Category Archives: Artistic Perfection

How To Write Mesmerizing Prose

For Writers Wanting To Improve Their Craft

 

Writers can learn many important, specific, things from other writers who are more experienced, skilled, talented, and knowledgeable. The three writers described here, a taste of whose beautiful work is included below, were masterfully gifted, serious craftsmen. The drive to write superbly dominated their lives. They breathed writing. The writing they labored over provides examples of exceptional achievements that writers wishing to cast a similar mesmerizing effect in their prose may benefit from. I hope you do.

Mesmerizing prose makes us feel emotions when we read by activating and feeding our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste because the reader experiences vicariously what he or she is reading.  In mesmerizing prose, quickly, without delay, the writer sets the tone and mood; sad in the case of the first James Agee piece that’s coming up, wistful and nostalgic in the second, reflective in brilliant John Ruskin’s analysis of the unique abilities of the creative artist.

Charles Dicken’s excerpt has a different mood–satirical and bitter. The writing in all the pieces here is specific and as clear as fine glass. What other quality is as vital to good writing as clarity? No one wants to wade through prose that’s muddled. It shows a writer with a disorganized mind. Or one who has stopped at least one draft too soon.

A skilled mixture of nouns and verbs and a balance of showing and telling strengthens the text. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. The passages are brief. They could have been much longer if the author desired. There is no mistaking the author’s voice. Other than Ruskin’s philosophical piece, the pieces mix description with action. They are not static; they have zip and they move. They point out the effectiveness of an author’s ability to create word pictures, all good writers being creators of images that come out of their mind in dribs and drabs, or torrents, to lodge in the reader’s mind, ideally memorably.

Every kind of writing improves with practice, but none benefits more than descriptive writing–a skill that can be learned.  Rembrandt said, “The more pictures you paint, the better you get,” and the same goes for mesmerizing prose. The main ingredient of these three writers is fluency–the generation of numerous ideas (an ability of smart people with fertile, excitable, complex minds); the ability to “see a lot” in things,” more than lesser writers see. In the same way, a skilled painter, looking at a field of wheat or a human face perceives much more than most people with untrained eyes perceive.

Where does that ability come from? An active mind that is able to explore objects and ideas in impressive detail while always maintaining a consistent tone to express the details, pulling image after image recalled from the writer’s life from the conscious and subconscious mind where they are securely stored and always ready to be put to work in text.

 

Here’s a piece that creates a mood through simple diction and cadences reflecting the mind of the character being described. The excerpt is by James Agee (1909- 1955) from the nonfiction documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is set among Southern tenant farmers during the American Depression. Agee–novelist, poet, movie critic, essayist, and screen writer–posthumously was called “the most prodigiously talented American writer of his generation.” About combining the skills of an artist to write a nonfiction documentary, he said, “Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?”

 “I am fond of Emma, and very sorry for her, and I shall probably never see her again after a few hours from now. I want to tell you what I can about her…(W)hen Emma was sixteen she married a man her father’s age, a carpenter… She has been married to him two years; they have no children. Emma loves good times, and towns, and people her own age, and he is jealous and mean to her and suspicious of her. He has given her no pretty dresses nor the money to buy cloth to make them. Every minute he is in the house he keeps his eye right on her as if she was up to something, and when he goes out, which is  as seldom as he can, he locks her up: so that twice already she has left him and come home to stay, and then after a while he has come down begging, and crying, and swearing he will treat her good and give her anything she asks for… and she has gone back…Her husband can no longer get a living in Cherokee City. (H)e has heard of a farm on a plantation over in the red hills of Mississippi and has already gone, and taken it, and he has sent word to Emma that she is to come in a truck… and this truck is leaving tomorrow. She doesn’t want to go at all, and during the past two days she has been withdrawing into rooms with her sister and is crying a good deal, almost tearlessly and almost without voice, as if she knew no more how to cry than to take care of her life….but she is going all the same, without at all understanding why.”

You’ll find it worthwhile to read the section of In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this excerpt is taken from to see how the writing you just read came out of the feelings of affection that developed between Agee and Emma.

 

Now here is a descriptive excerpt from Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family. The novel shows the effects of his father’s sudden death on a young boy. This famous passage, set to music by Samuel Barber, is a prelude to the novel.

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee… On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, on our sides, on our backs and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”

Nothing dramatic happens on that lawn, but Agee communicates the preciousness of everyday life, and the boy’s feeling of calmness and security. But it is yet mixed with a feeling of the fragile nature of this family and the life he cherishes.  The language, almost hypnotic, conveys how every child feels, and how most every adult feels remembering pleasant days of youth.

 

Here is an ideal example of analytical nonfiction. It is John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) writing on the nature of the imaginative mind from his book Modern Painters. Ruskin was the leading art/architecture critic of the English Victorian era and the best writer among all the critics. He explored the creative process. His writing style, based so heavily on a Biblical style, and his ideas, and original insights were widely admired by artists, critics, and the general public. They influenced Marcel Proust who spent six years studying them, translating them into French, and being influenced by them before setting out to write the monumental In Search of Lost Time. Ruskin claims, as I’ve believed as long as I’ve been writing, that once having experienced something, writers don’t forget it, but rather, having memorized their life, remembers its every detail. Writers and artists can remember every blade of grass on the street where they lived when they were ten. What one writes about, the other paints.

Here’s Ruskin writing about the painters he so admired:

“Imagine that all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in a vast storehouse, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as justly fit each other; this I conceive  to be the real nature of the imaginative mind, and this, I believe, it would often be explained to us as being, by the men themselves who possess it, but that they have no idea what the state of other peoples’ minds is in comparison; they suppose everyone remembers all that he has seen in the same way, and do not understand how it happens that they alone can produce good drawings or great thoughts.”

 

Here is an extended metaphor drawing a parallel between fog and human behavior from Charles Dickens’ (1812-1879) Bleak House. Immensely gifted and inventive, Charles Dickens is generally considered the greatest Victorian novelist. In this satirical excerpt from Bleak House, fog reminds the narrator of the murky ethics and hypocrisy of the High Court of Chancery, metaphorically the Bleak House of the title.

