Category Archives: Actors and Directors

Achieving Mastery in Creative Work

david-youngWhen I was a little boy about eight or nine, I was playing in front of the TV in our Chicago apartment when an old black and white English movie came on.  I knew nothing about acting, though I had once played a tree in a skit. But there was one actor on the screen who I could see was remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something special right there on the screen.

What he was doing, how he was acting, the impression he was making made me feel a sensation which I now know was awe. I realized I was watching an extraordinary accomplishment I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed at the man and said, “Who is that, Mom?” She was a movie buff, so she knew. She said, “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of any art.

As I grew older I began to notice examples of supreme mastery all around me: athletes, singers (In my family were many fine singers), pianists, violinists, and auto mechanics. And then, when I went into business and became a management consultant, executives, workers in offices, factories, and plants. And then when I became a professional speaker, spell-binding orators with supreme mastery who could inform you and teach you and move you in a way other speakers didn’t dare dream of.

About the people who perform best, whether actors, dancers,  accountants, ballerina-534356_640_copy2physicians, executives, sales people, mothers and fathers, chefs, carpenters, athletes, novelists, poets, and playwrights, etc., there’s  an ease, an effortlessness. They stand out. You notice them. You don’t forget them. They just do what they do so well and naturally, so charismatically, beautifully, confidently, and with what seems so little effort, that if you stand back and watch them, you have to marvel. You have no choice but to think, “What I am now watching is almost unreal. It is almost super-human.” They do it better and have more ability than just about anyone else you’ve ever seen—better than other actors, painters, or writers, etc.

It’s called yugen in Japanese. Yugen is the “highest principle” in Japanese art—in any country’s art, I think—and the most difficult term in Japanese flower-653710_640aesthetics to define. It’s the creation of grace and beauty–the mark of great ability of men and women who have reached highest attainment in their art, their craft, their occupation. There is “Grace of music,” “Grace of performance,” and “Grace of the dance.” There is the grace of any of the arts.

 Yugen is “the something behind the gesture” of a great craftsman.  It’s described poetically as the emotion you feel watching a bird slowly crossing the moon at night, or the ease with which a flower grows, or one of my favorite sensations which you might have experienced, that of wandering on and on in a deep forest with no fear and no worry and no thought of turning back.

No element of the yugen performance is wasted or done without purpose, and it’s something to behold. You can think right now of people you’ve seen, of people you might know, possibly you yourself, and be able to say something like, “If ever a person possessed yugen mastery it was Ms. Cartwright, my fourth grade teacher,” or Jessica Lange in Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or yourself, thinking, “When I directed that play,” “When I wrote that novel”   “When I danced Swan Lake,” “I had it.”

Everyone is—you are, I am, my wife is, my children and grandchildren are—potentially a yugen person. Aren’t we all more extraordinary than we realize?

If you ask yugen people, they won’t be able to explain exactly what it is they do that makes them different from others in their field because after long periods of practice and development they now do it intuitively, and what is done intuitively cannot completely be communicated to another person rationally. Oh, they have an idea, but can’t quite put their finger on what makes them able to leap up consistently in performance.

theatre-96714_640Olivier once finished a stage performance which he knew was perfect. Everyone in the company knew it was perfect and when he came off stage they asked, “Larry, how did you do that?”  He replied, “I wish I knew so I could do it again.”

If you have that special touch in the work you do, you would be hard put to tell someone who comes to you to be trained exactly what you put into your performance. You say, “I do the best I can.”  You’re not being modest. Just honest.

What’s known for sure is that mastery doesn’t happen overnight but is the result of long practice and absorption in the craft. Every person who reaches high achievement in a field will have spent much of his time trying to get better, and better still, and will have reached highest ability via a long process of learning and application while pushing himself upward to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness.

When you’re coming into your own artistically you are discovering in all its detail your most creative self of all the selves you might have been. Sometimes a person who one day will become a writer, artist, actor, or dancer doesn’t know himself what he might do. But he feels instinctively that he’s good for something and has some reason for existing. He has a hunch that there is something important in him that’s worth pursuing further. He finds that something in art. He makes himself into a writer, for example–an expert in expressing himself via written language.

Coming into your own, you are developing your skills and yourself to their peak. You are increasing the depth and breadth of your knowledge of your chosen field.  You are developing deep-felt, deeply-woven identity that everyone recognizes as the real you. You are on a creator’s Life Path.  Just imagine the fulfillments the Path will lead you to.

Mastery is revealed in everything the person does, down to the smallest detail. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp said she could decide if a dancer was right for her company even by the way he came through the door of the studio and put down his bag. The opening scenes of a really skillfully-written play or the first leap of the dancer tell you right away if this artist has yugen.  If so, settle back, you’re in store for something marvelous.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artistic Perfection, Becoming an Artist, creativity, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Eastern Philosophy, High Achievement, Success, Writers

Why Do Creative People Write Blogs?

Until I started writing a blog I’d never read one. And one thing that surprised me right away was how so many talented, creative people writing them were woman-865111_640talking so freely, so honestly, and so candidly—so confidentially–about their work in progress. And knowing that hardly anyone does anything without expecting something in return, I wondered why they were doing that. What were they gaining? And were they losing something by doing it as I had been led to believe a creator who did that would? Now I can see that they are gaining something of immeasurable benefit.

I cannot imagine myself showing work in progress I’m serious about or discussing it with anyone until I think it’s finished and that I’ve done the best I can. To get that feeling about the work I’m serious about such as a book or a literary sketch, I might make major changes in it 70 or 75 times before anyone else knows about it. When I was writing what was to become my most popular book, an award-winning poet/professor of literature friend and I would get together every two or three weeks and talk  intensely for hours about writers and writing (and jazz, and the price of apples—that kind of thing–etc.).

