A Story of Three Artistic Friends
I was sitting in my living room that wintry Saturday night with three old friends who were successful in the arts: a novelist, a poet, and a painter. The storm buffeting the windows and pelting them with hail and snow made impossible even the thought of digging cars out and driving home. But everyone was in a good mood, and the house was warm. We were happy being together again after being separated so long by COVID.
For a while the conversation wasn’t really a conversation–just random comments, funny memories from their careers and mine, times we had spent together, and our favorite projects. I told them that I had an idea. I had a topic that had intrigued me for a long time. The novelist, a very cheerful man, said, “What topic is that?” I said, “I’m glad you asked.” Everyone laughed, and I said, “I would like to know what main qualities bring a person success in the arts–qualities that Da Vinci had, and Shakespeare, Monet, Brando, Faulkner, and anyone successful in the arts now, in the past, and in the future. What are the main qualities instrumental in their success?”
Everyone was agreeable, and Norman started things off.
Norman the Poet
Norman is an award-winning poet I have been friends with since I attended one of his riveting readings. The principal feature of his personality is gentleness which is reflected in his often-tender lyric poems. He said, “I’ve given this question some thought too. I think a lot of accomplished people in the arts have wondered what they have that makes their creative work possible. The main quality anyone must possess if they are trying to be successful in anything, not just the arts, but certainly the arts, I feel, is energy. Powerful, potent personal energy equips creatives to produce a steady flow of works. Isn’t that our goal?
“Phoebe and Paul, I know you will each have something important to say, but I think an accomplished person in the arts is inconceivable without a high level of sustainable energy. The most successful artists have the energy and reserves of energy to work very hard, sometimes in a creative frenzy, and produce their art steadily over the course of a satisfying career.
” I cannot imagine people in any field having more energy than those of us in the arts. Athletes may equal us, but don’t surpass us. Artists are the antithesis of lazy, but have a passion to roll up their sleeves and work. I think they have had this passion all their lives. Their energy breeds more energy, as though their supply of it is inexhaustible. In a creative state of mind and body they don’t seem to get tired the way other people do. They can work long hours when working long hours is needed, as when they have a deadline. Imagine writing a novel. It is a pleasant ordeal that requires the expenditure of energy every day from the first draft which may have been written a thousand days before the finished book is available to readers.
“Consider the staggering achievements of Shakespeare. He wrote more than thirty tragedies, comedies, and histories, and the sonnets, and directed plays and acted in them. He managed a theatre company and had a wife and children to take care of. Vincent van Gogh produced three thousand works in his brief five year career. That’s two works a day`. Picasso was even more productive.
“I’ve never known a successful creative person who lacked impressive energy. Their main goals are to pay their dues mastering their craft and then to produce one work after another non-stop. A big reason for a creatives’ failure is just lack of the energy that excellence in the arts requires.”
Phoebe the Painter
Phoebe has long experience and has had many shows. Her work can be found on the walls of several museums. She oozes confidence–a woman giving an impression of total self-possession, independence, and fearlessness. She is remarkably attractive. A friend once described her to me by saying, “And then I saw crossing a bridge the most beautiful woman on earth.”
She said, “I believe that the most important quality in an artist is talent. People in the arts are people with a gift, and that gift is their talent. Shakespeare, Picasso, and van Gogh had tremendous energy but if they hadn’t had more talent than other people, they wouldn’t be the artists we admire so. An artist will not succeed without substantial talent.
“Talent is the most recognizable quality in the creative world. It is everywhere. The most impressive thing in the world of art is the virtuoso performance, a display of talent by an individual that is so great that you will remember it long after you have forgotten everything else. There it is in Norman’s poems and Paul’s novels, and Degas’ and Jackson Pollack’s paintings, Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet, and Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels. Their talent is–how should I say it–extreme.