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marsh, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships, fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of the fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds…Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which the High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.”

 

James Agee, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens. If they were a baseball team, or a soccer team, what a powerful team they would be. All writing should be interesting, but why not go further and write mesmerizing prose using them as examples to learn from?

 

© 2018 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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Filed under Artistic Perfection, Becoming an Artist, Charles Dickens, Creativity Self-Improvement, Descriptive Writing, James Agee, John Ruskin, Voice, Writers

Acquiring Creator’s Survival Skills

Whether they are five or seventy-five, beginning creators don’t know the first thing about their craft, but don’t know they don’t know. They’re playing, experimenting, discovering, having fun, and are thrilled to be creating, and that’s Young boy painting at an easelenough. Then in time, if they are to become more skilled writers, artists, actors, dancers, and so forth, they will realize they don’t know enough about the craft they’ve now become attracted to more seriously.

They want to get better and be more accomplished and have success. So they strive to learn as much as they can about their craft. That drive to get better and better still, to find their one true voice that activates even their deepest creative potentials, to learn, to reach consistent excellence over a long period of time dominates true creators as long as they live.

The more skillfully advanced creators know a tremendous amount about their craft and at times are capable of unique and extraordinary creative feats that make you gasp. Yet, they are incomplete. They realize there are many other things of a non-technical nature to know, having to do with surviving a creator’s sometimes intense, demanding, troubled, uneasy, or tragic existence. Preparation is the key to creative success, whatever the field. Without survival skills the creator is not fully prepared for a creator’s life.

Horizon and sunset seen through branchesThey acquire survival skills or they do not survive: their career ends prematurely, or they crack up, or their talent abandons them, or the production of work grows increasingly difficult, the ease and effortlessness of the master disappears, leaving in its wake frustration and regret. Horace said that painters and poets alike have always had license to dare anything, but when they lose confidence they become afraid.

Three Stages

Stage I: At the start of their careers, would-be serious creators work Number 1as though technique and mechanics aren’t especially important. They have a story to tell, a message to communicate, a vision, and that’s all that counts.  They start out full of naïve optimism. Unless they are creative geniuses who have powerful creative intuition that more than compensates for technical shortcomings the result is that the work they produce suffers from creative ailments.

The execution of the work may be dull, awkward, muddled, and show almost no regard for the audience—a failure of craftsmanship. Successes are few. Possibly there are no successes at all. Creators get depressed and doubt their talent: are they good enough or are they fooling themselves that they can produce work that will please them and please an audience? The root difficulty is being blind and deaf to the need for technical abilities. In time that becomes very clear to creators who may come to realize their technique stinks and needs many improvements.

Stage II: Intelligent creators now turn their attention to acquiring techniques so that their work becomes more Number 2coherent, less obscure, and less naïve. Technical abilities take over from inspiration.  Creators become preoccupied with acquiring technical knowledge about their craft and the mechanics of producing quality work. They study to ferret out the secrets of the best in the field, read articles, books, and blogs. They take classes, educate themselves (the principal source of a creator’s expertise), find a mentor, locate good teachers, get involved in a writer’s, artist’s, or actor’s milieu, and may go to workshops, conferences, and retreats. They work hard. Their technical skills do improve. They are better creator this year than they were last year.

Stage III: Then creators realize that technique and mechanics are insufficient–that there are many creator’s survival Number 3needs they didn’t anticipate, and are unprepared for, and a whole set of little-discussed survival skills directly related to success and fulfillment that technique can’t help them with.  Serious creators’ lives are full of pressures, strains, dilemmas, quandaries, and problems. Bonnie Feldman was of the same mind when she said in Writing Past Dark: “The bookstores shelves sagged with volumes on technique. A hundred authors explained how to show don’t tell, and why a story needs a conflict. Why hadn’t anyone written a book that would help me?”

What Technique Can’t Help You With

Creator-survivors must be natural, less controlled, less inhibited, less blocked with punishing self-criticism, more expressive and spontaneous. They must be balanced, flexibly-minded, less strained, less anxious–carefree, focused on their work, not themselves –manifestations of good mental health. How otherwise will they ever be able to “snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic?” Technique will not teach creators those things, yet they are crucial to the writer’s, artist’s, actor’s, and performers’s well-being and productivity.

cog wheels of goldTechnique will not teach you the single greatest survival quality of any successful creative enterprise: a desire to excel that dominates the creator, a need so strong that not much else matters as much. That is an empowering survival skill major creators possess without exception.  Do you possess it?

Technique won’t help you overcome the miseries of self-doubt and discouragement—the creator’s main inner obstacles to success–that dreariness that has ruined tens of thousands of creator’s careers. Technique is terribly important, but it will not teach you the survival quality of simple, unadulterated courage in the face of hurtful setbacks, cruel criticism, and heart-breaking adversity.

Nor will it teach you the necessity of creator’s taking calculated risks, normally the only path to success. It will not teach you the survivor’s drive, high focus, and persistence which may be a more important success factors than brilliant intelligence. These are qualities creators must possess to survive.

Technique will not teach you the daily-needed psychological skills of optimism, powerful motivation, and stamina. Technique will not teach you a single one of psychological and spiritual survival skills that you need to supplement the creative techniques you’ve acquired.

Preparing For Survival

Creators should learn to dialogue among themselves freely, unabashedly, happily in their everyday creative lives about such needed Stage III creator’s inner survival qualities as strength, persistence, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, discipline, good creative moods. And ideal creative moods, resilience, enthusiasm, guts, energy and sweat, passion, sacrificing for the sake of your craft, and boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, patience, maintaining at all times a confidence of succeeding, and other dimensions of you, the creator. These inputs will make you a better-prepared.

If you lack those internal skills of the heart and mind you must acquire them just as you acquired creative technique. You can do that. You can acquire survival skills of mindfulness, meditation, and non-attachment.  You can learn to endure rejection and manage stress. You can learn to listen to your body and enjoy your work more. You can become more optimistic and resilient. You can learn tranquility and peace of mind from reading people like the master Vivekananda.  You can read biographies of great creators to see how they overcame adversity. You may wish to read my Fighting To Win which has specific strategies to help you on your path.