And for two years I never once mentioned the book I was spending 18 or 20 hours a day writing. I told him about it when I gave him the date it would be typing-849807_640hitting the book stores.  He said “What the hell?” I didn’t show him. I didn’t show my wife. I didn’t show other friends. I didn’t show anyone because I didn’t want to hear anything that might affect my vision of the work, my plans for it, or my enthusiasm for it. And I believed that if you talked about your work in progress you’d dissipate the drive and energy you should be using to write it. I was very happy with my editor who didn’t give me a word of advice except to say, “An introduction would be a good idea,” and then as I turned chapters in said simply, “It’s really very good.”

But once the work in my mind is done I want to hear the frankest and most direct criticism, the kind a creator gains the most from—if it’s from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  A teacher in college said to me, “A good friend is one who’ll kick you in the teeth constructively” and that has always stayed with me. Without adequate feedback, effective learning is impossible and performance improvements only minimal, even for the most highly gifted artists or writers.

You need to have a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a creator. Often the best route to that kind of self-understanding is via constructive feedback and help from other people who won’t know about you unless you tell them the way bloggers tell you, “Here I am in England, Russia, Paraguay, Australia, Oman, etc., and I’m working hard.”

Getting help, support, and feedback is a major strategy for reaching creative excellence.  Without any doubt at all, performance feedback, support, high blogging-15968_640motivation, and writing success go hand in hand despite what anyone says to the contrary. Being deprived of support and positive feedback is a big reason why so many thousands of creators give up their craft altogether and   turn to other pursuits, hoping to find fulfillment there. And maybe finding it, maybe not.

I suppose I was thinking along the lines of William Faulkner who said, “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.”  Or Truman Capote who said, “I never show anybody a single thing I write…I write it and finish it and this is the way it’s going to be.” Or Hans Koning, author of 40 books who wrote, “You don’t worry about what editors or reviewers may like or not like. (That comes afterward.) You don’t write…in order to get an independent judgment. Your own judgment is independent. You don’t accept any suggested changes except where you made a factual or grammatical mistake. My motto has been through all these years: Not a comma.” (And I once had an editor who told me she was so depressed because she’d argued for an hour with a writer about a comma.)

Ernest Hemingway believed talking about your work was bad luck and that writers should work in disciplined isolation, and “should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then.” Otherwise they become “like writers in New York.” He thought that giving a public reading of your work in progress was “the lowest thing a writer can do” and was “dangerous” for the writer. If people liked the writing and said, “It’s great Ernest,” he would think, “If these bastards like it what is wrong with it?” “It made me feel sick for people to talk about my writing to my face.”

When I ask myself why I’m so private about my work until in my mind it’s finished (at that point I’d like every person on earth to read it) my theory is it’s because growing up we did not talk openly about personal things that were important to us and were taught not to blow our own horn, not to be showy in any way, and that has had a lasting effect on me. Not showing off is a value I think of all born and bred bona fide American Middle Westerners. Even now when I find myself showing off in my writing I say to myself, “Cut it out.”

I’ve often thought about there being so many women artist and writer bloggers and so few men and such strong relationships between the women. It’s kind of woman-69531_640lonely for me. But I sit back and read what creative women say to each other and just as often have thought, “There’s something very special, very wonderful going on. Look how they understand each other, how they comprehend each other’s meanings, the nuances and subtleties. And how they raise each others’ confidence.”

When I look at the comments such forthright writer and artist bloggers receive about their experiences with their works in progress, what strikes me is that what they receive mainly is not technical information. There’s very little discussion of that at all, or it’s superficial—a few positive words. No, they talk about what they’re going through—their difficulties, successes, failures, setbacks, fears, and hopes, the balance they’re trying so hard to strike between their creative life and their family and work lives. And that’s exactly what readers want more than anything to hear about and what they respond to.

Before I’d thought of writing a blog and I don’t think knew what a blog was, my son Eli, a writer himself, told me I should write one.  “Me?” I said. And he said, “Yes.” He said I was writing every day for hours and producing volumes of work, and that I should share it with other people and receive feedback from them.

How I love now to wake in the morning and still drowsy-eyed go upstairs to my work room, and there on the screen see that I’d been visited overnight by viewers from the world’s capitals and desert villages, remote South Sea and map-221210_640Atlantic islands, and African mountain kingdoms accessible only by horseback–Lesotho, Sri Lanka, Somalia–and to hear from them that they like what I’m doing and look forward to it. What a joy to hear from bloggers from everywhere who’ve become my friends, whose work I admire, to hear the stories of the lives they’re leading and to care about them and about hard they’re trying and  to think about them.

What honest bloggers receive in return for their blogging is what every creative person hungers for—companionship, friendship, kindness, generosity, and words of blessed encouragement.  To “discourage” someone is to steal their courage away from them, but to “encourage” them is to give them courage. When we’re deeply discouraged –and that is so often in the arts–our courage abandons us and one way or another we must retrieve it or we will perish creatively. The main thing a writer or artist–or actor or dancer–has to overcome is getting discouraged.

Even the smallest encouragement during difficult times bolsters a person’s spirits. Someone, anyone, saying, “Just hang in there, my friend, a little longer.”

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Artists Aim for Perfection

Artists develop notions of something greater than competence, greater than excellence, and become intoxicated with Laurence Olivierperfection of their craft, perfection of their technique, and perfection of their repertoire of skills culminating in what they hope will one day be the perfect story, perfect poem, perfect painting, or perfect performance. Once in his career Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of the 20th century, gave what he knew and everyone knew who was present that night was a perfect performance of Hamlet. “My God,” he wondered, “How did I do it and how will I ever be able to do it again?”

