Monthly Archives: May 2015

Patience: A Path to Creative Success

This is a post about the importance of CREATIVE WAITING and shows a specific scientifically-tested method for improving the quality of your artistic work and at the same time reaching a higher level of lasting success.

“Darby”

woman-716592_640For five or six years I’ve been thinking about a story I’m sure I’ll write eventually. It’ll be called “Darby” after the main character, a lonely woman who doesn’t love her husband and probably never has and is looking for a man to be in love with. When I write “Darby” I’ll be influenced by four particular stories: Chekov’s “About Love,” “Three Years,” and “The Lady and the Dog,” and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” And of course coming into the mix is, “Does this fit the real Darby, the actual woman I’m thinking about?” I’m not one to range very far from the truth of what really happened.

Chekov and Joyce often wrote about people who want to escape but can’t. In “Darby” there will be images of being in a box, being trapped, like a woman I’ve written about before. It will end with an ironic twist. I have a file called “Darby” to which I add notes that come to mind from time to time—just a word or phrase here and there. The last sentence of “Darby” will be, “A very good looking older man.” I’m confident it will be a very good story, but it’s not ready to be written, and so although I’m dying to write it, I’ll have to be patient and wait till I get a fix on it that I’m convinced will lead me in the most fruitful direction.

Thirty-One Artists and Twenty-Seven Objects

Thirty-one graduate students in a prestigious art school in the United States were asked to participate in an experiment to look in a systematic way at how a work of art is produced. Twenty-seven objects of the sort artists use to construct a still-life were placed on one table, among them a small manikin, a bunch of grapes, a steel gearshift, a woman’s velvet hat, a brass horn, an antique book, and a glass prism. A second table was empty except for art materials the students would use to draw. The students were told to choose objects from the table they would use to stimulate their imagination and arrange them in any way that pleased them on the second table. They could choose as many objects as they wanted and spend as much time as they wanted selecting the objects and making a drawing from them. They were told, “The important thing is that the drawing should be pleasing to you. You may take five minutes or five hours, as long as the result is pleasing to you.” (In Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem-Finding in Art.)

butterfly-744115_640When the students were ready, an observer began to keep a record of their behavior such as the number, kind, and sequence of objects handled or manipulated (e.g. feeling the texture and weight of the of the objects, moving their parts, changing their shape, etc.); the number and kinds of objects finally selected; procedures used in organizing the selected objects; behavior during drawing (e.g. changes in the type of media, rearrangement of objects, etc.); and the amount of time everything took. In addition, photos were taken three, six, and nine minutes after drawing was begun and at six minute intervals thereafter until the drawing was completed. The photos would reveal how the drawing was progressing.

The Skill You Need of Finding the Right Problems to Solve

The stage most important in this study was formulating a problem to work on, which they called PROBLEM-FINDING, a stage that precedes problem-solving. They wanted to find if there was a correlation between what happened during the first stage of problem-finding and the quality of the finished drawings. From the time artists begin to draw, paint, sculpt, etc., or writers begin to write the text, they are involved in the solution to the problem they have posed for themselves. When you’re a writer who is problem-solving, you have an idea how to get going and are assembling words, reviewing and evaluating how you’re progressing, and deciding what you will say next and how you’ll say it. With “Darby” I’m not there yet. I am still problem-finding—trying to define exactly what I’ll be trying to say and what I’m trying to create.

laser-737434_640Every writer, artist, and composer has to first problem-find, and what happens at that stage makes a tremendous difference because what you do before starting to paint or write determines to a large extent what will happen after you start. The painting or story may be changed later and its form altered beyond recognition, but the starting point is the selection of the material and arrangement of it made during the stage when you’re formulating the problem. I have Darby and she is trapped—that I’m certain won’t change. The problem is what I will do with those central facts.

Einstein believed and many other knowledgeable people also believe that problem-finding is a more crucial skill than problem-solving, because focusing on trying to solve the wrong problem, the inessential problem, doesn’t solve the real problem.

