Monthly Archives: December 2015

Stamina: The Creative Person’s Hidden Power

Middle distance runners are deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind. I ran fastest at three in the afternoon when the temperature was 88 degrees and my mind was clear. Creative people are also deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind.

I was in training for my event, the 800 meters. That workout I decided I’d run as many laps around the quarter mile athletics-229808_640(1)track as I could at three-quarters speed. After a few laps the pain I was so familiar with began gradually to set in. And the difficulty breathing. Then with each lap the pain in my legs, my arms, my chest—my entire body–became more severe, breathing even more difficult. And I thought about quitting. How easy that would be. Just step off the track and the pain would cease and I wouldn’t have to go through this anymore. I thought, “No one is making me run but myself.” The thought of stopping was very powerful and I had to fight it.

But I didn’t stop, I didn’t slow down. I increased my speed (I would show this pain) and the pain was much worse. I thought, “How long can a person endure this?” Then I thought, “I am a middle distance runner. Middle distance runners can bear pain.”

But then, after I had pushed myself as hard as I could and suffered that pain longer than I thought possible but continued to run, I passed into a new and miraculous state of being. One moment I was in agony; the next I wasn’t. I had entered a place, a garden, where pain couldn’t exist. All pain and exhaustion were lifted out of my body and I could breathe easily again. The running suddenly was smooth, effortless, and strong, my form perfect.

runner-728219_640That afternoon, one of my teammates after another quit his training and left for home. But I ran lap after lap far into the night. I had the feeling I could run forever.

That experience has become a metaphor for me. I go back to it in my mind time and again. It inspires me and I am a hard worker and have stamina.

Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow said, “For the artist work is the main thing and always comes first.” Psychologist Howard Gardner writes about high-excelling creative people. He says, “Individuals whose stock in trade is to do things which are novel, are people who’ve got to have a pretty good command of how they work.” Some writers and artists produce 10, 15, 25 times more work than others and those most productive usually rise higher in their field and find a greater sense of accomplishment. The more work you produce the higher quality your work will tend to be because the more you do something, the better you get.

There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of prolonged, intense working spurts, for in a study of writers, writers who achieve the most are those who wrote:

…THE MOST INTENSELY

…FOR THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME

…OVER THE LONGEST TIME SPAN

High achieving writers and artists, like athletes in training, exert more energy from the start of a project and work steadily without long interruptions for a much longer period than the majority of writers and artists–for days, months, lyrics-710329_640years if necessary, often producing staggering amounts of work. What enables them—what enables you– to operate continually at a higher level of stamina?

It’s excitement or necessity or both, excitement over the production of a work or the necessity of overcoming obstacles to produce it—and the habit they’ve developed of working through tiredness. Creative people will push themselves to an extreme day after day and overcome impediments when they are on fire with the excitement of creating.

But many artists and writers produce very little because they stop working at the first sign of fatigue. They’re in the habit of quitting when tired. Better to ratchet up and exert more effort then, not less. Then you acquire the ability to not tire easily, a creator’s and athlete’s major skill in itself, and your work production rises, and with it, its quality.

If you quit at the first sign of tiredness, you develop the habit you don’t want of tiring quickly and giving up. Every time you reach the point when you seem to have no energy left, yet push yourself a little further, you train yourself to draw from deeper into your energy reserves at will. If you push yourself on then—painting another hour, finishing the chapter–the tiredness gets worse, but only up to a point. Then it reaches a peak and fades away as my running pain faded. You know that from our own experience. Then you’re fired up by a sense that you can go on creating much longer than you’ve realized. Fatigue is replaced by an explosive surge.

Focus on your goal of finishing this work on your easel, on your computer screen. Let your urge to reach high levels of excellence in your craft consume you. The result will be a new freedom, new stamina, and new creative power.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Writing Routines and Rituals

The main goal of all creative people is to be productive: to produce works. Their work schedule and environment are artist workingdesigned to facilitate production because production is their reason for being. Everything—all your education and training, habits, dreams and hopes, and all your routines and rituals are aimed at that one central goal: getting good work out; being able to produce. If a writer or artist is being productive she’s happy. If she’s not, she’s unhappy.