Be aware of where you are deficient and what your survival needs are, as “I am not a confident person now; I must work on that.” Then you can set out on a program of self-development designed to better equip you for your chosen creator’s role, your creator’s life path that you may wish to follow till the last breath of your life.

Begin the day by asking, “Am I strong today?” “Will I persist?” “Will I be confident?” “Will I stop doubting my talent?” “Will I adapt and be patient?” “Will I be enthusiastic today?” “Will I be courageous?”

© 2018 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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The Perfect Imperfections of Creative People

Wedding cake topperIn a survey of the most desirable occupation for a mate “poet” and “novelist” scored near the top. If you’re a poet or novelist yourself I can just see you now. You’re stifling a knowing chuckle and asking, “Did the respondents have the remotest idea what might be in store for them if in fact their mate had either of those careers–or was a painter, sculptor, dancer, composer, violinist, etc? Or were they expressing some romantic fantasy picked up from books and movies? Would it be a blissful and fulfilling match made in heaven or would it be full of turmoil and misunderstanding? Would it be any different than having a less artistically-bent man or woman partner? When all was said and done, would it be worth it?”

I’ve known creative people all my life–grew up in a family of sensitive, fiery Welsh musical people–and for the last fifty years of it have been spending time with writers, painters, and poets in particular, and reading the life stories of the most eminent creators ever to kick up dust on this earth and of their almost miraculous achievements and analyses of their inner psychological workings. This blog puts me in contact with thousands of them in 172 countries.

The end result is that to me artists are the most enthralling, most complicated, gall-darndest, stupefying, generally frustrating, and when in their brooding dark  nasty moods the most demanding, maddening, impossible yet endearing individuals on this globe–in short, immensely fascinating, highly-productive, beautiful, focused, exasperating beings.Vincent VanGogh self-portrait Though they are often no more possible to understand than I can understand the mystery I call myself, and often torture to live with. Rascals like Dylan Thomas, Vincent van Gogh, or Jackson Pollack: there’s just, well,  something irresistible about them.

In my most visited blog post–“The Characteristics of Creative People: What We Learn from Writers, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Actors”–I laid out just that, the characteristics of people who do creative things that conspire to make them able to do those things. I said creative people possess extraordinary energy and a compulsion to work, are willing to sacrifice almost everything else for their art with no hesitations, can produce tremendous volumes of work, value authenticity, integrity, and sincerity, are oriented toward the fullest development of their creative potentials, are resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere,  must have the ability to attract and hold an audience, are more self-confident, bold, and daring than the vast majority of people, and so on

I want to fill out the picture of these original, gifted, talented people who contribute so many ideas and such beauty and creative feats with a description of artists’ characteristics many people consider flaws, imperfections, but which I think if they are imperfections are perfect imperfections that in some convoluted upside down, day is night, night is day way also equip them for the artist’s unusual life.

Artists–creative people of all sorts–are often indifferent to social “rules” and values, and have far less respect for people in authority than the people around them. The artist’s main motivation I think is to be left alone. He craves the freedom Salvadore Dali portraitto express himself, to experiment, to blunder, to go this way and that without rhyme or reason, and rules and external authority hold him back. Artists are often rebellious and uncooperative for the same reason, finding it extremely difficult and painful to do things they really don’t want to do simply because another human being says they should do it, no matter who he or she may be.

They are careless, disorderly, absentminded, forgetful, sloppy with details and matters they consider unimportant though their partner and their teachers and editors and such may consider them extremely important, and there may be conflicts. In a study comparing experienced writers with novices it was found that experienced writers forget what they have just written almost immediately after finishing a piece while novices remember their pieces in detail. Probably like every writer reading this I’ve had the experience many times of finding in computer files or drawers completely finished, refined, polished pieces–even finished novels–I wrote and completely forgot about. My wife-editor will often say, “Remember that thing you wrote about….” And I’ll say, “Oh yah, I forgot about that.” To the artist to say the work is DONE means that his job of doing the creative work–the fun stuff– is done, the fun is over; let someone else worry about the middling details.

They may be argumentative, cynical, and sarcastic, “too” direct–and tactless and intolerant. Sensitive to their every mood, and every shade of their moods, they are often overly emotional and temperamental, and easily hurt and quick to anger. Aware at every moment of what they are feeling and what they are thinking, they are self-absorbed in ways other people cannot fathom. Bundles of energy, their bodies and minds are perpetually active–over-active, electrically-charged in a way that a partner may not be prepared for or know how to respond to.

Fingers circling to indicate perfectionThe Latin sine qua non means literally “without which, not.” It means the essential, crucial, and indispensable ingredient without which something would not be possible. I think that without their imperfections artists could not be artists any more than they could be artists without their positive creative characteristics. In other words, their imperfections are–for them–perfect.

 

© 2017 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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How Creators Benefit from Teachers

Colorful abstract paintingIn college I had a brilliant professor of creative writing–he was dazzling. After class one day I said to him, “You know everything about literature and writing. Your analysis of works is something to behold, and you’re able to tell students how specifically to improve their work. But as far as I can tell you’ve never produced any creative writing yourself. Have you?

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have no talent.”

He didn’t have the talent his students did have, but his students didn’t have the knowledge he had, and that’s what we were there to acquire so we would have both talent and knowledge.

A painter will not automatically improve her performance by painting more. A writer’s performance won’t improve simply by further writing. To ratchet up their performance they will have to make changes designed specifically to develop it to a higher level. One major change is to acquire more knowledge.

In the arts and every other pursuit knowledge isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything.  Most often the reason a creator isn’t yet accomplished isn’t because he’s unintelligent or not gifted but because he isn’t knowledgeable enough. You need a big data base to be an accomplished creator.

Knowledge translates into new techniques and skills. New techniques and skills translate into new creative accomplishments–roles for the actor, publications for the writer, commissions for the painter and composer, greater satisfaction with your craftsmanship, and so on.