All artists want to “get better” and to “get it right.” They devote their entire careers to getting better and getting it right. The development of expertise is the artist’s most crucial task. If there is one thing that all successful creative people have in common it’s that they all work hard developing their skills, the foundation of their success.

To strive to improve one’s performance continually and to more and more often get it right, requires qualities that are not common. One is self-confidence; another is an objectivity about one’s artistic and sometimes personal shortcomings and limitations—a capacity for stern, dispassionate self-criticism. If an artist shows  you his work and you don’t notice the flaws in it that are so apparent to him, he will doubt your critical judgment and may not ask you again. Tell a ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly. “

The most difficult task for artists is to find and put into their work the right voice, the presence of the artist in the work. E.L Doctorow said, “I wait until I find a narrative voice. Then I listen to that and start writing.” John Updike wrote, “I notice that as I write it comes out as a sort of Updike prose. I sit down in such different moods, wearing such different clothes, and out this comes—like a kind of handwriting. It’s always mine, and there’s no way I can seem to get around it. Isn’t it funny you have only one voice?”

cream-rose-272946_640Artists may have to spend many years finding what their proper subject matter and voice may be. When they do find it, everything suddenly comes out into the clear light of day: “Now I know how to say what I’ve been trying to say.” At times—sometimes in mid-career—they discover that what they have been doing has been all wrong. The work doesn’t express them. When halfway through her life painter Mary Cassatt discovered her true subject—mothers with their children—and the right style, she destroyed all but a few of her previous works, signifying a new beginning. In mid-career painter Georgia O’Keefe decided her art was too influenced by other people and set out in a new direction.

Every art is physically and mentally exhausting. When they finish a day’s work, artists feel they have lifted a thousand pounds. They have a compulsion to work. The reason artists, like experts in all other fields, most often cite for their enormous energy, commitment, and focus necessary to excel is their motivation to concentrate on the task and put out effort to improve their performance.

Non-artists cannot be motivated or even forced to work at an artistic task to the extent that a person with an intense interest does willingly. There has probably never been a great artist who didn’t have a strong sense of single-mindedness and an ability to persevere, overcome difficulties, and concentrate on reaching his goals while resisting distractions. An interesting question is, “Why do some people but not others possess those qualities, and why do virtually all creative people?”

The artist’s main goal is production. When they have not worked at their craft for 48 hours, or 24 hours, or one hour, they get uneasy. When they are away from their work without a brush in their hand or something to write with or dancing slippers on their feet they are completely out of their element.

You cannot distinguish between true artists and their work. They are exactly what they do. A composer is his music, a writer his language. Every molecule in their body is the molecule of an artist. A director is one who directs; an actor acts. That’s what they do and that’s all there is to it. Their work is on their mind almost every waking moment.

mountain-299009_640Artists grow accustomed to loneliness. Even as children they spent much of their time alone. The common notion that artists are different and have different points of view, habits, personalities, and preoccupations than the majority of humankind is correct. There is often a distance, a gap, between them and their neighbors, even other members of their family, even their lovers and spouses who are not involved themselves in art.

They must incorporate the other person in their work or find a way of coping with that distance, or those sharing their lives must find a way. That may not be possible. Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” Bellow was married five times.

The artist, realizing that she’s looking at the world from a vantage point that’s not available to everyone, can say, “I am different. I see things differently. I value different things.” Everyone else wants to be rich. The artist wants fulfillment.

If they are truly artists, they are especially equipped and seem to have been born with not only magical “creative stuff” but with tenacity, strength, powerful will, and patience. In the achievements of successful artists you always see gifts coupled with extraordinary application, the former meaningless without the latter. A man I know was curious and attended an art show to ask a famous sculptor if he had advice for his son John, a sculptor who was just beginning. The sculptor said, “Yes I do have advice. It’s very simple. You tell John to pick up his mallet and his chisel and make chips.” A poet who lived several hundred years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high Gods have placed sweat.” Artists are great believers in sweat and making chips.

georgia-okeefe-396957_640Who sets the standard for perfection that all artists measure themselves against? The work of everyone is compared with the virtuoso. Miles Davis in jazz. Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin. A novel by Faulkner.

French philosopher-playwright Jean Paul Sartre wrote that man exists first and only afterwards defines himself. He is what “he will have planned to be; he is what he conceives himself to be.” Artists may not talk much about being artists, preferring if they are any good, working to talking about working. But they conceive themselves to be artists. They have planned to be artists. They are creative in the grandest sense of creating themselves from scratch.

Henry David Thoreau, as great a clear-thinking artist as there ever was, wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” The Japanese say, “Irrigators guide water, fletchers straighten arrows, and as for wise people, they shape themselves.” Artists are shaping themselves from their first exposure to their art.

A cat becomes all the cat it will ever be without having to think about it. All that’s necessary is to be born a cat. But people who aspire to be artists have considerably more work to do than cats. The highest development of an artist’s capabilities to aim for and reach perfection is worth giving up almost everything for.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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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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Do You Dance For Me Or Yourself?

Artists’ Intensity, Obsessions, and Will

yoga-366093_640To say that artistic work is often difficult and artists must be highly motivated if they are to produce it is to say the surface of the sun is quite hot. The artist must not only have that motivation, but must also sustain it, often over a long period of many years. Among the personal qualities that cause motivation that is strong are not luxuries but virtual necessities for any artist: passion, restlessness, intensity, obsessiveness, will, and persistence. It’s not hard at all to look at an artist and say, “That man (or woman) is driven.”