The problems you as an artist or writer must find and solve are unstructured, and the special difficulty with unstructured problems—as you’ve already found many times–is that the more unstructured they are the more directions you can take, and most will be the wrong direction creatively. It’s not unusual for even the greatest writers and artists to work on something for a long time only to realize that it was the wrong thing to work on. Authors have been known to complete a book only to throw it away because they had selected the wrong problem to solve. Under many painting masterpieces are other paintings the artist wasn’t satisfied with and simply painted over. I’m being careful not to have my story go off in a wrong direction.

Problem-finding is anything but restful. When you’re doing it, your mind, sorting things out, is as active, or more active, than it is when you’re executing the work.

rose-140446_640The right problem and right solutions to it often appear on their own, unfolding effortlessly, and agitate the creator until in a sudden recognition she understands them and uses her skills to shape them into expression, possibly never knowing where the problem or solution came from, and not knowing quite where she’s going and what the final work will look like until she gets there. Yet she is confident all the way through that in fact she will get there: “Undoubtedly, if I knew exactly what I was doing, things would go faster, but if I saw the whole unwritten novel stretching out before me, chapter by chapter, like a landscape, I know I would put it aside in favor of something more uncertain—material that had a natural form that it was up to me to discover.” (William Maxwell)

 The Length of Time Spent Problem-Finding Is a Key

The length of time the problem was kept open for alteration varied from artist to artist in the study. For some all the structures and elements were present after as few as six minutes. But one worked 49 minutes and it wasn’t until the 36th minute (74% of the total working time), that the final drawing was in evidence. With that artist, the problem remained open almost to the end.

Six years later there was a follow-up to see how successful the students had become in the art world. The main findings were striking and contain lessons for practicing writers and artists:

(1)Those in the study who approached their work by keeping the problem-finding stage wide open for a long time before ending it went on in their careers to produce higher quality work. Those who went on to become less successful were the same people who during the study were anxious to begin and started drawing more quickly. Apparently they never got out of that let’s-get-started habit and their work suffered. And one reason why that happens is because while effective problem-finders can live with ambiguity, poor problem-finders are uncomfortable with it and wish to put an end to it as quickly as possible.

IF YOU WANT TO IMRPOVE THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK, SPEND A LOT OF TIME PATIENTLY PROBLEM-FINDING.

Serious writers and artists may spend many hours or months or longer thinking, mulling over, guessing, sketching, trying this, trying that. The better artists in the study dawdled and played with the objects they were going to draw, touching them, turning them, trying this angle and that for considerable time before getting down to the final drawing, just as better writers fiddle around with their material till something clicks. Poet Denise Levertov said, “If…somewhere in the vicinity there is a poem then, no, I don’t do anything about it, I wait.” Author Anne Dillard said, “I usually get my ideas in November and I start writing in February. I’m waiting.”

(2)The best problem-finders in the study, not coincidentally, went on years later to become the most materially successful artists of the thirty-one. Some became known in the art world while many poorer problem-finders disappeared completely from it.

IF YOU WANT TO REACH LASTING CAREER SUCCESS AND APPEAL TO AN AUDIENCE, BE SURE TO DEVELOP THE SKILL OF EFFECTIVE PROBLEM-FINDING.

surfer-13415_640

The skill of waiting and holding in check the urge to rush prematurely to solutions is almost always overlooked, yet it is crucial. Training yourself to acquire this skill will take you far and take your artistic work to higher excellence. Be like a surfer: wait for the perfect wave to take you in.

I’ve been thinking more about Darby. I have a hunch she might never escape, but maybe she will. I’ll have to wait and see.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Luck: How Artists, Writers, and Other Creative People Can Get It

In the arts here in America and everywhere else, the causes of success are ability, confidence, persistence, resilience—and good luck. A guarantee: with high ability, high confidence, high persistence, high resilience, and enough good luck, you will achieve your artistic goals, whatever they may be. Let’s have a look at luck, the most difficult cause to account for.