Flute lessonParticularly important in the acquisition of knowledge about your art is the instruction you receive. It may come from yourself if you are a self-taught autodidact who acquires knowledge by reading and studying the author’s ideas as many creators do, and instruction from direct in-person exposure to expert, skilled teachers. Most creators are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly. They are teachable.

Everyone who has reached the highest level of excellence in their chosen field will be found to have spent much of their lives immersed in that field pushing themselves to improve their performance, and have amassed tremendous knowledge of it. Experts have a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand. Most experts consider about 50,000 different chunks to be the foundation of their expertise. When you are learning, you are adding chunks. It is no secret to you when you are talking with masters of a domain. Knowledge seems to come out of their every pore.

If you are interested in reaching your upper limits of performance and the most effective training in reaching them, you should study experts in your field–read about them, listen to the stories about them. They have probably spent their entire creative life maximizing their performance. Lengthy, on-going, never-ending training is nearly always the reason for superior performance. All the known routes to high performance require extended training. There are no shortcuts.

Research on what enabled many people to reach high expertise reveals that very often elite performers attach themselves to teachers who give them quality feedback, and with their help engage in specifically-designed training tasks. Training tasks force the creators to solve specific problems and stretch their performance, break bad habits, acquire new skills, and often experience career-changing insights.

Often creators we’ve heard most about received a more ancient style of education rather than modern large classes and many teachers. They received at least some one-on-one personalized education, spending time with a teacher with a good reputation known for their work with students on an individual basis, engaging in give and take dialogue and questioning.

Pottery lessonWhen a student in an art studies with a role model, a master, sparks fly. The two of them immerse themselves in the world of their art. Together, they analyze the piece of work, the skills that went into producing it, and the additional skills that will be needed if the student is to go further. The student learns the importance of concentration and sheer effort, and the need to overcome self-doubt. The student is gaining independence and confidence, and learning to solve problems on her own. Then in time, she may become a master in her art.

Troubled and immensely talented American short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER was called “The American Chekhov.” A turning point in his life was being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by author John Gardner and being affected profoundly. Carver said that whatever Gardner had to say “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously… I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”

American MARY CASSATT’S emergence midway in her painting career was the result of a sequence of happy events: living in Paris, mingling with the French  Impressionists, especially mentor/teacher Edgar Degas, becoming an Impressionist herself, and finding her subject–her voice: mothers with their children. Degas was a generally unpleasant, abrasive, hard to deal with man who most other painters couldn’t stomach. But he was a good teacher, the right teacher for Cassatt.

Ernest Hemingway had a most astounding capacity for absorbing information as soon as he was exposed to it and applying it immediately. He was greedy for knowledge and went to everyone for help—and they gave it freely–Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and others.  He studied, read, and wrote, sometimes eighteen hours a day.

Expert performers and their teachers identify specific goals for improvement, particularly crucial aspects of performance. The person who is trying to improve his mastery must concentrate full attention on getting rid of shortcomings, focusing on where in his performance there’s the most room for improvement.  Not any old teacher will do; a bad teacher is worse than no teacher. The teacher must be effective and must know how to support and excite the student to go on learning. What could be more unendurable that a dull teacher?

The most important quality that leads a creator to success is his motivation. A good teacher stokes the creator’s motivation through positive reinforcement and encouragement.

If a writer is weak on imagery she must write out a hundred, two hundred, three hundred effective images in practice. If she’s already a master of imagery she needn’t practice making images as much and can concentrate on what she’s not strong on.

Seal: Knowledge is PowerAdmitting shortcomings is hard for some people, but not hard at all for others. It wasn’t hard for Vincent van Gogh. His brother Theo asked if he should stop criticizing Vincent’s work in his letters. Vincent replied: “Continue writing me about my work. Do not fear to hurt me…I will take such criticism as proofs of sympathy worth a thousand times more than flattery.”

Generally speaking, writers, painters, ballet dancers, actors, and composers are quite probably the toughest-on-themselves, most self-critical creatures on this globe. Only the poorer and most naive of them are seduced by undeserved praise. If there are flaws in their work, they almost always recognize them before anyone else. Tell a prima ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will shake her head and say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly.” And if the criticism of their work is unfair and not justified, they recognize that too.

The whole reason for being of the creator is to produce fully realized, polished works that as closely as possible approximate the ideal of “The best I can do at this time. In a year I should have more knowledge and should be able to do better if I keep working and learning, and in five years, better still. But right now this is the best I am capable of.”

Until you can say that, the work isn’t finished and needs more attention. That attitude should be yours as long as you paint, as long as you write, as long as you dance, as long as you act, as long as you compose.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work

Part One of Two Parts

In the lives of great creators past and present, we find many characteristics that equip them uniquely for their role, especially tremendous powers of concentration. Those same powers of concentration are readily available to you.

Concentration is the heart and soul of creative work. How to develop and sustain it is a concern of actors, painters, dancers, pianists, composers, writers, and all other creators. Unless you bring to bear all the mental and physical alertness and clear-mindedness that you have the potential for you will not be enjoying the best conditions for your creative work.

Creators who can concentrate their mind like brilliant beacons of light at will can focus anywhere and can work under any conditions, and whenever they wish. For example, even fledgling actors are able to routinely commit to memory many pages of complex dialogue in a short period because of the phenomenal ability to concentrate they’ve had to acquire if they wish to act.

Make a pact with yourself: when you do creative work let nothing interfere with the only life that exists at the moment, namely the life of an actor or dancer or sculptor, and so forth. Just kick everything else out of your mind. All your life now for this time is the role your whole being has equipped you for because you have a love of your craft. There is no separation between you and it. It is part of you as much as your arm.

Concentration is an ability most people have not developed. Their minds run wild. That people generally are so poor at concentrating is shown in the fact that patrons in an art museum look at a work on average for 1 1/2 seconds. But out of the necessity of producing a stream of tangible works of high quality, many creators have disciplined their mind to be clear and not to wander. Those creators remind me of this famous story about concentration from the samurai Way. Samurai are ideal examples of how with application a person can increase his or her mental powers substantially and turn them to practical results, how ordinary people can become extraordinary.