I rise fully awake, my mind sharp, at 4:00 A.M. Then I turn on music and putter around in the kitchen. I’m purposely delaying starting to work so ideas will start germinating, straightening themselves out, and working themselves to my consciousness. Waking or sleeping, night or day, conscious or unconscious, writers’ and artists’ minds continue without stop to produce ideas relevant to their work.

I have a bowl of Cheerios and make my wife’s breakfast. In the winter I go out and shovel snow. (This is, after all, Chicago.) I may throw a snowball at my wife and I may load or empty the dishwasher and put in a load of laundry in the basement. I avoid knowing anything about the news, bills, problems, troubles, and other practical matters that are Cerealunrelated to my work. I kiss my wife good-bye as she goes off to work or wherever she’s going.

In my mid-twenties I was hired by a university think tank of psychologists and economists to rewrite for publication a book from a draft they had written. My main job was to translate all the pretentious academic mumbo-jumbo of their version into clear concepts and language the general reader would have no problem understanding. One day I was at the institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my feet up on a window sill, gazing out at ducks on a pond. I was paying no attention to the stacks of books, research periodicals, and reams of data surrounding me. The director of the institute poked his head in and said, nervously, “When are you going to get started, Dave? We’ve got to get the thing to the printer.” And I said, “I’ve already started. I’m working right now.” What I meant was that I was deep in what I call “Pre-Compositional Lilt.” It’s a very pleasant mental aimlessness—a lilting–that most creative people need to engage in before they tackle a project—a ritualistic, nebulous, uncertain, dream state.

In the article “Write Before Writing” Pulitzer Prize author Donald M. Murray is really talking about my lilt, and my lilt affects artists and writers as well as inventors and scientists—creators generally. He says that resistance to writing is not something to be avoided, but “is one of the great natural forces of nature. It may be called The Law of Delay: that writing which may be delayed, will be. Dawdling, going on errands, sharpening well-pointed pencils, rearranging the writing space, wandering to libraries and book stores, going for walks, and driving around serve a purpose.” Murray adds, “Teachers and writers too often consider resistance to writing evil when in fact it is necessary…There must be time for the seed of an idea to be nurtured in the mind.” Murray says writers who delay starting are trying not to think about what they are going to write so they can think subconsciously about it first. Most writers are strong believers in putting their subconscious to work.

I go upstairs to my work room and listen to You Tube for a few songs—always the same songs, same performers—while shuffling mindlessly through my piles of notes, and checking the ten-day weather forecast, and last night’s scores, also drinking a large mug of coffee that isn’t too strong. I try never to write for an hour after eating. I don’t want brain oxygen that I save for writing to be worried about digestion.

It’s commonplace for creative people to nap at least once during the day, sometimes more, and that’s highly cat-17772_640recommended by psychologists who study creative achievement. Who was more creative than Thomas Edison (1,093 patents)? And he alternated work and naps throughout the day. He napped under a table in his lab. I take a short nap on the living room couch. All the while everything else is going on I know my mind is busy toying with a problem I set for it the night before, or a minutes before, such as, “How will I organize the section on…” or “Should I cut the last paragraph as so-and-so suggests?” Ideally writers and artists work in the same place every day, a place that is exclusively for work.

I’m now in my element, fully confident, contented, primed and ready to write. Then I plunge into work and follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice and review what I wrote the day before, editing a little, expanding, embellishing a little—a word here, a phrase there–till I get a feel for the rhythms of written words, am able to fit myself into the narrative flow, and stimulate the right vocabulary. I’ve transitioned and am now in a goal-focused state. This is when—when the actual work begins—that you mustn’t allow the Law of Delay to be in effect any longer. What do you have when the Law of Delay becomes a habit? Writers who make a career of delay, whose promise will not be fulfilled, whose talent goes to waste, whose books go unwritten.

I take no phone calls during the day unless from a member of my immediate family, make only essential calls (as to my wife at noon), and generally skip lunch or have a small container of yogurt. If I’m being very productive—“making good progress” in my lingo–I can easily feel an excitement which can get out of control and make me lose focus and write sloppily. I try never to be so relaxed that my writing isn’t crisp, but aim for a degree of alert tension.

