Preparation and Creative Success

A young recent college graduate found out I was an experienced often-published writer and came over and asked me if we could get together to talk about writing. And so we went to a restaurant and talked for an hour and a half.

writing-828911_640She wants to be a poet. She’s started reading poetry but isn’t trained in it. She’s a fledgling poet, a poet in the making. She showed me samples of her work and I liked it and could see what she’s trying to get at. I encouraged her. As we were finishing up she mentioned magazines and poetry journals she was going to send her poems to. They included the New Yorker and Poetry and other of the most prestigious publications in the country.

I went home thinking, “I hope she doesn’t get too disappointed if her poems are rejected. They probably will be. She doesn’t yet realize how competitive publishing is. She’s thinking only of the gift she senses in herself. But there are whole armies of other gifted people everywhere in the world. There’s no premium on giftedness among creative people. They’re all gifted.”

And I thought, “There are a million poets nowadays, just as there are two million novelists and three million artists, some of them extremely well-trained in their craft and who have long experience. And every poet, novelist, and artist would like to be extraordinarily successful.” But why would I of all people discourage her? She’ll find out for herself. Then we’ll see what she’s made of. Will she still be writing and still be as enthusiastic in five years? Ten years? Fifteen?

Then I received an email from a graduate student in Texas who’d heard me speak. He wanted to know if I could refer him to an agent and publisher he could contact after he started writing. He hadn’t started writing yet.

I replied in my email, “I think the most important task for you now is to focus on writing, writing, and more writing. And reading good writers who are writing the kinds of things you want to write—write and study how to write. Learn bestsellers-67048_640and learn more. Read because people you read about are people who’ve spent their entire lives reading. Develop your abilities. Getting an agent, getting a publisher are separate activities from writing and should be kept separate. After you’ve gotten good at writing, then it’s time to start thinking about getting your work published. First get good.”

What I was saying was that success–particularly in the arts–is difficult, and that preparation is the key. And is the key to success in everything. And that if you lack the skill to reach a goal you will not reach it. You will not reach the goal pen-27043_640until you have the necessary skill. There has to be a perfect match between goals on the one hand and skills on the other.

The main reason most artists and writers fail is because they haven’t developed the skills they should have developed, but neglected to. The need is to develop an expertise not in every skill but in especially the key skills a person in that field must excel in if they are to be as successful as they could be. If you don’t have the skills, if you’re to succeed you’ll have to acquire them. If, for example, a fiction writer isn’t strong in the skill of characterization she’ll have problems because characterization is an essential skill. Many say more essential than every other writer’s skill. So a writer better focus on developing that skill.

You can take a flyer and try—nothing ventured nothing gained. And if you fail, you fail, so what? But something unfortunate often happens to artists and writers (and actors, etc.) with high hopes who, because they’re unprepared, fail and fail again, and again, and again. They may never succeed and never know why they don’t. Their beginner’s confidence, once so strong, now flies out the window. They become deeply discouraged and may quit, and that’s it. Their career, once so hopeful, is over.

Their dreams of being creative all the time and living the life of a writer, painter, or actor, or dancer dissolve. Why? Because they’d been so hungry to succeed fast they’d neglected their preparation. And preparation is what they should have been doing—slowly, patiently learning, learning more, overcoming their weaknesses, and building up their strengths.

I can’t possibly tell you how many promising writers and artists—talented, impressive people–I’ve known who failed pencil-1203980_640and gave up and never reached their peak. All professional writers and artists have encountered more than a dozen more talented writers and artists than themselves who no longer write or paint at all. Who knows what they might have accomplished? How much better it would have been for them if instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough” they’d thought, “I’m not YET good enough, but one day I will be if I commit myself to getting good, very good.”

A theme of mine is that it’s always best to face reality, however harsh and however much at times we want to hide from it. Face reality head-on and don’t lead a life of illusions. Never hide. And a reality that a creator has to face head-on and not hide from is that it takes a long time—usually many years–and a lot of patience and an almost unbelievable amount of work to become what I call a REAL painter, or REAL writer, or REAL actor, or REAL dancer who has what Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway called “seriousness.” And there are no exceptions.

According to the research on the development of expertise in any field thousands of hours of application have to be put in if your aim is to excel or even be competent. No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without that much work on the part of the creator, however much natural ability he or she possesses. Some degree of that mysterious stuff called talent is necessary. But it’s far from everything. Talented people are a dime a dozen. The poet Hesiod who lived hundreds of years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high gods have placed sweat.” Sweat becomes part of the real creator’s everyday life.

