Monthly Archives: January 2015

Self-Confidence of Artists and Writers

I went with my wife to a poetry reading to read poems I’d written, and before starting, talked with other people who were there to read theirs. I’d never spent much time with poets, but before beginning the readings there was wine and cheese and I talked with some of the others. As my wife and I found seats, I asked her, “Do you think all poets are as meek as these poets?” I had the same impression during the readings. So many seemed to lack confidence. The lack of confidence is very hard to hide

I wondered if they also lacked confidence when they were writing and how that affected the quality of their work. Then I thought of all the many talented writers, painters, dancers, and actors I’ve known, some of them very close to me, who also lacked confidence or who once had confidence and lost it, and because of that ended their artistic careers prematurely. So I thought this blog post might encourage an artist or two to have confidence and persevere.

This post says, “Take heart”:

ballerina-534356_640_copy2You must never lose the faith that you have the ability to produce quality art successfully and consistently. The desire to succeed and the confidence that you can, along with skill and the ability to overcome obstacles are the most important indicators of eventual success in art.

Artists fail because (a) they lack the necessary skill or (b) they have the skill but don’t have the confidence to use that skill well. If you have confidence and faith in yourself, you’ll reach higher levels of success than other writers, painters, dancers, actors, and performers of equal ability who lack them.

Artists who are sure of their abilities, sure of themselves, intensify their efforts when they fail to achieve their goal, and persist until they achieve it. Self-confidence is the ultimate source of an artist’s motivation.

All great artists of the past were confident.

The will of a successful artist must be indestructible.

 Learned Helplessness

“Learned helplessness” has destroyed the careers of many artists who had all the potential they needed to excel. They met failure and they never recovered. Failure is a necessary part of an artist’s life, bringing with it growth and new learnings, and sometimes sudden leaps in performance. No one met more failures and took more wrong turns and was more average than Walt Whitman until suddenly, seemingly without any preparation, he wrote Leaves of Grass and established himself as America’s greatest poet—ever. If you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not aiming high enough.

Helpless artists believe that no matter what they do, their actions will not lead to success. Consequently, they give up. Learned helplessness was first observed among young animals which had been placed in a situation in which they received inescapable electric shocks. When placed in a different situation, they made no attempt to escape or avoid the shock—they had learned to be helpless. Like those animals, when people believe that their actions will have no effect on what happens to them, they also become passive.

Helpless-oriented artists attribute their failures to personal inadequacies—they’re think they’re not smart enough, or not talented. Their thinking is self-defeating. Their expectations are negative—“I won’t succeed. This problem is too much for me.” The act of painting/dancing/ writing becomes unpleasant, even painful, an activity to be avoided. Helpless artists lose focus and can’t concentrate. They worry, continually question their worth as artists, and begin to put out less and less effort. Good work habits disappear. They avoid challenges and risks. Their performance declines.

 Disappointment Needn’t Lead to Discouragement

You’re an artist; you know what it is to be discouraged. When you’re deeply discouraged you’re weak and vulnerable. You’ve been deprived of confidence, hope, and spirit. Your courage and strength abandon you. If you’re to succeed you must get them back right away, taking immediate action with strong determination. Lay the discouragement aside as though putting it in a drawer. Get back to your work. The will of a successful artist needs to be indestructible.

Rather than conceiving of yourself as a beaten person, hold a completely different view: you are a person who has been set back—as happens–but yet a person with important accomplishments ahead and a rich life of creativity to lead, a decisive, courageous, fearless person.

sisters-74069_640Self-doubt and self-confidence are affected by the comments of other people. Someone saying, “You can do it; don’t give up” can save a career. Seek out encouraging, supportive people. When Impressionism was beginning in Paris in the nineteenth century, and the Impressionists were being attacked on all sides by critics, other artists, and the public, they banded together and met frequently in their homes and cafes. Their mutual support strengthened them all. Today artists and writers living great distances apart, strangers to each other, support and encourage one another via networks of blogs.