To “settle down” from an excited state I may take time out to whip up a salad for dinner later and tell myself, “No more coffee today.” And I may do deep abdominal relaxation breathing. Broadway composer Cole Porter had an alarm clock rigged to ring every fifty minutes when he was composing. Then he took a ten minute break. William Faulkner wrote rapidly at top speed as fast as he could type for a half hour or so and then would relax for perhaps another half hour, talking or reading, and return again and type at the same breakneck speed, sometimes picking up in mid-sentence and continuing without any hesitation. I may work the entire day without a break except the bathroom.

I try never, never to do any writing after 4:00 p.m., and certainly don’t do any after six, unless a deadline tells me I have clock-611619_640to, for if I did, words, ideas, and plans would fly through my mind like missiles and I would not—would not, absolutely would not—would not be able to sleep that night. Tell me, is it possible to be a writer without also being an insomniac?

Between four and five is “reading time,” which is essential—a hunger. The kind of reading depends on the reason for my reading: non-fiction research reading involves close concentration and taking extensive notes. For best results I must sit at the dining room table (in a particular place at the table) with notebooks and black ink Pilot G-2 07 pens. Fiction reading can be done in an easy chair or on the couch while a baseball or hockey game is played on the television screen. I read fiction more for its style than its content.

Then my wife appears and asks, “How was your day? Were you productive?”

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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

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Two Success Stories for Creative People

Why are so many writers and artists so scared? This morning I started reading the Weekly Digests of some of the blogs I subscribe to and decided this post I’m about to laptop-820274_640write needed to be written–and fast– because so many writers and artists seem to be living in fear and intimidation, and they needn’t. There is no reason that the processes that come after the exhilarating execution of the work—dealing with “gatekeepers”– agents and publishers, clients and galleries—need be dreadful.

The gist of many of the posts written by the more experienced writers in particular to less experienced writers is: “Here’s how to get your book published. I will be your wise guide.” I will not give you any advice like that today, but only tell you about my experiences and that of a friend in breaking into “big time” publishing. My experiences were quite different from what you find described in many intimidating blogs. I hope my experiences make you confident and sure of yourself, less fearful, and less intimidated. And bolder.

I’ll be talking about writing professionally in this post because writing professionally is what I’ve been doing—and thinking about– for the last few decades. But I’m sure there are painters, sculptors, actors, dancers—artists generally—who could tell the same story of how breaking into their field wasn’t as awful as they were told it would be, and in fact found it painless, exciting fun.

I had an idea for what I thought could be a really successful nonfiction book, just as you think your idea would make a successful book. Nothing like my book had ever been written before and it had potential, so I was confident that I had something. But I knew nothing about publishing. Oh, of course I’d heard the horror stories about the tremendous odds against getting any book published. Everybody on earth knows that—especially a first book, odds of five thousand to one and so forth.

But my exact thinking went like this: “Thousands of books are being published every year and I’m betting I’m more books-535352_640skilled than most authors of them (after all, in college a famous creative writing teacher had said teachers like her wait their “entire career for someone who can write like you.” And hadn’t I had a story published in a prestigious literary journal while just a student?) So why shouldn’t my book be published?”

Then I learned that you had to write a persuasive book proposal and get an agent who would contact editors on your behalf. I had written many, many proposals in business and so I wrote a six page double-spaced book proposal—a short proposal, not a long one, a plain, simple one, not a complex, elaborate, fancy one: short and I hoped, sweet.

I hadn’t written a sample of my writing other than the proposal itself and a cover letter that talked about my unique qualifications to write the book or a refined table of contents because I hadn’t completely fleshed out the book in my mind. (In fact, I wouldn’t know what I was really trying to write until I had been working on the book for 1300 hours. Then it hit me!) I just had this good idea for what I thought would be an exciting, profitable book someone would want to publish.

