupation, to another, experiencing dead-ends and false starts, and only later return to that earlier interest, and then feel, “This is what I should have been doing all along.” So it is a good idea to never forget what your heart was once drawn to, but to keep it in mind whatever else you might be doing in your life.

In a previous blog I described the Zeigarnik Effect (named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the first person to study it): you don’t forget important things you started even long ago, but did not complete. They linger in your mind, reappearing from time to time, and in fact you remember them better than you do completed tasks. You have a strong desire to finally complete them, and you may do so many years later. That people have a need to finish what they start is true especially of the most highly motivated people.

As a boy, my friend loved to listen to his father tell stories of significant events in history and great people who did great things. He would then tell his friends the stories his father had told him. He worked hard and became a top executive with one of the world’s largest retailers. But he found that something was missing–the stories his father had told him and that he had loved. So while working at his job during the day, he earned a PhD in history at night, a subject which he now teaches at a university after work. Now he can tell his father’s stories again.

Putting yourself in a position to return to your past interests and make use of your core strength, if you aren’t already, is a strategy for bringing about positive change in your life and lifting up your spirits to new heights.

 A Parallel Career

The majority of people across the world are bursting with talents and gifts they are longing to make use of. Most people are far greater than their jobs no matter how excellent that job is. They usually have valuable qualities that are never called upon. They possess more intelligence, energy, motivation, imagination, and creativity than their jobs will ever require of them, and their core strength may go unused. So while working their entire career in one occupation that is otherwise perfectly fine and brings them satisfaction, they find more creative outlets to express themselves further and to make use of their core strength and find still more satisfaction. And sometimes the parallel career consumes them and they achieve extraordinary accomplishments and make names for themselves.

Robert Ardrey was a Hollywood screenwriter in high demand and a playwright who had two plays on Broadway at the same time. But he loved anthropology and the behavioral sciences and studied them on the side. He popularized the concept of “the territorial imperative” which asserts that living creatures, including human beings, instinctively protect their territory. (The farther away from the center of it you stay, the less interested in you they are. But step into their territory and the more aggressive they become.) Ardrey became a renowned paleoanthropologist and wrote the best seller African Genesis.

Busy housewife and mother Anne Sexton watched a PBS show on “How to Write a Sonnet” and sat down and wrote one. That first exposure to creative writing ignited an interest, revealed a core strength, and started her on the path to a parallel career. She never attended college. Her only formal education consisted of sporadic adult education classes at a handful of Boston-area colleges. Yet her poems won immediate attention through their appearance in literary magazines and newspapers. A stream of awards and grants followed the release of each of her first three books. Her fourth, Live or Die, won the Pulitzer Prize. She said, “Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn’t know I had any creative depths.”

Charles Ives—“an American original,” was one of the first American composers to receive renown internationally. He worked during the day as an insurance company executive, as did poet Wallace Stevens, who received the Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award. American influential and innovative poet William Carlos Williams and Anton Chekov, Russia’s finest playwright and the world’s best short story writer ever, were both practicing physicians. Franz Kafka was a government bureaucrat during the day. Twentieth century English novelist Henry Green, called “the most original…the best writer of his time,” was born into a wealthy family and was the managing director of its bottling business.

Henri Rousseau, a self-taught French post-impressionistic, though busy at work and with a family, started drawing and painting seriously in his forties. Although untutored, he influenced many painters, especially Pablo Picasso. Rousseau worked as a customs official, and was known as Le Douanier, “the customs officer.” Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and Billy Budd, was also a customs official– at the New York Port Authority.

Englishman Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific, respected, and successful writers of the Victorian Era. Not much of a believer in art-for-arts-sake, he wrote that all “material progress has come from man’s desire to do the best he can for himself and those about him.,” and stated 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.” He was a career post office employee who wrote his 47 novels and dozens of short stories and travel books while on trains to and from assignments. He claimed that he wasn’t extraordinary, but that any writer could be as prolific if he just budgeted his time efficiently.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of history’s foremost linguists, was by profession a chemical engineer and fire prevention inspector. He studied linguistics as a hobby. Truly a towering figure in sociology, Herbert Spencer was also an anthropologist and political theorist, and made a separate reputation in biology.

William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus; in fact it was called Herschel until Uranus was universally accepted. By profession he was an orchestra conductor and a composer known for his twenty-four symphonies.