French author Gustave Flaubert called his motivation rage: “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates.”

“While the daily life of every [ballet] dancer is a full-time struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (which are inevitable), dance itself is an enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammeled, effortless, at every moment fully mastered.” The dancer’s performance smile is “a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing–for there is some discomfort, and often pain, in every major stint of performing [–and we might add, practicing]. (Susan Sontag. American writer, teacher, and film-maker)

But artists seem to develop tremendous recuperative powers and verge on the inexhaustible. Flaubert went back for more every day and dancers continue to smile while in pain. Picasso, who worked incessantly from childhood and produced a quarter million works, claimed never to have felt tired, never to have felt the slightest fatigue. He said, “When I work I leave my body outside the door.”

 If There Is One Thing Famous Artists Will Tell You

Freud thought that artists are actually seeking wealth and power, but being unable to secure them directly find satisfaction in creative activities. Whether that is true or it isn’t, if there is one thing famous artists will tell you it is that you work best and are most powerfully motivated to create and will work long, often tedious, hours and endure a great deal and surmount even major obstacles when you’re not thinking of anyone’s liking but your own.

It may take years to come to that conclusion, but come to it many do. “I alone here, on my inch of earth, paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself. Let who will get good or ill from this–I am not concerned therewith. Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it, woe be to me if I paint as other people see or like.”(Art Critic John Ruskin)

At the time American novelist William Faulkner’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill. As soon as he resigned himself to the fact that his unique vision and natural complex and rhetorical style and particular subject matter were not those of a commercially-popular author, he immediately entered a period of sustained creative energy that produced in quick succession one masterpiece after another. Making the decisions not to seek fame or wealth, he embarked on a path that would lead ironically to eventual world fame, financial security, and celebrity, culminating in the Nobel Prize.

He turned inward and decided to write for himself: “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers. I said to myself, ‘Now I can write.’“ He started working on what would be the innovative The Sound and the Fury–“thinking of books, publication, only in the sense in saying to myself, I wont [sic] have to worry about publishers liking or not liking this at all.”

The Awareness of Being Judged

When an artist is hard at work, work is center stage and doing it as skillfully as possible and enjoying it for its own sake are the strongest driving forces. The standard against which artists measure themselves is making use of their capabilities to the fullest each time they set to work—a notion of personal perfection, as in ballet, perfect expression and perfect technique.

But from time to time the thought that the work is going to be judged by someone else enters the artist’s mind. When thinking that a critic, an editor, an agent, a reviewer, a potential buyer, an audience will soon be evaluating the work, for most artists, even the best and most highly regarded, the self-conscious nervousness begins. Prolific nineteenth century English novelist Anthony Trollope said that an author should let criticism fall on him as “dew or hail from heaven,” and accept it as fate. But even the most renowned artists worry about the reception their work will receive and cannot help but to bear that in mind during the creative process.

Psychologist Teresa M. Amabile staked her whole reputation on proving that creative solutions to problems occur more frequently when people engage in the activity for the sheer pleasure it offers, and less frequently when their creativity is being judged. When we are not being evaluated, our creativity is liberated and free, but is inhibited when we are.  Amabile tested a wide range of subjects. No matter what the reward was or when it was given, if the subjects thought they were working for external remuneration, they became less creative. But when they were playing, they were creative. A playful approach to the task increases the likelihood of producing creative results.

Another experiment showed that even the hint that an external reward was riding on performance was sufficient to make the subject lose interest. The same happens to chimps. Given paint and canvas chimpanzees become so absorbed in painting that they show little interest in sex or food. But if the chimps are extrinsically rewarded for their painting, the quantity and quality of their painting declines. They do only well enough to get the reward. Chimps, like many humans, are more likely to be creative when no expectations of external reward are contingent on their performance.  Then it’s fun. But even  thinking about external rewards reduces creativity among many people.

The Thought of Failing

With every performance an actor, violinist, singer, or dancer gives, and every work a painter, writer, or composer begins, the slate is wiped clean. Past successes mean nothing, and there is a new opportunity to please other people, true, but also the possibility of disappointing them and having to suffer the devastating thought, “I failed,” and possibly the loss of reputation and income. More than one performer has vomited before going on, fearing the unfavorable opinion of the people filling the theater and critics out there jotting notes on their pads.

All artists go through fallow periods when success seems unattainable. Hemingway’s career consisted of alternating decades of critical success and failure. I have a friend who won a prestigious national literary award, but couldn’t find a single publisher who would publish his next book.

 Artists Deprived of Success

Deprived of favorable outward success and validation, some artists experience hopelessness and simply give up. But others continue to work at their craft without external feedback on the strong basis of their self-confidence or unflagging hope or sheer love of their art. (Creativity is addictive.) Jack London received 600 rejection letters before selling his first story. But within two years of that he was one of the most famous writers in the world. 85% of Equity (union) actors are unemployed at any one time, but survive as best they can, and refuse to give up their art.

An ideal world for artists would be one in which the work sold itself. Van Gogh wrote, “My opinion is that the best thing would be to work on till art lovers feel drawn toward it (his work) of their own accord, instead of having to praise or explain it.” I can hardly think of anyone who doesn’t believe their art would be better quality if they didn’t have to worry about making it saleable—possibly producing a more extreme, more original, more daring, and more outrageous art out of the commercial mainstream that is less compromised and truer to the artist’s individuality.