painting-284546_640An artist’s and writer’s career may take shape over a long period of time—ten years, fifty years–and incidence of good or bad luck occurs many, many times. In 1921, in New York, a good friend introduced William Faulkner, 24, to Elizabeth Prall, manager of the Doubleday book store, and she hired Faulkner as a clerk—a stroke of good luck for Faulkner because Prall married Sherwood Anderson, one of the most popular authors in the country. Elizabeth invited Faulkner to dinner (good luck) and he and Anderson liked each other (good luck) from the start and spent many hours together, talking and drinking, and Anderson became Faulkner’s mentor (good luck). Mrs. Anderson asked her husband if he would recommend Faulkner’s book to his publisher, and Anderson said he would (good luck) as long as he didn’t have to read it. He did, and his publisher did put out the book (good luck), and Faulkner’s career was on its way, a Nobel Prize in store for him twenty-eight years later.

Chance shapes your life throughout your life, affecting the career you settle into, who your friends are, who your life partner is, where you live, the school you attend and education your receive, your genes and personality–the very fabric and quality of your existence. Some episodes in your career were extremely lucky, but other episodes couldn’t have been unluckier. The Academy award winning actor, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, went into theatre in high school because the girls happened to be so good looking. What if they hadn’t been? Would he have become an accountant?

alexander-the-great-35767_640Gamblers speak of people who are lucky and those who aren’t, and consider luck to be in the person: “She’s lucky but he isn’t.” And so do military people. Even the most scholarly and erudite studies of warfare usually discuss luck. The Macedonian Alexander the Great referred to his good luck as a “star” that guided him to great victories. I suppose it did. He conquered most of the known world before the age of thirty.

The book Creativity by psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi describes how much good luck figured in the career of a successful (and fortunate) artist “whose work sells well and hangs in the best museums and who can afford a large estate with horses and a swimming pool.” The artist “once admitted ruefully that there could be at least a thousand artists as good as he—yet they are unknown and their work is unappreciated. The one difference between him and the rest, he said, was that years back he met at a party a man with whom he had a few drinks. They hit it off and became friends. The man eventually became a successful art dealer who did his best to push his friend’s work. One thing led to another. A rich collector began to buy the artist’s work, critics started paying attention, a large museum added one of his works to its permanent collection.” His career was made.

When I wrote Fighting to Win about how people today could achieve fulfillment by applying the wisdom of ancient Japanese warriors, my timing could not have been luckier. At the precise time it came out Americans were infatuated with and trying hard to learn more about the Japanese culture, and the book took off.

In college I read Englisman Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur,” and was impressed with its beautiful language. For some reason years later (before Amazon.com and before the internet) I suddenly had the urge to read a book studying Hopkins’ imagery so that it might affect my imagery. Wherever I traveled across the world—and I did extensively–I visited new and used bookstores, and in every bookstore I browsed for such a book, but never found it. Once I was to give a speech in Rock Island, Illinois. It’s a small city in the western part of the state that I had never visited before. I discovered that the hotel I was to stay in had just been built and had opened its doors only a few days before. It had hosted a conference for fire fighters–its first guests. They had left just the day before. I arrived very late at night and was given the only available room. I entered the room, laid my bags on the bed, and then noticed something in the trash basket. Apparently it had been left by one of the firefighters and the maid had overlooked it when she cleaned the room. There it was: fifteen years after I’d read him: a full-length book on the imagery of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a lucky break, a book that helped me.

books-683901_640Another time, I’d been writing and researching fifteen or sixteen hours a day on fifteen or twenty cups of black coffee for many months to meet a book deadline, neglecting my wife, neglecting my children, concerned only with putting enough words on a page every day to satisfy me—words, words, words, words–an abstract existence. That night I’d had it; I couldn’t work another minute; couldn’t drag from my agonized brain another word. I quietly left my home at about 3:00 a.m. and walked the streets trying to decide if I wanted to continue leading a grueling, neglectful life like that or follow a more conventional life, committing myself to “a regular nine-to-five job.”