Colorful novelist and art critic Andre Malraux, called by Jacqueline Kennedy, “the most fascinating man I ever talked to,” was a statesman, the French Minister for Cultural Affairs. Popular novelist Tom Clancy worked as an insurance salesman. Another Nobel Laureate, poet and literary critic T.S Eliot, worked full-time as a banker and then as a chief executive in a publishing company. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was a professional mathematician, and noted photographer.

Samuel F.B. Morse was a prominent American portrait painter. He received a message that his wife Susan, age 25, was seriously ill. He rushed from Washington to his home in New Haven to find that she had died while he was returning. Devastated by his failure to reach her in time and the inability of the current message technology to get the news to him faster, he set out to develop a more effective system of long-distance communication. He then invented the telegraph and the Morse code that achieved that goal, connecting all four corners of the globe.

Follow Where Your Core Strength Leads You

Which of your many strengths is your core strength, not your second strength, or third, or fourth? What do you do especially well and continually gravitate toward? What are you doing when you don’t want to quit? What are you doing when you feel most fulfilled and can say, “This is me at my best. There is nothing else like this.”

The goal is to be able to make full use of your core strength freely, without inhibition, without conflicts, without being interfered with.

Possibly in a parallel career.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Writers and Other Artists and Their Audience: A Very Personal Relationship

IMG_0240_David Pic copyEvery Tuesday or Wednesday I have lunch with a friend, a professor of philosophy, at a deli near my home and everything is fair game for our talks but sports. I am interested in sports, having grown up in Chicago—the slap-happiest sports town in the world. But he grew up somewhere else and thinks a basketball is something you hit with a bat.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that very important to my wife, who teaches writing, is the relationship the author establishes with the reader. I said I agree with her that the personality of the author shines all through the words and that as you read you respond to that personality, and that it accounts for much of the value we find in the work. Just as you make judgments about the work itself, such as to answer the question, “Do I like this and should I continue reading,” you also make judgments about the author such as, “Do I like and respect the person behind the words, and do I want to spend more time with him?” That happens whatever you’re reading—novel, blog, short story, play, poem, email, essay, memo, or letter.

And something similar happens whenever you look at a work of art, or see an actor act, or a dancer dance.

My friend said, “There is no relationship. There is no personality. There are only words.” Then I said, “I was reading a book recently and the information was useful—the author knew what he was talking about– but he was so arrogant and smug and self-satisfied that I couldn’t go on reading. But now James Agee, for example, is to me so likable and gentle and right-minded and has such compassion that I always enjoy his company.”

And then I thought: There are millions of people on earth who consider themselves serious writers, and many millions more who are engaged in other arts, and to whom the relationship between themselves and their audience has to be a major concern (2.5 million people in the U.S. alone consider themselves artists); so it would be worthwhile to give that relationship the attention it deserves.

The True Center

The true center of our experience with any kind of narrative writing in any language on earth is the sense that someone with a mind, a personality, and a background of experience is talking to us. That sense accounts—if it is favorable– for much of the pleasure we derive from reading, and it is that sense that a good writer will develop in the reader, consciously or not. What a writer is intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally radiates in the work and can’t be hidden from the discriminating reader.

Herman Melville said, “No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently“ forming “some ideal image of the man and his mind. And if you look…you’ll find the author has furnished you with his own picture.” Literary critic Georges Poulet wrote, “ (As I read) “I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness, the consciousness of another opens to me, welcomes me, lets me deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels. I am thinking the thought of another, but I am thinking it as my very own.”

Energy, Sincerity, and Other Qualities

The author’s qualities we connect with are those we respond to in any person we meet face to face. They include humor, energy, vitality, seriousness, playfulness, friendliness, originality, boldness, glibness, sensitivity, sensuality, elegance, flexibility of mind, intelligence, tenderness, objectivity, flippancy, etc. We become aware of the author’s interests, preoccupations, even obsessions, and how involved the author is in the subject, including her attitude toward her characters. Even the most objective and dispassionate writing, as in the short stories of Chekov, the master of understatement, conveys the personality of the author—his control and self-restraint.