Accepting setbacks as an unavoidable part of the artist’s life is essential for maintaining an unshakeable motivation and the high spirits needed to do good work. Look for what caused the discouragement and make decisions as to how to move forward now. Maintain a sense of proportion—“It’s bad, but it’s not that bad.”

James Joyce’s Dubliners was one of literature’s landmark collections of short stories. It was rejected by twenty-two publishers, but Joyce never lost confidence in himself or faith that it would be published. Jack London’s stories were rejected 600 times before the first one was published, but within two years after that first success he was one of the most popular novelists in the world. Publisher after publisher rejected e.e. cummings’ first book of poetry, but he wasn’t deterred and continued writing. When it was finally published, he included a dedication which read, “With no thanks to…” followed by the long list of publishers who had turned it down.

ludwig-van-beethoven-62844_640(1)Resilient artists adapt. What could be more discouraging for a composer than losing his hearing and being unable to hear the music he was creating? At 51 Beethoven was deaf. As a substitute for hearing the actual sounds, he removed the legs of his piano and placed it on the floor so he could feel the vibrations of the music.

Discouragement is so much a part of the creative person’s existence that if you don’t develop the resiliency and energy to recover from it, you will have difficulty surviving.

 Confidence and Faith

Maintain an optimistic frame of mind: “I’m in a funk, nothing clicking, the ideas not coming. Discouraged. But I’ve come out of this kind of thing before and I will again. I am (your name), the same person who… (wrote, painted, won, achieved…) and I can again.” Persist.

Look to your past successes. Past success is the most powerful and direct basis for confidence. If you have proof that you have the ability to achieve what you want to achieve—the skills, motivation, and know-how– because you’ve succeeded in the past, you will try to achieve it again. If you feel that way, you’ll be confident and will not likely be stopped by self-doubt, an artist’s main psychological obstacle. You’ll have high expectations of success. You won’t dwell on past failures; you’ll think about them not as true failures, but as temporary conditions and useful lessons, bumps in the road, not the end of the road. You’ll dwell on past successes. Even the most self-doubting artist has had past successes to reflect on. There is always something positive to fasten onto during periods of doubt.

Develop your skills. As your skills improve, your self-doubt fades and is replaced by confidence.

Don’t be intimidated by difficulty; don’t hide from challenges. Rather, seek them out, welcome them. You progress by tackling increasingly difficult challenges. Two artists may be equally competent. The one who has an effort-will-win-out-and-my-skills-can-improve orientation will not be discouraged by initial difficulty. But the “helpless” artist will immediately lose confidence and may not recover.

Recover quickly. Temporary self-doubt after a setback is a natural reaction. What matters most is how quickly you take action and regain your confidence.

Bearing this post in mind and practicing these prescriptions should increase your confidence, and that should be reflected in your perseverance and the success of your work.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Vivekananda: Practical Thoughts of an Exceptional Man

(Born 152 Years ago today, January 12, 2015)

swami-vivekanand-390778_640

 Focus

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life; think of it; dream of it; live on that one idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success. Hold to the ideal a thousand times, and if you fail a thousand times, make the attempt once more.”

Adversity

“Blows are what awaken us. In the majority of cases it is misery that teaches more than happiness. It is the heroic endeavor to subdue adverse circumstances that carries our spirit upward.”

Joy

“This world is just a gymnasium in which we play; our life is an eternal holiday.”

Fearlessness

“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you.”

Strength

“This is the question I put to every man, woman or child: Are you strong? Do you feel strong? Are you getting stronger? We suffer because we are weak.”

Freedom

“Man has freedom already; but he will have to discover it. He has it but every moment he forgets it.”

My admiration for Vivekananda (1863-1902) began many years ago with my reading a tiny paperback booklet on his teachings that I happened to pick up while in a used bookstore somewhere in the Dakotas desperately searching for something—anything—to read between flights. At that time I was experiencing great outward success in every material way, but was dissatisfied and did not know why. That magical little booklet came to mean a great deal to me, and from it I progressed to a reading of all the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words spoken by this mesmerizing orator with a gleam in his eye who possessed “a quiet but assured air of command.”