Centuries ago in Japan there lived a man who had devoted himself completely to kyudo, the Way of the bow. Early one evening he was walking in the mountains when suddenly he saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. It was a tiger, its back arched, ready to pounce. Without hesitation the archer nocked the arrow. Concentrating all his power in the shot, since it might be his last, he let the arrow fly. A direct hit, right in the head. Without stopping to examine the dead animal, the archer continued on his way.

The next day, though, he became curious and returned to the spot. But hard as he looked he could not find the dead animal. He was about to abandon his search when he saw his arrow, lodged in a huge boulder. It hadn’t been a tiger after all, but his concentration had been so intense and his shot so powerful that the arrow had been driven into solid rock.

From this incident came the famous maxim about concentration and power in any Way of life–business, athletics, the arts, everyday life, and more: “Ichinen iwa wo mo tosu:” “The focused mind can pierce through stone.” (From Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life.)

One-pointed, stone-piercing concentration is the ability of you, the creator, to direct your attention exclusively on the challenges of the work at hand as they appear, and being able to prevent any stray, muddling, interfering thoughts that aren’t related to solving the creative problems confronting you.

Also from the samurai Way , applicable to the Way of the creator, is the story of a contest:

The greatest archers in the land were invited to the contest. A fish was put up on a pole a great distance away. Asked by the judge if they could see the fish, one by one the archers said they could. One last contestant stepped to the line.

“Can you see the fish?” asked the judge.

The archer replied, “I’m looking at its eye.”

This was the champion.

Learn to concentrate on the fish’s eye and you’ll often find success in creative work. You will produce more works, and the work’s quality will improve.

I proved to myself the benefits of concentration in another context when I was a bodybuilder. I said, “I’m going to devote myself to this and see what happens.” It is as much a craft with high standards of performance and traditions as acting, painting, and writing. For the body builder and the writer at work a single stray thought not belonging to the performance breaks concentration. A lift is wasted, an injury is possible. The writer loses that one thought that would have conveyed exactly what the text needed. I worked hard and concentrated totally on each separate lift and every repetition with remarkable results. I had put into practice the words of champion bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger: “One lift with concentration is worth ten lifts without concentration.”

The first quality of the creator’s concentration is an alert, undivided, focused, attentive mind that has nothing left over for anything unnecessary, irrelevant, and inessential while you are creating. As much as possible you want your concentration to be uninterrupted while you work and to not be diverted from the task involved in creating, or divided for any reason. How does a creator work on developing an alert mind?

Preparation: You begin preparing your mind for the task of writing well before you sit down at the computer, on sculpting before you enter your studio. Skilled actors don’t wait until they get to the theatre, but prepare themselves for their first entrance on the stage while they are still at home. On the days they are to perform they don’t clutter their minds with all sorts of unimportant things that have nothing to do with playing their role. When they arrive at the theatre they may not stop to engage in idle chatter that takes their mind from their performance. When they are putting on their makeup in front of the mirror they are solving problems and finding inspirataion.

In the morning start the day by thinking of the novel you’re writing, or the painting, or the role you’ll play when the curtain goes up tonight, of what you want to have accomplished creatively when your work days ends. And think of it in the afternoon and before you go to bed.  Think of it when you drink coffee and brush your teeth. Think about it whenever you can. Scribble notes about it on napkins when you’re having lunch. You must be a novelist, actor, painter, etc., the whole day, not just an hour or two.

Harmful emotions like anxiety, fear, envy, discouragement, and self-doubt are threats to your concentration. So you must learn to concentrate on the task and forget the emotion.  As much as possible, put how you’re feeling out of the equation. Tell yourself your emotions are irrelevant at the moment; you’ll take care of them after work.

Take your mind off what you’re feeling. You can feel afraid to write, as many writers do, and still write, and you can still do what you doubt you can do if you don’t let the fear and doubt stop you from concentrating. And too, once you’re engrossed in creative work, however poorly you were feeling before, your mood almost always improves and becomes more positive, optimistic, hopeful, confident, even blissful.

While you’re working develop your attention so that no extraneous thoughts interfere with the work. Don’t worry, for instance, whether you’re at your best today or you aren’t, or think about what might happen if you succeed and produce a great work–the glory, the applause– or if you fail–or if you have the sniffles or would rather be making love. Don’t fret about bills or personal problems or what you’ll make for dinner. Again and again bring your mind back to the work because right now it is the most important thing.

It’s hard to change your concentration from low to high if the environment you’re working in isn’t comfortable. It may not be comfortable for me, but it has to be for you.  For example, I am very comfortable with chaos–not in my personal life, not at all, I crave tranquility there. But in my work room chaos is welcome. To me in chaos there is order. But my wife tsk-tsks, and says, “It amazes me that you can possibly work under these conditions.” To placate her I say, “You’re right. I have to organize this mess.”  But between you and me I have no intention of ever organizing the mess.

You have to find an environment in which you can flourish, or create one. Many writers work in restaurants. I see them in the Starbuck’s down the street. Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway wrote in cafes and was extremely productive. But home is best for me. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t have a comfortable work setting because of his wife Zelda’s constant interference.  She would take Scott away from his work to have fun and play pranks. One night she collected all the women’s purses at a party and boiled them. Whatever the place you work you should be able to go to it, focus, and be productive.

A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being there ready to work repetitively the same time day after day after day the power of good habits goes into effect. Some creators’ work habits will strike you as strange.  The poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) splashed ink on her clothes to give her a feeling of freedom when she wrote, and poet A.E. Housman rarely wrote unless he was sick.

For high quality, uninterrupted work to happen, not all, but most creators need isolation and solitude. To get rid of distractions some creative people eliminate newspapers, TV, clocks, telephone calls, emails, face book, and unnecessary conversation. One study showed that following an interruption for an email or phone call people were so distracted that 40% of the time they didn’t get back to work, but moved on to something else. If you quit 40% of the time, how long will it take you to finish your novel?