Now I needed an agent to send the proposal to. I looked at a directory of agents and sent the proposal to the first name on the agent’s list. Then if he didn’t pan out I would send the proposal to the second name on the list and work my way down. I wasn’t experienced enough to know then that some writers send their proposals out in batches to twenty or thirty agents at a time. I would send off my stuff to one agent at a time and wait to see what happened. I had no idea then that the agent I sent my little proposal to was one of the most highly regarded agents in the literary world—serendipity at work. (A reminder that a good amount of luck is involved in a writer’s life and you don’t want just any agent working for you, but a good one with a reputation above reproach whose tastes and judgment of talent editors respect very highly.)

Within three days he called me on the phone to tell me he would like to handle the book—he thought it was incredibly timely and he liked the way I wrote. And he liked short, sweet proposals. So now I had an agent. He pitched the book right away (a man of action; my kind of guy) to an editor he thought could very well be interested. And in a week and a half I had a publisher who was eager to put out the book—a top quality publisher. The advance I received was a good one, much better than I’d expected. I wrote the book in twelve grueling months as I was contracted for (be sure to establish a reputation for never exceeding a deadline) and then months passed while the book was being edited and published.

The pub date came and the book was given a promotional budget but not a big one—I was “unproven.” I appeared on a newspapers-33946_640few radio and TV shows, and then two important things happened: a freelance journalist fell in love with the book—Fighting to Win— and wrote a superb and flattering full page, multi-column piece on it in The Washington Post that drew a lot of attention, and the publisher’s sales rep in Chicago fell in love with it too and promoted it with book stores in Chicago’s large, good book-buying market and with the publisher’s other sales people working in other cities and marketing staff decision-makers. And the book became a best seller in Chicago and Washington. Then in San Francisco and Las Angeles and other cities.

Other syndicated journalists liked the book and started writing about it—articles appeared everywhere. It began popping up on college reading lists, and now there were foreign editions that were doing very well. There was a buzz about the book and I was sent off to other major cities for more interviews on bigger shows. I got to enjoying publicizing the book so much that I decided I would rather promote books than write them. In fact, the publisher asked me jokingly if I would go on shows and promote other of their books too.

I had a hit that went through ten printings. With each new printing the book’s cover price rose one dollar, so my royalties were climbing. Now I was no longer unproven and had a track record, and my proposal for my next book consisted of a total of four sentences spoken over coffee to the publisher. The advance for it was substantial. When that book was published the publisher said they would like another book from me. I asked what they wanted me to write about and they said, “Whatever you want.”

I know a man who wrote a book he thought had the potential to be published and be popular. His expectations high, he contacted a great number of agents and no one was interested in handling his book, telling him that in their judgment unfortunately it would be impossible for it to find a public. The agents’ tastes ran in other directions and based on their professional experiences over many years with many books they felt that this one just didn’t have that—that whatever it takes for people to want to buy a book.

He didn’t give up after he had exhausted his long list of agents, but contacted publisher after publisher himself, writing them, sending his manuscript, calling them up, making appointments, pitching the book on the phone and in their Being courageousoffices, expecting all the time that eventually he would succeed. He met nothing but failure—no one thought anything of the book—but he still believed in it and in himself. He still expected the book to be published and be successful. He had faith that one day he would see it in book store display windows.

Then an editor of a small specialty publisher he had contacted called him to come down and talk. When my friend entered the office his manuscript was spread out on the editor’s desk and the editor was bent over it, reading. The editor looked up and said, “Oh, good, you’re here” and with a smile on his face added, “I think your book will be the number one best seller in the country.”

That book became a publishing phenomenon—a cultural phenomenon–and sold an astonishing 25,000,000 copies in paperback alone. It became America’s—and the world’s–number one best seller. Within two months the author was famous and pretty soon he was rich. The book was When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the author was Harold Kushner.

Writers and artists who harbor deep and prolonged doubts about their capabilities are easily set back by obstacles and failures. But when confident self-directed  writers and artists encounter daunting obstacles, disappointments, and failures, they show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed.

So I’m saying what all my blogs say—be supremely confident, be non-attached and fearless. Don’t be scared. Persevere. Be indefatigable. Be committed to your work every moment of the day. Never let discouragement and negativity penetrate to your depths. No matter what happens, good fortune, bad fortune, keep your spirit light as a feather. Develop your skills to the highest possible level and become what I admire most—not just a writer, but a REAL writer; not just an artist, but a REAL artist.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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

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