When I find myself going astray (as I too often do) and wandering away from the deep down fundamental things, his words come to mind to rescue me, particularly, be fearless; have no fear, and “Go beyond the trifles of the world. Know that nothing can affect you. It is liberty to be affected by nothing. Be perfectly resigned, perfectly unconcerned.” In other words—if other words are needed—keep your bearings; don’t lose yourself craving what is inessential to you; don’t let superficial things and pettiness touch you; find that your life is more composed of meaningless nonsense than you have ever imagined. I think that if truly understood and taken to heart, these are among the most profound and therapeutic words ever spoken. If you and I were to “go beyond the trifles of the world” most of our worries, anxieties, fears, and doubts would fly out the window. So when things are pressing in on you from all sides and you wish them to stop, say to yourself, “Go beyond the trifles of the world” and watch what happens.

Unlike his mentor Ramakrishna, Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta in Calcutta, India) was not a mystic. He was a spiritual man and fundamentally a teacher of how to live sincerely and honestly in this real world of work and family without losing sight our spiritual nature. The prophet of self-reliance, he was a person whose words expressed exactly who he was without phoniness, fakery, or pretense. When he died at the age of thirty-nine, the world from beggars to statesmen mourned.

“By means of the constant effort to do good to others we are trying to forget ourselves; this forgetfulness of self is the one great lesson we have to learn in life. Every act of charity, every thought of sympathy, every action of help, every good deed, is taking so much of self-importance away from our little selves.”

”Always keep your mind joyful; if melancholy thoughts come, kick them out.”

“We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be we have the power to make ourselves.”

“It is selfishness we should eliminate. I find that whenever I made a mistake in my life, it has always been because self entered into the calculation. Where self has not been involved, my judgment has gone straight to the mark.”

“It is thought which is the propelling force in us. Fill the mind with the highest thoughts, hear them day after day, think them month after month. Never mind failures…they are the beauty of life, these failures.”

“The one way out is through ourselves.

“Almost all suffering is caused by our not having the power of detachment. We must learn not only to attach the mind to one thing exclusively, but also to detach it at a moment’s notice.”

“In all these little roughnesses that we meet with in life, the highest expression of freedom is to forbear.”

“The goal of all nature is freedom and freedom is to be attained only by perfect unselfishness: every thought, word, or deed, takes us toward the goal. Have no thought for yourself, no word for yourself”

“There is no limit to the powers of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on one point; that is the secret. In making money, or in worshiping God, or in doing anything, the stronger the power of concentration, the better will that thing be done.”

 

Vivekananda was little known outside a small circle in India when he appeared at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893—the first time the leaders of all the world’s major religions were brought together to talk to the public about their religions. Vivekananda had a handsome face and striking appearance and drew attention the morning before he was to speak for the first time. His turn to speak came, but he excused himself and asked for more time. Later he confessed that he had stage fright: the other speakers were prestigious religious leaders who had come prepared. He had arrived with no formal credentials, unknown, with no money, no resources, no place to stay, and hadn’t prepared a speech.

Such was the overwhelming impact of his mere presence on an audience that when in the afternoon he rose to his feet at the podium and began speaking with that extraordinarily deep bell-like voice, saying “Sisters and Brothers of America,” the reaction was astonishing. Instantly the entire audience—many hundreds of people— clapped and cheered wildly. Nothing like that had occurred at the conference though all the other speakers were better known. The audience must have sensed they were about to hear the most valuable words of a most exceptional human being.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Angie

woman-259004_640(Appeared previously under a different title in East on Central)

A few afternoons a week when I was twelve I performed odd jobs for a small neighborhood grocery store with a creaky wood floor and a big bay window called Angie’s.