It was a cool pleasant night—very dark—with a filmy mist in the air. Should I continue a writer’s life, or shouldn’t I? Should I just finish this book and then give it all up? Then I noticed ahead of me something lying on the sidewalk precisely in the middle of a pool of bright white light cast by a street lamp as though that object lying there had been placed there very carefully for me and me alone to see. I went to it and bent down and picked it up. It was a book—of all things a book. You see: I could not get away from the written word. I took this as a sign that, like it or not, a writer’s life—imperfect, isolated, much too demanding–was my destiny and that it was futile for me to think it would ever not be at the center of my existence. That I could ever get away from it. That was another lucky break because writing and reading has brought me so much fulfillment.

lantern-451233_640I have what I call my “Research Angel” which I rely on. I am writing and researching for hours every day and have been for many years, but my research is totally unsystematic. I begin with no notion whatever of where I am going but go ahead anyway as though quite content to wander on and on in a deep forest without worrying about how—or if ever– I’ll get back home. I’m trusting my Research Angel—based completely on a confidence in good luck—to steer me to the information I’ll need. The Research Angel has never failed me, and has taken me to unexpected discoveries and new directions in my life, just as it led me to the Hopkin’s book and the book lying in that pool of white light at four that early misty morning.

In Chases, Chance and Creativity medical researcher James Austin identifies four kinds of chance that affect creative activity:

  • Blind luck that doesn’t depend on any personal characteristics of the creator
  • The good luck that follows “persistence, willingness to experiment and explore”
  • Chance that allows the creator because of his training to grasp the significance of something overlooked by everyone else.
  • Serendipity

Lucky people—lucky artists and writers, lucky actors and dancers—-follow certain principles. They:

  • Are good at creating and noticing chance opportunities. They are relaxed, not anxious, people who are aware of their surroundings. Anxiety makes you blind to opportunities. Lucky people’s perceptions are sharper than unlucky people’s. They see opportunities the unlucky person doesn’t notice.
  • Are intuitive and respect hunches. Artists are on intimate terms with intuition. Half the decisions artists and writers make are intuitive—to use that color rather than this; that word rather than another.
  • Are open-minded and flexible in their thinking. Another characteristic of creative people.
  • Have optimistic expectations. They don’t just hope to be lucky; they expect to be. They are confident they’ll be lucky again. Positive expectations create lucky events. Good things happen to people with optimistic expectations. People with optimistic expectations are happier and healthier.
  • Are extremely resilient and able to quickly recover from bad luck. They see the positive side of bad fortune: “I fell down the stairs and broke my foot. It could have been my neck.” “I failed that time and it was very painful for me, but I learned so much that helped me succeed the next time.”

Be ready to take advantage of good luck, and when your luck is bad don’t let it get the better of you, but be aware that bad luck can change to good luck, and may in the blink of an eye. Be alert, strong, and opportunistic whatever may happen. Think strategically. Be ready. Be able to say, “This now that is happening to me is good luck and it may change my life.”

fish-582695_640Create the conditions for good luck to occur—set the stage. Be like a swimming fish waving its tail and stirring up the sand at the bottom of the tank. Get out, be spontaneous, meet new people, make contacts and seek people out. Form friendships. Do things you’ve never done before. Break away from your routines. Take chances you wouldn’t usually take. Don’t resist, don’t be afraid. Be bold, not timid. Experiment, explore. Be intuitive and pro-active and look for opportunities. Let good luck happen to you. Then chase the opportunities where they lead.

On a scale of 1 to 100, how lucky a writer or artist would you say you are?

Not Lucky                                                 Pretty Lucky                                       Very Lucky

1                                                               50                                                      100

Ask yourself, “In what areas of my creative life would I like to be luckier?”

What will you do now to make yourself lucky?

I will:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Napoleon was looking for a subordinate to add to his staff. One after another his high-ranking officers described a particular candidate whom they talked glowingly about at length. Impatiently, Napoleon said, “Yes, yes, I know he is brilliant, but is he lucky?”

Yes, yes, I know you’re brilliant too, and prodigiously talented, but are you lucky? Do you behave like a lucky person? Do you foster good luck? Do you have the mind and expectations of a lucky person?

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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