All your mental powers should be aimed in only one direction–toward the work at hand. But your creator’s imagination is always boiling over with ideas and has a playful impulse to lead you astray. To keep out even the smallest distracting sounds, the wonderful and eccentric Marcel Proust who was so focused on writing that he never learned how to open a window or boil a kettle of water wrote in a cork-lined sound-proof bedroom. “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind” (novelist Alice Walker). But some creators concentrate best when it’s noisy:–a jack hammer under their window, a baby shrieking. Which do you prefer, silence or noise?

 

I’m planning to publish Part Two of “Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work” in a few weeks. I hope you’ll look at it. It answers an important question every creator asks: “It’s easy to be absorbed in the creative problem if it’s interesting–that’s not hard at all. But what if it’s not interesting? What if it’s boring? (Creative work is often tedious.) You still have to solve the problem.  What can you do?”

 

© 2017 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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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:

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Creative Talent and Sweat

cherries-and-peonies

Cherries and Peonies by Georgiana Romanovna http://www.romanovna.com/

Whenever I look at the work of the creative people who follow my blog –and I do often–I marvel.  I think, “There are so many talented people—she there in Australia and she in England are talented and he in Ireland is talented. Just look at that French woman’s work; it’s beautiful. That Russian woman is so accomplished; everything about her work is just right; it was created by a tremendously talented human being.”

But I know that the finished products that I admire so are far from the whole story because no outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without a lot of effort on the part of the creator, however much natural talent he or she possesses. Hesiod, a poet who lived several hundred years before Plato, showing great insight into the creative life, wrote, “Before the gates of excellence the gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease though grievously hard in the winning.”

Sweat becomes part of the successful creator’s everyday life before that ease Hesiod talks about (that effortlessness that really does happen only after some years of learning and application) is reached. One day painting becomes automatic, writing becomes automatic, performing becomes automatic.

The existence of some creative people is organized completely around their work—they think about it all the time, even when they are not working. Even,

Genesis - Abstract Expressionism Art with beautiful colors and a sense of movement. Mixed Media Painting in warm and vivid tones of Autumn Buy Art Prints by Georgiana Romanovna Mixed Media Artist. Mixed Media Digital, Traditional and Photographic Art Encompassing Design, Original Paintings, and Vector Artwork. Art Which Is Colorful And Bold, Sedate Or Classic. Contemporary Landscapes, Abstracts, Flowers, Portraits, Vintage Reproductions, Fractals, Still Life, Impressionistic Paintings and much more. Art for All your Decor and Decorative needs. Watermarks will not be printed on your print purchases. If you like my Art Gallery or a Particular Artwork, please push the Pinterest, FB, Google+ Twitter or SU Buttons. Thank you. All artwork in this gallery is the original artwork of Georgiana Designs. All Rights Reserved. It is copyright to Georgiana Romanovna and is protected by US and International Copyright laws.

Genesis by Georgiana Romanovna http://www.romanovna.com/

research shows, when they are asleep. And their ability to produce it is staggering. But many prodigiously gifted artists, writers, dancers, and actors don’t end up where they belong–in the upper echelons of their field—for the sole reason that they don’t sweat enough.

They are not willing to travel the long, rough, steep, grievously hard road to high expertise. After Michelangelo died someone found a paper on which he’d written in his old age to his apprentice, “Draw, Antonio, draw, draw Antonio and do not waste time.” Without sweating sufficiently you won’t go far. In every field, experts work harder, not less hard than non-experts.

A common notion among laymen is that the main cause of creative success is natural talent one is born with, and that a major cause of failure is the lack of talent. But the most eminent people in any field, including creative work, generally attribute their success to high ability and high effort and attribute failure to lack of effort, saying that a person’s success comes mainly from ability combined with hard work over a long period of time.

If they fail, the goal of excellence they’re pursuing becomes even more attractive to them. They get hungrier to succeed. If things don’t turn out well they don’t believe it’s because they aren’t capable. It’s because they didn’t sweat enough. They apply themselves; they work harder; they sweat more. That brings them hope. Optimism is kept high, for effort is a virtually limitless resource. You can always work harder.

Less successful creator’s thinking is “Either you have talent or you don’t.” Talent is not something they feel they can improve, so they don’t attempt to, even though they may have the potential to develop their talent to a very high level. It’s as though they are not aware that one’s level of talent is not fixed forever at some point and unchangeable. As your talent increases, as it will through conscientious education, training, experience, and practice, the probability that you’ll successfully reach your creative goals increases—paintings in galleries, books published, roles gotten– and your ability to perform more ambitious and difficult creative tasks also increases.

Most of the time the creators around you will have one of these attributes, either talent or sweat, but not both. If you do have both you have a tremendous advantage.

Springtime Ornamental

Springtime Ornamental by Georgiana Romanaovna http://www.romanovna.com/

The effective way to develop your talent is not to blindly put in more hours working on this and that, but to take time to identify the small number of main skills most related to success in your field and practice them over and over and over until they become your main strengths, hopefully under the guidance of a knowledgeable person.  For example, a characteristic of successful writers is often a rich and varied vocabulary. To improve your writing you might wish to develop your talent along those lines. So important is an appealing writing style to a writer that J.A. Spender said, ”If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will.” The same is true of painters and performers.  Strive to refine your style or styles so they are recognized as yours. Some artists, such as Georgiana Romanovna, featured in this post, have multiple styles, but their work is always recognizable as theirs.

Most people in the world—whatever their field– can be divided psychologically into two broad groups. There is the minority who are willing to work hard to achieve something. Some creators are capable of producing ten, fifteen, twenty-five times more than others. And then there are the majority who don’t work hard. If you work hard, at the bare minimum you’ll be good at whatever you do.

Creators who love to work, enjoy sweating, and are confident they have what it takes to attain success are rare. If you are one you have a major advantage over other painters, writers, performers, etc. who believe high talent is an unreachable dream for them and that sweating is unpleasant.