When I had a delivery to make I brought my red, hand-painted-by-my-father wagon around front and put the load in. Then I would charge, bound straight for glory down the narrow little streets whose every bump my wagon was friends with and had crisscrossed a thousand times, until I had turned a corner or was otherwise out of sight of Angie’s husband Mr. Costello, who spied like a penitentiary guard from the top step of the store to see if I was slacking off.

I treasured my escapes to my happiest world that waited as loyally as a dog outside the store for me. I loved being out on the familiar streets alone, on my own, free, with no adults to burden or restrain me, and there like a person entering a garden after a long illness, relished being reunited with the hallowed fresh air and sunlight, the glorious shades and shapes that festooned this, the tiny patch of the earth that Fortune had so generously allocated to me, and the sights that pleased my eyes, and sounds beyond number that sang in the streets like minstrels.

Delivering groceries was my favorite chore because it liberated me from Mr. Costello, whom I considered diabolical. Otherwise I would have to sweep the floors or shelve cans while Mr. Costello hovered menacingly over me, scowling and cursing, “Don’t do it like that kid, damn it, do it like this,” or, “Boy, turn the friggin cans so the customer can see the nice picture of peas on the front.” I didn’t think Mr. Costello despised me any more than he did anyone else since he treated everyone so miserably, without discriminating, including Angie–especially Angie.

Almost all the people I delivered to were feeble old widows, worn to weariness by a long life and loneliness. They led quiet, solitary lives, having years before given up hope of leaving their apartment for fear of falling and being hospitalized and dying there alone. They had thin, emaciated hands with long fingers and translucent skin that was traversed by long knotted blue veins. They walked with backs bowed and in a slow shuffle—despondent women in perpetual mourning. Their slippers made shy whispering sounds on the carpet, and in the air about their apartments hung the stale and unmistakable odor of a human life approaching its end.

Most every afternoon Mr. Costello, who had committed so many wrongs that it was impossible to remember a fraction of them, would go into the bathroom in the rear by the freezer and come out gussied up in dark silk shirts and two-tone shoes and brilliant yellow or pink ties. Smelling of sweet cologne, he would leave the store, walking in an arrogant strut. Then I would stand behind the shelves and watch Angie—singing softly to herself, swaying, dancing–as she glided, a seraph, through the narrow aisles. She was young and lithe; Mr. Costello was so old.

Beautiful, Angie had such fire in her spirit that I felt it flaming out to me when I approached her. It singed me like molten tongs. She smiled with such sweetness, gentleness, guilessness, and goodness that it broke my heart. She was to me an Egyptian queen, and her hair, her voice, her hands, her presence, brought something into my life which I knew to be love.

Because of her my life was purer and more beautiful, and when I stood close to her I could not breathe. When I dreamed, it was of her. When she was left alone by her husband, those were her hours of splendor, when she was set free and her spirit soared and she became the woman she truly was. But when he returned at sundown the day seemed to die and she surrendered and was transformed into a captive again.

One afternoon after he had chastised me for being a dime short on a customer payment, and I had accepted his wrath wordlessly, terrified to speak, Mr. Costello left the store. Angie came down the stairs to the basement where I was weighing potatoes. In the dim half-light of the single overhead bulb, I looked at her lovely face and her large round breasts confined in a green cotton blouse.

“Don’t let him scare you,” she said.

I longed to ask, “Why don’t you run away?” and to thank her for her kindness. But being a child uncomfortable with both adults and words, I said nothing. She came close and held my face between her soft palms and kissed my lips. Then she touched my shoulder with her finger and turned and went upstairs. Soon I heard the little chime on the front door and Mr. Costello returning early and grousing that Angie had been sloughing off. The bread racks, the cases of produce, and soup cartons hadn’t been touched.

pull-25799_640Out on the street on a delivery one afternoon I met Red Martin. In the air was a hot, summery, sleepy, syrupy feeling. The cicadas were out in great, noisy numbers and the neighborhood panhandler dozed contentedly in the shadows in a doorway. Red was a tough boy with hair of fire. We stopped on the sidewalk for just a few minutes, maybe only seconds, only long enough for Red to say, “Going to the playground. Feel like coming along?” and for me to reply, “Gotta work.”