The expert makes the performance look easy and we’re seduced: “I can do that.” But we have to look past the ease of the expert and realize creating is fun, it’s a gas, it’s fulfilling, and nothing else in your life compares with it. But succeeding at it at a high level is exceedingly tough. But many people have acquired a TV-ratings kind of mentality. It’s either quick results or cancellation.

It’s the same in the arts. A couple of tries without reaching success and it’s ratings time: “Who needs this? It’s harder to succeed than I thought. I’ll go into something else.” Then if you quit, nothing will be gained and many perfectly good years will have been wasted. But when we look at creative people who’ve “made it” we invariably find beings who have (1) persevered through setbacks (2) been devoted to developing to a high level the specific skills that made their high performance possible, and (3) had a thirst that can’t possibly be quenched to get better and better still.

So it’s wise to ask yourself as you work, “Am I really ready? Am I sufficiently prepared?” Lay your ego aside. If your answer is an honest “No, I can see I’m not,” go back, be patient, and focus harder on preparation.

Feel your expertise growing, your unique creative voice becoming clearer, your skills being refined before your eyes. For backdrop-772520_640a while don’t concern yourself at all with appearing on The New York Times best-seller list or any best-seller list. The hunger to see your name on these lists is the bane of writers. Don’t worry about having your work shown in the fanciest galleries.

When you’re prepared and your skills are strong enough that well may happen. But not until. But whatever you do, don’t quit till you’ve seen how high the skills you’ve so conscientiously developed will take you.

Sometimes I see the young poet on the street and I ask her, “Are you working?” And she smiles and says she is.

 

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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17 Comments

Filed under Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Inspiring Young People, Motivation, Preparation, Publishing, Self-Confidence, Success, The Writer's Path, Work Production, Writers

17 responses to “Preparation and Creative Success

  1. Well said! This connected on many levels with what I’ve encountered in my writing workshops. It can be very disheartening to watch someone give up because it’s too much work. And “Are you working?” is so much better than asking “Are you published?”

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Cindy, It’s good to know we’re in agreement. That giving up syndrome is just so common. It’s sad to see, isn’t it? You feel like saying, “Hang on, my friend. Persevere.” Thanks for the comment and good luck with your workshops.

      Like

  2. Good morning David, I just lost another comment made on this post…and so you might receive two!
    Yes, preparation, preparation, preparation cannot be emphasised enough….I think too many people who are looking to be successful in a creative field….want to ‘live the life of an artist’ but without all the necessary hard work, preparation and rejection. I believe that many have a romantic notion of what this means that doesn’t fit with reality.
    I met a talented writer recently, albeit someone who had only been working at their craft for five years,…..Their goal was to be published, win literary prizes and receive public recognition….. Maybe this will happen, but the likelihood is that it wont…..and that’s where the patience, persistence and resilience and yes deep thirst for wanting to create comes in to play. As you know I believe that the goal of most artists is to ‘marry technical prowess with the intangible’ – It takes thousands of hours to begin to achieve technical prowess…indeed it is a life lone endeavour….As for nurturing the intangible….again it takes time and a devotion to work…..To marry the two elements, even for a moment in time, in my view, makes the whole process worthwhile:)
    Have a wonderful weekend and thank you so much. I will re blog this…Janet. 🙂

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Hi Janet, As I was writing this post, I wondered, of course, as I always do, as do you with your posts, what the response would be. I did not want to discourage anyone–there’s enough of that–but I wanted to be realistic. And realistic is often not what people who dream of an artist’s or writer’s life are.

      So I thought “I’m going to go ahead and tell the truth as I see it–that achieving high proficiency isn’t easy, and does demand long hours of hard work, but fulfilling.” I felt that if there was one person who would agree with me completely, it would be you. And you do, and that pleases me. You know I love your “marriage of technical prowess with the intangible.” It’s a complex, profound idea that you could write a book about. And maybe you will.

      Thanks so much for reblogging the post. It was enjoyable for me to look at today’s views as they occurred and see that your friends were stopping by to visit. Be talking to you again soon. Happy weekend to you too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a wonderful post. I am of that band who write regularly on my Blog, and have had a couple of books traditionally published by a small American outfit who discovered me through that Blog but I think I can raise my hand and say with honesty that I live a long way from Recognition Avenue. In the end I write because I love it, and can’t seem to stop. If anything else comes of it, marvellous, but if it doesn’t, it’s still been a great experience.