 

© 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/rogershttp://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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Samurai Concepts for Creatives Part 2

In the last post, subtitled, “A New Language for Creative People,” I applied Samurai terms to the lives of creatives to show that those terms have relevance to writers, artists, composers, architects, and actors today, a thousand years samurai-statueafter “the tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth,” and “the shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease.”

Do: The Concept of a “Way”

The Japanese “do” (pronounced “dough”), means “way,” short for “way of life” or “life path.” That a discipline is a Way is indicated by the do suffix at the end of a word. Thus kendo (ken, sword; do, way) means “sword Way,” or Way of the sword. Bu (warrior) do (Way), refers to the attitudes, behavior and life-style of the Samurai warrior.

In kyudo, the Way of the bow, no quiver is worn and the archer fires just one arrow. From this the archer is to learn daido, a “principle that operates in all things.” The archer is to come to value his life more fully, for each arrow is like the japanese-flowers-ikebanatotality of his life. You have but one life; thus you shoot but one arrow. The Samurai was taught, “The Way is your daily life.”

A serious writer’s or artist’s life is a “Way,” for example, the Way of the Writer,” “the Way of Writing,” and “the Way of the painter or sculptor”– just as in Japan there is the Way of floral arrangement, the “Way of flowers,” and “The Way of tea.” It’s axiomatic that what applies to one teapot-37046_640Way has application to all the other Ways. For example, a basis of the Way of the Warrior is showing courage in the face of adversity. And a writer or actor and painter too faces adversity and will benefit from having a warrior’s courage.

When creating is a Way you say to yourself, “I am full of unrealized potentials and special gifts that need to be developed, and am what I make of myself. I take full responsibility on myself and am choosing a creative’s life of my own free will.  I have felt that creative calling for a long time.  So many years and days allotted to me have passed and I believe I haven’t gotten far enough. I’m clear now and I have stores of energy in me that will make possible extraordinary achievements. My life now will be an existence that I’m designing to my own specifications. I have the conviction that the life I now envision is the life I was always meant to have.”

On the creative’s Way you’re committed to:

  • Finding a best outlet for your talents
  • Perfecting your aptitudes and skills
  • Discovering and expressing yourself
  • Creating beauty
  • Expressing truth
  • Communicating with a public
  • Learning a discipline, becoming part of a tradition
  • Prevailing over difficulty
  • Developing and improving
  • Being paid and/ or compensated in other ways such as through recognition and acclaim
  • Finding pleasure in creating and the creatives’ life

Skills can be taught, but a Way can’t. There’s no searching for a Way. It comes to you on its own when you’re ready. And when it does come, you know.  As a boy-paintingchild, you begin writing or drawing no differently than anyone else, but at some point—it could be at the age of five or a hundred and five–you begin creating more purposefully than other people. Then almost without being aware of how it happened, out of the processes of creating,  gaining knowledge of your craft, and the craft’s world, and growing in skill, you are “taken” by it fully and completely and find yourself on the Way of the painter, writer, or actor, etc.

The logical end of the creative’s Way is to become a Real Writer, or Real Painter, or Real dancer, and so forth—to become known by your family, friends, teachers, and audience, and to define yourself as “someone who is serious about creating.”

Let your work become a Way.

Mokuteki Hon’I: “Focus on Your Purpose’’

When as a person doing creative things you discover what you must accomplish with your talents and that becomes a major goal there comes something new and extraordinary into your existence. You’re electric with that rarest of qualities—intensity. Doing the work as well as you’re able becomes a Purpose.

The Samurai was taught, Mokuteki hon’I, “Focus on your purpose.” With a purpose your every act takes on power. Obstacles, once so intimidating, fall away because your purpose is more powerful than the obstacles. You feel a zest, a tingle. Your imagination is on fire. It is strength to be of one mind, complete and undivided, fully committed to a life with purposes.

When you make a purpose out of what a moment before was merely a responsibility, or a chore, or a duty by thinking, “This, what I am doing now, is a-focused-mindmy purpose,” extraordinary achievements become possible. Impediments become light as feathers.

Begin every project and every day, every time you return to work after a break, with your purpose in mind. Say the words, “Focus on your purpose.” I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve said “Focus on your purpose” aloud to myself and been inspired by those words. Thousands.

Kufu: “Struggling, Wrestling, and Grappling with Something

Until a Good Solution Is Found”

I was interviewing people for a job that required the ability to write reports. While he wanted the job, Jack confided that he had a problem—writer’s block. Anyone who will apply for a writer’s job and be so honest as to tell the person doing the hiring that he has problems writing is my kind of guy. He told me more. “When I sit down to work, all that I want to say seems clear to me. But when I actually start I have a tough time. The ideas and words don’t come. I try, but after about an hour I give up. What do you think I should do?”

“Don’t quit after an hour,” I said.

The point I was making was a simple Samurai one. I was telling Jack to kufu his way out. Some problems are one-hour problems, others are two or five hour or longer problems.

Kufu. It’s a wonderful concept that applies equally to the small everyday tasks and problems in a creative’s life and to the big ones too. It means giving yourself completely to discovering the solution or to finding the way out of your difficulties and to your creative goal.

It means to struggle, to grapple, to wrestle until you find the solution. It is holding nothing back in reserve. It is closing ground on the problem and never retreating or hanging back. When you take the kufu, grapple-your-way-out approach, you know that somewhere ahead of you lies a breakthrough point, a moment when you will get the better of the creative problem or the task. It is there awaiting you. All you have to do is remain concentrated and focused on the goal.

“Who knows,” I told Jack, “but your breakthrough point could come at sixty-one minutes or seventy-five or may take days. If you give up after an hour, hand-299675_6401you’ll never reach it. Kufu your way out of this writer’s block.”

Months later Jack came to tell me that he had gone back to his writing to try the kufu approach of staying with it, trying it again and again, no matter how long it took. Suddenly, he said, writing had become not totally effortless, but noticeably less difficult.

No one is spared resistances to the creative breakthrough experience. Jack continued to encounter concentration problems from time to time, but he had learned what many people never learn: the kufu spirit of staying with it until the problem is solved.