Artists would prefer not to be dependent on the opinion of others at all, and must decide, as you must, whose liking their art is for; if they dance for me or themselves.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Characteristics of Creative People: What We Learn from Writers, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Actors

Artists Starting The Day

fountain-pen-297440_640A novelist sits down at the computer to begin the day with an idea in mind, and a painter organizes her brushes before she begins. An actor is in a theater lobby trying to understand how she will play a complicated new role, and a ballet dancer is on a bus on his way to ten o’clock practice. He has worked so hard so long—since childhood—that his feet throb day and night.

They might be anyone, but they’re not. They are artists and they are different and they know they are, and have always known. They have different points of view, habits, values, routines, and preoccupations than even the people closest to them, and as they perform their art today, carrying out their chosen roles, they will exercise talents that not everyone possesses. All the skills they’ve struggled to develop, and all the hopes and ambitions guiding them, and their entire being, will be brought to bear today.

 To Be an Artist

Artists possess traits and qualities that equip them for the artist’s creative life. Whether you find them in big cities or remote jungles or on farms or in desert tents, in any of the four hemispheres, you will also find them generally to be quite similar: to have varied interests and to be persistent in the face of obstacles and disappointments. They are dogged, determined, resourceful, open-minded, undeviating, tolerant of ambiguity and novelty, tenacious, and tremendously independent and self-reliant. And they are also self-confident, resilient risk-takers with good memories, and the hardest workers on this globe and almost as self-sacrificing and self-demanding as Saint Francis of Assisi. They are complex thinking and feeling people who seek out complexity and who:

ballerina-534356_640_copy2Possess extraordinary energy and an addiction to work (A characteristic of artists that distinguish them from others is their capacity for hard sustained effort. No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without a great deal of conscious work on the part of the creator. When artists are fully functioning they work at white heat for an hour, a day, a week, or months or years.)

Can produce tremendous volumes of work (Balzac wrote 95 novels before his death at 51. Picasso produced a quarter million works of art. Novelist Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Not always, but usually, the greatest artists are also the most prolific.)

Are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their art without hesitation (American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, possibly the greatest woman painter of the nineteenth century, kept royalty waiting until she had finished her day’s work. Hemingway said he had to ease off making love when he was writing hard because the two things were “run by the same motor.” Nobel Prize novelist Toni Morrison said, “The important thing is that I don’t do anything else.” Another Nobel novelist, Saul Bellow, said writing was more important to him than anything, including his family.)

Value authenticity, integrity, and sincerity (How many other occupations involve a quest for truth?)

wells-theatre-210914_640Are oriented to the fullest development of their skills (You must never lose the belief that you have the ability to carry out skills needed to produce quality art successfully. Developing skills leads to competency, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills you are less likely to be haunted by self-doubt, and your art flows more freely. If you ask yourself “Do I have the skill?” and you answer “No I don’t,” you’ll have to learn the skill. There are any number of ways to accomplish that.)

 Are preoccupied with technique and style (The public isn’t meant to notice an artist’s technique, but other artists are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about a great artist is a distinctive style.)

Are ambitious and competitive (Art is as competitive as a Yankees-Red Sox game.)

Are resilient and able to overcome obstacles and persevere (Artists persist doggedly, however difficult or frustrating the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. After a success, your expectations of future success rise. When you see you are overcoming obstacles and making steady progress and reaching your goals, your confidence increases, sometimes phenomenally.)

Value originality (A work must be original if it’s to be considered artistic.)

Must have the ability to establish rapport with and hold an audience (To succeed, all works of art need a theatrical element.)

Must have a business sense (Artists have a career to manage, and responsibilities and expenses, and intangible rewards are not the only rewards. When you receive rewards your sense of well-being and hopefulness rise. All arts involve salesmanship.)

violin-374096_640Have a practical, problem-solving intelligence (Each day every artist on earth solves a hundred complex problems. Artists do not spend their days working on easy problems; they work on problems that are hard for them. That’s how they create work that has never been seen before and continue to expand their abilities at the same time.)

Have an artistic vision and heightened perception (To the artist the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. To painters and photographers a leaf is much more than a leaf; an actor’s frown signifies more than a frown; a single word, a single syllable, holds untold riches for a poet.)

Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about their work and their abilities (Artists learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.)

Are sensitive to life and open to experience (Curious, they plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Whatever happens to them, they never forget it.)

Strive for competence and constant improvement (An artist is never content very long.)

Value independence (All artists must be allowed to move in their own direction under their own power.)

Are more self-confident, rebellious, bold, and daring than the vast majority of people (If you lose those things, you lose your talent as well.)

Have the ability to focus (Artists are capable of ferocious concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them.)

Are playful and value the simple and the unaffected (Artists are in love with simplicity.)

Have an abundance of physical strength and stamina (Architect Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Work poured out of Da Vinci in a torrent. Often it is the end of the artist’s endurance that stops his working day.)

Are far more self-disciplined in matters concerning work than most people in other fields

vincent-van-gogh-86742_640(1)Are able to adapt and make adjustments (An experienced artist has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.)

Are studious in the sense of studying to develop their craft (All artists study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree.)

Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account (Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.)

Must be patient, because all artists who reach high excellence will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to it.

Have a strong belief in, and respect and enthusiasm for their art

Are deep-feeling, emotionally rich

The writer at the computer, the painter sorting brushes, the actor in the lobby, and the dancer with sore feet needn’t feel lonely as they start the day because possibly very near are others who lead similar lives and are very much like them.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Writers, Dancers, Actors, and Artists: How to Excel

The information in this post is applicable not only to artists, but to people working in any occupation.