“See ya,” Red said, and hustled up the street, tossing a baseball in the air that he raced to catch in his mitt.

“See you, Red,” I called after him.

On the way back to the store after the delivery, my wagon rattling noisily without a load, I realized that what meant so much to me–Angie’s kiss–was meaningless to her. She would surely forget it as quickly and completely as she would had she petted a kitten.

I didn’t know then that my memory of that one moment would accompany me through all my life like a medallion that I would take out from time to time to admire, that once in a while something would remind me and I would wonder whatever had become of her, would wonder if we are ever granted a reprieve from our mistakes or must spend the rest of our lives paying for them.

Billy Henson came running down the street and stopped me just about where Red and I had talked ten minutes before.

“Did you hear what happened?” Billy said.

“What?”

“Red Martin died.”

“Red Martin,” I said. “I just talked to him. How could he be dead?”

“All I know is he started running out by the pitcher’s mound and fell down. His head hit a rock or something and he was dead. They say he died when he hit the ground. Anyway, he just died. He’s dead.”

Red Martin, I thought as I walked back to Angie’s, Red Martin. I had never really liked him that much, though I didn’t remember why. But I was remorseful and reproached myself now that he was dead. The realization that life was so uncertain and that for the first time death had come near to me and would again filled me with awe.

Somehow, I thought, approaching the store, a death should be a more momentous event, something should change as a result, something should be different; the world should take note. But everything in my world of those streets, those sounds, those sights, those people, was the way it had been before. Everything the same–except for Red.

Those same familiar streets shaded by the same cool poplars and elms, same cars slowly passing, same neighbors coming and going, same pungent smells of bubbling tar where muscular shirtless sweating workers with colorful bandanas toiled in the torrid sun, same red wagon buffeting noisily behind me; my returning again to Angie’s where cruel cologne-smelling Mr. Costello with his afternoon girlfriends and two-tone shoes and string ties would continue the daily torture of his wife. And where Angie would slowly metamorphose into one of the decrepit dying women I delivered to, and would sing gaily in the aisles of that little store like a bird lovely in its cage until the last end of her days came, as Red’s had come, and mine would come, and everyone’s would come.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Artist as Warrior

“The tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth. The shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease.”

“Fear is the true enemy, the only enemy.”

“When all psychological blocks are removed the swordsman will move without conscious effort.”

“The meaning of all things is within, in your mind, not something that exists ‘out there.’”
(From the Samurai Way)

martial-arts-291051_640Each time I visited a successful painter friend of mine I saw the same unfinished painting on the easel. Nothing about it changed month after month. Not a single new brush stroke touched the canvas. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for a number of years. When we got together again I asked, “Whatever happened to that green pastel that was on your easel so long?”

She said, “I never finished it.”

I said, “You were afraid.”

She said, “I was terrified of it.”

I know a talented young writer who contacted 100 agents in hopes of getting his first book published. He had worked extremely hard on the book and it was very good. He thought of making it a trilogy, and had mapped out the next five years of writing. One agent showed interest and the writer was hopeful, but then the agent lost interest. Discouraged, doubting himself, having lost confidence, not wishing to be so disappointed again the writer stopped writing creatively and devoted himself to his teaching career.

I know an opera singer who has had a successful career, but suddenly and inexplicably after five years developed a fear of performing and for two years retired from the stage. She’s performing again but doesn’t know if that debilitating fear will ever return.

Each early morning I go into my work room upstairs and settle down to write. Now I’m in my element–confident, contented, primed and ready to work. I’ve been writing so long and have produced so many words. Generating text is second nature to me—easy, effortless, without strain. Yet, there is another emotion that is there with me some days. I pause, fold my hands in my lap, and ask myself, “What are you feeling now? Why are you hesitating?” And I answer, “I am feeling fear.”

paintings-316440_640“What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know. Possibly that I won’t have my skills today; that I won’t be successful; that I’ll let myself down. I really don’t know.”