“Painters, writers, actors, and dancers enter the world talented. From the beginning of their lives they can draw better than other children or write more interesting compositions, act out scenes more skillfully, dance more gracefully. Just look at the lovely paintings some little children can paint and the poems they can write. Some children are too young to have learned to paint, yet they paint wonderfully and have technique. No one has taught them. They can paint superbly before being taught. When they are being taught they absorb information so quickly, it’s astonishing. That’s the definition of talent.
“Talent cannot be depleted. If you have it you will never lose it. There will always be more. To be very good or great you must add to your talent. Creative people have been favored since birth, but not without the gods requiring something in return, and that is the responsibility to augment their talent. Much of the energy Norm was talking about an artist applies to getting better–studying, practicing, experimenting.
“Raw talent is a quality which grows in quantity with effort.
Paul the Novelist/Actor
Paul had his first literary success as a college sophomore when his short story received an O’ Henry Award. He went on to write novels, and then in his words “branched out” into theatre acting where he also found success. That snowy night he said, ”Who can argue with a creative person’s need for inexhaustible energy and for talent that is exceptional? But I think that focus that is the salient factor that brings success to anyone in any field, especially in the arts, where the creator must concentrate so hard so often on so many things.”
He continued, “People often think of broad periods of time: ‘In eight months I’ll take my vacation and in eighteen years I’ll retire.’ But the creator in the act of creation focuses, thinking only of what occurs in single moments, such as ‘this brush stroke’ and ‘this sentence,’ ‘this musical phrase,’ or ‘these lines in this play I am to deliver now.’ The best moments of a creative person are that sliver of time when your mind is sharp and focused only on your work, when your mind is alert and clear, your concentration undivided and pin-point.
“I think that focus is a rare quality–the famous image in Zen of lack of creative mindfulness being a drunken monkey. People in our business have to learn pretty quickly to discipline their minds, so they don’t wander, but stick to the creative job at hand and not let any extraneous thought cancel that mysterious moment when you’re hard at work, focused, and being as creative and fulfilled artistically as you will ever be.”
Paul said, ”I also think that people in the arts have to be sure that they are in the art that most suits them and where their energy, talent, and focus will bring the best results. That may seem so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning, but what has struck me is that practicing artists sometimes discover they are focusing on the wrong art or genre, or that other artistic careers are right for them too, the way I discovered I could act and write both. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it that a creator wouldn’t realize that another art or creative specialty would be more suitable. But it happens.
“There are other examples of people in the arts who were focused on the wrong specialty. Thomas Wolfe began by thinking that he was a playwright and was educated to be one in college and at graduate school at Harvard. It was only after studying and writing plays for ten years, when his lover said, “Tom, you’re not equipped to be a playwright. You’re intended to be a novelist” that Wolfe became a novelist. Mary Cassatt spent several years painting in a conventional style before living in France and falling under the sway of Impressionism. She became an Impressionist herself. She destroyed all the paintings she had produced prior to making that change. “
“For me the key to success in the arts more than anything else is focus, both in the sense of mindfulness in the moment and in the sense of concentration on the most suitable and rewarding art.”
Application of Energy, Talent, and Focus
We thought our evening together had been fun–and enlightening. I said, “Other qualities are important to creators too. Self-confidence, intelligence, a rich imagination, detailed memory, drive, intensity, curiosity, experience, and careful preparation, for example, and beyond those of course is luck–is the person lucky? But energy, talent, and focus–I like that. We could look at the theatre department of a small college. Let’s say there are thirty students in the department. They will all receive exactly the same training in acting, but the results will be different.
“Let’s estimate that after college fifteen will have no further connection with acting. Ten will get involved in community theatres. Five will become professional actors, two in lead roles. One will become a star. What we’re saying is that it’s likely that those who will become professionals will have more energy, talent, and focus than the others, and that the star will have more than anyone. I think we have something.” Phoebe said, “Something good happens whenever we’re together.” Norman said, “We’re a good team.”
The storm still didn’t look so good, so they stayed the night. In the morning Paul insisted on making breakfast. I made coffee. We vowed to get together again soon. Then in early afternoon a bright sun came out, the winds died, and they left for home where work and many challenges were waiting.
© 2022 David J. Rogers
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