 A Friend Was in Town

lavender-21357_640A friend was in town and we went out and had a few laughs, and told a few lies, and he reflected on his career. He said, “I knew when I started out there were an awful lot of writers who were more gifted and more intelligent and went to fancier schools and got better grades. So I decided then and there that to survive competitively I had no choice: I would have to buckle down and out-work the others, and that’s what I’ve done. Now I’m a popular author and I’ve never heard anything more about them.”

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—a “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence.

Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

Good artists manufacture themselves.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent.

You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

 The Deliberate Practice (DP) School of Development

While looking closely at the superior achievements of great artists like Faulkner, Shakespeare, or Picasso, we are strongly tempted to believe that the rules and principles determining the development of abilities simply don’t apply to rare individuals the way they do to us who have not written The Sound and the Fury, or Hamlet, or painted Guernica.

But according to what I call the Deliberate Practice (DP) School of expertise development the ways in which famous artists develop exceptional capabilities are quite similar to how everyone else develops their abilities; that if certain procedures are followed high artistic performance is a more realistic goal than might be expected.

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—the “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence. Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The Amount of Time Devoted to Deliberate Practice is the Best Predictor of Your Attainments

ernest-hemingway-401493_640It is generally believed now according to “The 10 Year Rule of Necessary Preparation” that to reach peak performance in most domains ten years and 10,000 hours of application are required, a sizable portion of that time devoted to sustained, focused “deliberate practice.” Ten years and 10,000 hours sounds intimidating, but if you stop to think about your own artistic career, you’ll see it’s not so intimidating after all. And there are many exceptions to the ten-year rule.

Studies of piano students show a very precise correlation between the number of practice hours and the student’s proficiency. The best students practice substantially more hours than students at a mid-level of proficiency, who in turn, practice considerably more hours than poorer performers.

When I was an 800 meter runner on the track team, a few of us spent more hours than others on the team practicing and even sent away for information on the world’s most innovative training methods, and trained year round. Our goal was to develop our abilities as high as we could so that we might win races. We consistently lowered our times and won more often than not. But some of our teammates were satisfied to come in third, fourth, or fifth, and left practice well before we did, didn’t study training methods, and worked out only during track season.

I notice the same in writing groups. It’s obvious that certain hard workers really want to write a better poem this time than they did last time, want eventually to write supremely well, and that others in the group have much lower ambitions. They reach a certain level of ability they’re satisfied with, and there they stay.

If your ambitions for your art are high, practice more hours; if not high, you needn’t spend as much time practicing.

The Rule Is Not A Rule

More recently, research has shown that the ten year rule is not a “rule” after all. Some artists require even more time. Generally the number of years from a pianist’s first lesson to a major concert performance is seventeen years. And some artists require less than ten years and 10,000 hours. In fact, the people who will become the best in a domain ordinarily require less time than others to reach high expertise. They get there quicker and they are better. They also produce more volume of work and more high quality work in their career than others in the domain. Very tall professional basketball player—seven feet—become very proficient after six or seven years.

What is Deliberate Practice?

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

To deliberately practice is to set out and conscientiously follow a specific program to improve your performance, including increasing your knowledge because a major way of leaping up in performance–and possibly the most significant way–is through the acquisition of knowledge about your domain.

Being intelligent explains many successes, but the best chess player, the best athlete, the best creative artist, the best business person, is not necessarily the most intelligent, but has acquired more sheer knowledge of the domain than others in the field. He or she has a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand—possibly a few million chunks.

Acquiring more and more chunks is what you’re doing all the time you’re working at your craft, talking about your craft, studying it, and practicing. Major artists are immersed in their art—they breathe it; they dream of it.

The knowledge of the domain you possess also depends on your motivation to learn. Some artists—some people in general–have an insatiable appetite for new information; others have virtually no appetite. (Research show that more than 50% of college graduates never read a book again after graduation.) But since the best artists are also the most knowledgeable, it’s clear that studiousness is a characteristic of the best.

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

A Useful DP Program

ballet-335493_640(1)DP should really be called “Sustained, Private Deliberate Practice” because to be maximally effective it should continue over time and is usually carried out in private. A violinist who practices four hours every morning needn’t have a teacher with him all the time. (Though children taking music lessons are more likely to want to continue practicing if parents stay with them.)

Deliberate efforts to improve performance beyond its current level require concentration, problem-solving, and a continuous striving to find better methods for performing the artist’s tasks. The primary prerequisite is always bearing in mind and never forgetting what the goal is—concentrating on improving some specific aspect of performance.

For example, in practicing a piece, a less experienced pianist will play the entire piece, but the more experienced pianist will concentrate repeatedly on a particular passage or small set of notes that she is weak on and needs to play better. You stunt your artistic growth when you practice what you’re already good at and neglect what needs more work.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others. He analyzes his performance as objectively as possible, particularly strengths and weaknesses, and sets realistic (not unrealistic) performance-improvement goals, sets aside specific and regular practice hours (when and where it will be done), practices conscientiously and hard (but takes regular breaks, gets sufficient sleep and rest, and takes naps), coordinates practice with instruction (which may be self-instruction), seeks feedback, seeks help when needed (consulting, mentoring, advising), focuses more on weaknesses than strengths (that’s important to do), and keeps track of and evaluates improvements over time.

Focus on a Small Set of Crucial Tasks

It is important to identify and focus on developing expertise in the most crucial tasks in your art (and your style and technique)—those tasks that occur often and that capture the essence of high performance in your domain. Very important to me are the rhythm, the “sound,” the “flow” of the words, and refining that ability is important to me.