“Is that so important? Writing is such a small part of life.”

“Right now it is the most important thing possible.”

Bear in mind that I’ve had success writing. Also, I am no coward. I rescued a woman from a would-be rapist–chased him, caught him, fought with him, wrestled him to the ground, and held him till the police came. Yet when I sit at the computer to do the thing I do better than anything else sometimes I’m scared.

We speak of writer’s block, but that’s too narrow. There are sculptors’ blocks and actors’ blocks and ballet dancers’ blocks—the drawing back (intimidated, helpless) from the art we love and have performed many times before–being stopped by some powerful obstacle or set of obstacles that are not out there in the world, not visible to the eye, but are inside us.

The Samurai

The samurai–the finest warriors ever to walk this earth– were ordinary men and women who were trained to perform extraordinary feats of courage. Just as writers, artists, dancers, or actors face internal obstacles that interfere with their work, so did the samurai. The bulk of his or her training (there were women samurai) was devoted to overcoming those inner obstacles that are no different than the obstacles artists of all descriptions face—anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt, hesitation, fear of taking risks, discouragement, over-analysis, depression, apprehension, impatience, and more.

target-211225_640The release of the arrow is the most difficult problem archers face; they think too much, as often do artists, explaining the sudden loss of spontaneity, the sudden loss of skill. Fear is a dragon that often keeps us from success. The samurai was taught: “Strike through the dragon’s mask.”

The samurai’s mind was trained to be fudoshin—to be “immovable,” to never budge from the main goal (for the artist, to get the work done.) They were taught that when your thoughts get “caught” (toroware), or “stopped” (tomaru) on internal obstacles, you will have trouble executing any action—when your mind gets “hooked” or “snagged,” the way the opera singer’s mind was snagged for two years. Better to acquire tomaranu kokoro, “a mind that knows no stopping,” that flows smoothly from idea to idea without being stopped.

What I did in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life was to pluck the wisdom of the samurai off the battlefield and apply it to everyday modern life producing a book of musha-shugyo, “training in warriorship” so that people might overcome the internal obstacles that are troubling them.

Zen and the Samurai

The warrior class was the first segment of Japanese society to embrace Zen. From the twelfth-century on Zen became known as the religion of the samurai. What explains the fit between these two apparently different approaches to life?

Zen is many things—a religion, a philosophy, a life-style. It is also a psychology, a psychology of action, grounded on decisiveness, spontaneity, strength of will, adaptability, courage, and bravery. It was this psychological aspect of Zen which appealed most to the samurai, for to rush forward to face the enemy even if only death awaited him, he needed what Zen taught—to act without hanging back, without reservations, and with total commitment.

Warrior Artists

samurai-67662_640The elite samurai were members of the cultured, aristocratic upper classes—the daimyos, the lords. Bunbu ryodo “The united Ways of the pen and the sword” refers to the tradition of the warrior artist, master swordsmen who were also poets, calligraphers, and painters. The famed Miyamoto Musashi is considered the greatest samurai swordsman who ever lived. He was also one of Japan’s foremost artists whose work today has a place in Japan’s national art museum.

Samurai Maxims

“A warrior must only take care that his spirit is never broken.”

“Success will always come if your heart is without disturbance.”

“Let your mind be free to function according to its own nature.”

“Stick to the larger view of things. If your vision is narrow your spirit will be narrow.”

“Adversity in life is essential to training.”

“The end of our Way of the sword is to be fearless when confronting our inner enemies and our outer enemies.”

“If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do, don’t wobble.”

You needn’t look too far or too hard to see that these maxims and the inner training of the samurai Way apply to the artist’s life. Like the warrior, if the artist is to grow, it will be from within. The artist’s work, like a warrior releasing an arrow, should be like a drop of dew falling from a leaf or a fruit falling when it’s ripe.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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