We make judgments about the degree of ability the author has, and say, “That man is so skilled that he can do anything he wants with language. He’s so self-confident that he breaks the rules whenever he wants. He has courage; he takes chances.” We look at a great actor performing or Baryshnikov leaping and we say “Their skill is breathtaking; they are very disciplined and have worked hard to develop themselves.” It’s been said that painter and tortured genius Jackson Pollock had no natural talent. He was always aware that he was an artist that could not draw. But the guts he had appears in his every work, and in painting his groundbreaking way he changed the course of western art and the definition of what we mean by art.

A Distinctive Style

The first quality we notice about a master, or a truly excellent writer—or painter, or dancer, or actor, or any other artist– is a distinctive style. All great artists are concerned not only with communicating their vision and expressing their talent, but are preoccupied with the most effective way to do that. And style, which is anything but a minor afterthought, is the artist’s signature and as individual and as much a part of the writer’s, sculptor’s, actor’s, or architect’s, etc., personality and life experience as DNA. There was only one Marlon Brando and only one Frank Lloyd Wright.

Possibly the first requirement of a good style for a writer is the ability to put the reader into what is being written about and the writer’s presence right away, from the very beginning, and all the way through the work. Using a first-person “I” voice as in Hemingway’s autobiographical novel The Sun Also Rises invites the reader to share in the writer’s and narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and can be tremendously effective. With the second person “you” the writer is addressing the reader directly, and that too, can have a strong effect.

How We Want To Be Treated

There is a sharp difference between authors who treat us as essentially their equals and those that (like political candidates) imply we’re their inferiors. That author I couldn’t stand and couldn’t go on reading had no respect for the reader. He had no concept of the fundamental truths that artists must have an understanding of their audience and what will please them, excite them, and hold their attention, and what will “lose” them, including the author’s own personality. Authors we have friendships with are those who share interests with us and respect us, never underestimating us, never talking down to us.

The Author’s Mind; the Artist’s Mind

We respond very much to the author’s mind in action, and whether we’ll go on reading or not and how attentive or respectful we’ll be depends on how interesting and stimulating we find that mind. I was reading a true story about a man who was having trouble getting to sleep, and his mind was so active trying to figure out how to do that that I just sat back and laughed and marveled at his ingenuity. We are involved with the author’s mind from the first word, and the skilled author will let you know immediately that his mind is active and sharp. Even a nice metaphor or a perfect sentence or clear writing give us the reality of entering the author’s mind.

We could just as easily be talking about the painter’s mind, or the ballet dancer’s mind, or the movie director’s mind. Whatever the art, the audience responds to that mind one way if it is interesting and another if it’s not.

Intimacy and Integrity

The particularly effective writer—the particularly effective artist of any kind—will develop a relationship that goes beyond liking and beyond friendship to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity we find in the work. Sincerity is what I sense in Agee, for example. Anyone who can write so beautifully and so sensitively, honestly, and intensely must be trying to communicate to me something that he cares deeply about. The intimate writer invites us in to his inner life and says “Here I am.” I sense utmost sincerity too in Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—a poem in which the writer actually speaks to the reader and tells us that as he is writing the poem he is thinking about us. And I find it in all the work of van Gogh, and some blogs I read. The artist is sincerely trying to connect with me and communicate something directly to me as well as he or she is able, and I respond.

Good writing has integrity—our being whole and authentic with no division between who we are and what we write, or paint, or how we perform on stage. We guarantee that we aren’t faking, or deceiving, or compromising. Hemingway referred to integrity as the built-in “bullshit detector” that every real artist possesses.

No Place to Hide

It is futile to think we can hide ourselves from an audience for very long or fool it into believing we’re something we’re not. The voice that comes through is not something that is imposed artificially from the outside, but is the genuine, the authentic, the true, the real person. Even when we write about a character that is nothing like us, the person we are—with our history and our points of view and our opinions comes through clearly. The very images we use and the very vocabulary tell a great deal about us.

Addition by Subtraction

An authentic voice is not achieved by adding something, but by the opposite process—by subtracting what is pretentious or not genuine. Every artist is unique and different from every other. There are no duplicates. But whatever she is like, we are trying to locate her and understand her.

Coming Out of the Shadows

So if we are looking for prescriptions, the first would be: “Whatever your art, come out of the shadows and reveal yourself. Let your true personality permeate all through your work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it is that, above and beyond the other content, that your audience will respond to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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