All artists are trying to establish a relationship with an audience. Poets are particularly interested in doing so through imagery, size and scope of vocabulary, particularly concrete language, fluency, and succinctness; dramatists in crisp dialogue; non-fiction writers in conveying complex information clearly and simply; dancers in physical preparation, strength, balance, elevation, control, and the ability to imitate movements; actors in improving their ability to memorize lines and to assimilate information quickly; fine artists to convey in colors, shapes, and perspectives a very direct form of self-expression.

Right now, what would you say are the crucial tasks you should focus on?

List them: 1,2,3,4 and set up your goals and your schedule.

Is Talent Important? Does it Even Exist?

The DP School doesn’t buy the notion that people, in our case, artists, are born with innate talents that are the causes of one artist being a better artist than another one, or that explains why artists seem naturally equipped for artistic performances. They would reject the notion that Hemingway was born with more “creative stuff” than the other writers of his era. The Talent (T) School agrees that practice is essential, but believes that if you don’t have the sheer talent—that “creative stuff”– you’re at a serious disadvantage.

THE DT School points to other causes than innate talent to explain remarkability, particularly effort and the amount of time spent on improvement. The T School maintains that some people will never become experts no matter how hard they apply themselves because they lack the necessary talents that would equip them to excel. A well-known acting teacher wrote, “the overwhelming majority of trained actors who have more than fulfilled the 10-year/10,000- requirement proposed by the strict deliberate practice view” seem to be missing the ability to rise above the competition, but “superior talent does eventually get noticed”

An orchestral violinist said on hearing a brilliant eleven year old violin prodigy: “I was so overcome by what she did in rehearsal…If I practiced for three thousand years I couldn’t play like that. None of us could.”

The Middle Way

drama-312318_640My Middle Way philosophy which avoids extremes tells me that innate talent and basic abilities do exist and that to disbelieve that is contrary to everyday experience. You know that from your own life. Since your earliest days you were always the best writer, or best painter or dancer, and you knew that even as a child and everyone knew that and you didn’t know how you got that way: you just were. Deliberate Practice is not the only cause of excellence in the arts or any other domain.

My friend, the late composer/performer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, was a creative genius who showed exceptional musical ability at three and auditioned for and was accepted into the Julliard School of Music, the world’s finest music school, at seven. Marvin went on to win many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was a tremendously hard worker. But unlike Marvin, most prodigies are not exceptional as adults. Other people who were not as advantaged in childhood surpassed them just as you and I have surpassed others who were born with more talent.

Artist’s life after artist’s life show us that talent is not a hard and fast commodity that some people possess and will always possess, but that talent is malleable and changeable, and something you develop through devoted effort and persistence. Good artists manufacture themselves. You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent. Self-taught autodidacts like poet Walt Whitman who begin their careers with no discernible talent at all and become the most talented artists of their age intrigue me very much.

Long hours of hard work painting, writing, dancing, and acting, combined with a sustained schedule of deliberate practice and deepening of knowledge, and the talent you know you possess and have known for a long time you do will go a long way, and can lead to undreamed of satisfaction, rich experiences, new talents, meaningful friendships, and success, profit, and recognition.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Writer’s, Artist’s, and Actor’s Quest for Truth

Painting by Urwana DeBoulans

With kind permission of artist Urwana DeBouclans

An actor in teacher-actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre Company owned a dog that she brought to rehearsal, and it slept all day while the company rehearsed. Inexplicably, every night just before the actors were to end the rehearsal the dog got up and went to the door with its leash in its mouth, ready to be taken home. It puzzled Stanislavski why the dog trotted to the door several minutes before his master called him, just as rehearsal ended. How did the dog know that rehearsal had ended before anyone went to the door?

Eventually Stanislavski figured it out. The dog could hear from the voices when the actors started talking like normal people again. It could tell the difference between the fake and the real. If a dog could, certainly an audience could, and the fake is repulsive in an actor. As the best actors tell each other, “When you are on stage or before the camera, remember not to act. People can tell when you’re acting.”

The Actor’s Truth

Stanislavsky was the most significant figure in the history of actor training. When he used the word “art” it meant “life” to him, and life meant the truthful, the real, the authentic, the genuine.

“Life” is all he wanted, and life is what he struggled to get to flow through the actor, and between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist as well as for the audience. Actors should behave as though the character is real and what he is doing is real, as though the conditions and circumstances of the character’s life are real. That the dagger Othello stabs himself with is real. That everything is real. Stanislavsky said that the judge of the truthfulness of a performance is not the actor or the audience, but the actor’s fellow actors on stage with him. If you have an effect on your fellow actor; if he believes in the truth of your performance, you’ve reached your creative goal: truth.

Many Paths

A household name in his time, John Ruskin was a 19th century English art and architecture critic and wonderful stylist whose beauty of expression ignited the creativity of Marcel Proust. Ruskin believed that what distinguishes great artists from weak ones is first their sensibility, second, their imagination, and third, their appetite for hard work. He might just as well have added a fourth, their quest for truth. All great artists in every art are aiming and have always aimed to achieve that object of their quest. What that truth is to them—how they conceive of it—varies from artist to artist, and is the basis of their distinctive work. A Zen adage reads: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain. “ There are also many paths, many routes, to artistic truth. You are on a path.

To Ruskin the artist’s truth lay in his/her self-expression, the revelation of the artist’s being, such as the painter’s special talent to convey every shadow, every hue, every line, every impression of “visible things around him ” and secondly his ability to communicate his every emotion. Painter and print maker Edward Hopper too believed that the aim of great painters was to attempt “to force the unwilling medium of paint” into a record of their emotions. A skilled writer, a skilled dancer, a skilled sculptor works an entire career to express every shadow and every emotion—in words, in motion, in an object.