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Thank you, Peter. I’m glad you liked the post. Having two books published by a traditional publisher is no small feat and is something to be proud of. That’s a lot of recognition in itself. I too, can’t stop writing and wouldn’t want to, and my family was surprised when this morning I said, “I’m not going to write today; I’m taking the day off.” It’s a rare event. So, instead, I’m reading which is part of the job too, and I suspect within the next few hours, I’ll be writing again. Does this sound familiar to you? I so agree with your attitude about writing being an end–a joy–in itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds very familiar. We will have to see what happens but I dwell in dreams and live in hope ha ha ha. I’m trying to follow your blog but I can’t get the follow flag to “pop-up” on this post. Hopefully I’ll find you again anyway.

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Hope combined with skill will take you far. I’ve read some of your pieces and think you are an excellent writer.

      I don’t understand these things too well. You should be able to follow from any post, but the home URL of the blog is https://davidjrogersftw.com/ There should be a follow widget off to the right.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Again !
    Possibly because of my situation I have been thinking about your post overnight, and “talking” to it which is something I’m sure you know a lot about. As a general piece of work I totally get what you are saying, endorsed by the good lady above, but I think there are exceptions which suggests that “recognition” in your life time or at any time at all is not the only arbiter of skill or talent.

    I always remember the line, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest” from Thomas Grays “Elegy written in a country churchyard.” I also looked up “Authors who became famous only after death” and of course there are several uber famous names there.

    In all corners of the artistic universe talent and even greatness may lie undiscovered long after the creative being has sunk into despair and then the grave. The point is, I believe absolutely and passionately in honing my skill, and never settling or feeling satisfied that I have produced the best in written work that I can produce but I a more concerned with the insights I bring to my work, and my powers of expression than in any resulting fame, delightful and reassuring as that would be.

    If I become famous, Yippee, and the scones are surely on me, but if I don’t I can only pay court to the muse within me and try and refine its output. In short, the first requirement is to absolutely believe in your talent and take it seriously otherwise you will never even refine the skill we both agree is paramount: I think I speak for many struggling but “genuine” artists when I say this

    Thank you for your patience, and do delete the comment without any offence being taken if it’s too long or odd to be included in your Blog.

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    • davidjrogersftw

      Peter, thanks for your thoughtful comment which is so well expressed. I too like Gray’s elegy and have read it many times since childhood. Recognition seems not to be a major goal of many creative people. And is only a secondary consideration to the majority of those of them who, like you, find their rewards in developing their skills to higher levels and being better able to express themselves. I hope I never give the impression I don’t realize that.

      But there’s no denying that recognition is an extremely powerful motivator, and receiving it periodically helps keep many creators hard at work. Some writers’ main motivation is the joy of the work itself. Some are motivated by the external rewards like that positive feedback, fame, money, etc. And some of the best known, like Hemingway, who wanted to be the best paid writer in the world since he was the best writer in the world but also worked harder than anyone to develop his skills, are motivated by both. I think a major reason—possibly the major reason– so many people write these blogs is for them to receive recognition they might not be able to receive in any other way—they exist, they have a talent, they have something worthwhile to say. They want other people across the globe to know that.

      You have a lot to say, a lot of stimulating ideas. And I hope we have more of these conversations.

      Like

  6. This is a wonderful article. I’ve never achieved one single dream without a plan grounded in reality. Leaving graduate school, I was well prepared for rejection letters as part of the process of becoming published. I built a plan based on my small successes as a poet, and experiences as an early childhood teacher. I view becoming a successful writer as a process.

    However, I do look in the mirror each morning and say to myself ‘ I am a writer.’ It’s the way I drive myself on. It’s the reason I don’t quit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidjrogersftw

      Laine, yours is, to me, a perfect comment–honest and inspiring. I like the story you tell, and I like your writing here and your poetry too, especially the clarity of your writing. Your approach to your career from the beginning shows me what a sensible person you are. I’m writing a book for writers and how to be a writer. I’d like your permission to use your comment or part of it in the book. Of course I’d give you full credit. Would that be OK?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Another excellent article, David. I recently heard the quote “luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Yet, how many just want to get lucky without the preparing part?

    We should consider ourselves apprentices for a lifetime. Life is all about learning and growing, and our writing is no exception. I stumbled upon my love for writing in 2006 when working through grief in a journal, and now 10 years later, I still feel like a pup!

    Keep up the good work!

    Like

    • davidjrogersftw

      Penelope, as you can see, I’m a strong believer in thorough preparation. Preparation leads to inspiration. I’m happy you love writing even though you had to go through grief to find that out. Glad to hear from you.

      Like

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