Truth and the Artist’s Vision

In Fire in the Crucible: The Alchemy of Creative Genius, John Briggs sees the artist’s quest for truth and beauty as the artist’s important motivation to communicate his/her vision. That vision is based on “themes” which are the artist’s “fingerprints.” The vision is a strong part of the artist’s identity and may well have become a part of him in childhood, and may well too, be reflected in his work all his future life. In early life future artists accumulate experiences, people, places, key episodes, and ideas which they will draw on the rest of their lives, endlessly recapitulating them in their work. These are the origins of their craft. Anyone who knows an artist’s work well is able to identify the artist’s recurring themes and subjects—his preoccupations that are everywhere in the work.

Your work has themes in it that are inseparable from your personality and creative spirit and life. Those themes and that vision affect everything about your work down to its smallest detail. Every part of the artist is revealed in his/her art and cannot be hidden. And if it is really art, its truth is that it is in close partnership with the whole being of the audience that the artist is trying to reach, the beauty and truth in the work resonating in the sensitivity to truth and beauty in the audience.

Hemingway’s Truth

No artist talked about or wrote about or was more consumed with the quest for truth than Ernest Hemingway. The writer’s job, he said, is quite simply “to tell the truth,” to speak truly. To tell the truth was to tell about what he had personally experienced, or what he knew from going through something similar. Most artists are concerned with subjective truth more than literal truth, but Hemingway used no other information from any sources than what had happened to him, not literary sources, not academic. Truth was transcribing accurately and simply for the reader “the way it was,” and “the real thing,” putting down what he saw and felt in the simplest way he could. He could invent and elaborate as any artist does, but he elaborated from the reality of what he actually knew from having been there. He said that a writer’s “gift” was a conscience, a “built-in, shockproof bull shit detector” the “writer’s radar” that went off in his mind when the writer was not telling the truth, but “faking.”

Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck, and if you stated it purely enough, always.”

Similar to Hemingway, many painters paint only what is before them and is true and visible, and refuse to paint from memory. Are you an artist who sticks to “the way it was” and “the real thing”?

Henry Miller/ Gertrude Stein/ Paul Cezanne

Novelist and essayist Henry Miller felt that the artist’s truth lies in finding a “voice,” and that the discovery of one’s true voice doesn’t happen easily, but requires boldness. Miller imitated every style in hopes of finding the clue to the gnawing secret of how to write. Then:

“Finally I came to a dead-end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known because there was no divorce between myself as a writer and myself as a man: to fail as a writer meant to fail as a man…It was at that point…that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those I loved. Immediately I heard my own voice…the fact that I was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad had dropped out of my vocabulary…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.” (Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing)

Gertrude Stein also found truth and beauty coming out of the artist’s spontaneity: You “have to know what you want to get; but when you know that, let it take you and if it seems to take you off the track don’t hold back, because that is perhaps where instinctively you want to be and if you hold back and try to be always where you have been before, you will go dry.”

Truth doesn’t lie in “careful thinking,” But “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition.” It “will be a creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing.” (John Hyde Preston, “A Conversation with Gertrude Stein”). In the same way, 19th century landscape painter George Inness found that the truth of art is the artist’s “personal vital force” that if left alone comes out of the artist spontaneously without fear or hesitation.

A creator must necessary possess tremendous drive, determination, and persistence because exceptional creativity requires a tremendous amount of effort. Paul Cezanne’s truth was the perfection of his craft in a lifetime’s work: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping, and it would still seem to me as if I knew nothing…I consume myself, kill myself, to cover fifty centimeters of canvas…I want to die painting…” All great artists are spurned on by a single-mindedness, but few can match Cezanne in that regard.

An Architect’s Truth

new-york-115629_640Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Not one given to easy goals, Wright’s architectural goals were , he stated, “the rejuvenation of architecture, the creation of indigenous forms to express and suit life in the United States, and the destruction of Fakery and Sham (that) rule the day.” To Wright, truth didn’t lie on the surface of things. Surfaces were deception. Truth was hidden and capable of being discovered only by probing deeply. “For the architect the patient analysis of nature would reveal the true meaning of functional structures.” Wright found in nature and the machine the two inseparable cornerstones of his search for truth. (Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture.)

A Dancer’s Truth

Isadora Duncan’s quest for a dancer’s truth was lifelong and intense. “My art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one true movement…I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement…I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the center of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of the vision for the creation of the dance—it was from that discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.” (Isadora Duncan, Autobiography)

Commitment and Sacrifice as Truth

Artists exhibit ferocious concentration on the task to be accomplished and will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it.

“I have always put the requirement of what I was writing first–before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has always been the case with me.” (Saul Bellow)

“What one bestows on private life—in conversations, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” (Novelist V.S. Naipaul)

“Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Your Artist’s Credo

It should be apparent from what you’ve just read that great artists are precise and clear and quite serious about what they are striving to accomplish—what truth they’re seeking–and can describe it succinctly in a paragraph or two.

How would you describe your overall artistic vision, the truths you are trying to express in work after work? And what are the handful of most important recurring themes that are so much a part of you?

“What I’m trying to get across is…”

“In all my works I find these themes again and again…”

You might ask people who know your work well their opinion. Put the answers down in writing, a statement of your artist’s credo.

Let me know by leaving a comment about the truth you are seeking, your artistic vision, and the themes in your work. I’m writing a book about art and artists of all kinds and want to see what your thinking is. If you are not an artist but are interested in the subject, I would like to hear your opinions too.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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