Makoto: “Sincerity”

Makoto is the Samurai precept of precepts and a concept of action that the Japanese of today value above all others. It is usually translated into English as “sincerity.” But it does not mean sincerity in the sense of “I’m sincerely pleased with our conversation.”

Makoto means putting absolutely everything you have, everything you are into an act—all of your heart, and all your spirit, mind, and all of your physical strength.  To hold anything back in reserve or to hesitate in any way whatsoever is for the creator to act . . . insincerely.

Creative people are tremendously productive individuals who at their best practice makoto every day, putting all their talents, skills, and training into their work, holding nothing in reserve.

The Samurai terminology I’ve described in the last two posts express ideas that have been useful to creative people everywhere in the world as they all aimed so steadily at perfecting their skills and so devotedly pursued their Way.

japanese-garden

 

© 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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The Perfect Creative Personality

The Perfect Creator Is Bold

What have you been working for these years and developing your talents for if not to set your creative potential free? And you will not do that without being bolder.

I know a painter. The best teacher she ever had gave her the best advice she ever received. He looked at her as she painted and said, “You’re being too careful. Make bolder strokes.” He went away. She followed his advice. The teacher came back and studied her work. He raised his voice and said, “Bolder.” Later he came back again and said, even louder, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?” It’s worthwhile to say to ourselves from time to time in our creative lives, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?”

The argument easily can be made that boldness in and of itself is what brings success in life. It’s a quality of excellence, of greatness, in every discipline, paint-33883_1280every field, especially in the arts where courage isn’t a luxury but a necessity. The great creative personalities couldn’t have attained success had they not taken bold risks. Even becoming creative at all carries risks. Creating seriously isn’t a typical life. Most careers are much less risky.

For almost all people—creative men and women among them–the problem isn’t being too audacious, but not being audacious enough. Boldness is the power to let go of the familiar and the secure. It isn’t something you save for when your life and your creativity are going well. It’s precisely when things are going badly that you should be boldest. When things look grim and you’re most discouraged, increase your determination and go forward boldly. Boldness brings a new intensity and sets you apart. When the situation is unclear but the outcome is important, be bold.

I’m interested in the samurai way of life and wrote a book about it. I find in it many analogies to creative peoples’ lives. In kendo—samurai swordsmanship—there’s a move that requires the swordsman to pass very close under the arms fighter-155746_150of his opponent. It’s not a difficult move, but taking the chance of coming so close to the opponent frightens the swordsman. It’s only the fear of taking the risk that prevents victory. But accepting the fear and edging in close anyway can bring easy victory. The great swordsman is bold and knows that the greatest rewards lie one inch from the foe’s blade. Your greatest future success in your creative life may lie close to the blade.

 

The Perfect Creator Is Sincere and Has Integrity

The true center of our experience with any kind of creation is the sense that someone with a mind, a personality, and a range of experiences is trying to communicate with us. That sense accounts—if it’s favorable–for much of the pleasure we get from the work or performance.  What a creative person is water-lilly-1227948_640intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally radiates in the work and can’t be hidden. Herman Melville said, “No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently“ forming “some ideal image of the man and his mind. And if you look…you’ll find the author has furnished you with his own picture.”

The  most loved creator is the one who’s able to develop a relationship with the audience that goes beyond liking and beyond friendship to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity we find in the work or the performance. Sincerity is what I sense all through the works of Pulitzer Prize winning author James Agee. Anyone who can write so beautifully and so sensitively, honestly, and intensely must be trying to pass on to me something that he cares deeply about.  (See especially Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) The sincere, intimate creator invites us in to her inner life and says “Here I am.” The sincere creative man or woman is trying hard to convey something directly to me as well as he or she is able. And I respond.

Good creators have integrity. They are whole and authentic. When we have integrity we guarantee we aren’t faking, or deceiving, or compromising. It’s futile to think we can hide ourselves from the audience for very long or fool them into believing we’re something we’re not. The person we are—with our history and our points of view and perspectives and opinions–comes through clearly.

A creative person’s authentic voice isn’t achieved by adding something, but by the opposite process—by subtracting what’s pretentious or phony. Every creative person is different from every other. There are no duplicates. But whatever he is like, we’re trying to locate him, understand, and admire him.

 

The Perfect Creator Is Fearless

All athletes, business executives, adventurers–and cab drivers, accountants, homemakers—and all creative people of any kind know that the single emotion that most often holds them back is fear. Hardly a single day goes by without most people being afraid of something.

Every early morning I go to my work room upstairs and settle down to write. I’ve been writing so long and have produced so many words that generating work-space-232985_640text is second nature to me—easy, effortless, without strain. Yet, there is another emotion that is there with me some days, and certain days it’s powerful and tries to keep me from work. On those days I pause, fold my hands in my lap, gaze at the screen and ask myself, “What are you feeling now? Why are you hesitating?” And I answer, “What I’m feeling right now is fear.”

Author Joan Didion wrote, “I don’t want to go in there at all. It’s low dread every morning.. I keep saying ‘in there’ as if it is some kind of chamber, a different atmosphere. It is, in a way. There’s almost a psychic wall. The air changes. I mean you don’t want to go through that door.”

I ask myself, “What am I afraid of?”

Bear in mind that I’ve had many successes in writing. I’ve proven myself. Also, I am no coward who’s easily intimidated. I once rescued a woman from a would-be rapist–chased him, caught him, fought with him, wrestled him to the ground, and held him till the police came. I was heroic. Yet, when I sit at the computer to do the thing I do better than I do anything else, sometimes I’m scared.

Each time I visited a painter friend I saw the same unfinished painting on the easel. Nothing about it changed month after month. Not a single new brush stroke touched the canvas. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for a number of years.  When we got together again I asked, “Whatever happened to that green pastel that was on your easel so long?”

She said, “I never finished it.”

I said, “You were afraid.”

She said, “I was terrified of it.”

The goal is to be fearless when facing your creative responsibilities and tasks and obstacles, as many creative people are. Or to learn to be unafraid, or being afraid, to face up to fears and conquer them. There are creative people who are totally fearless. They don’t experience any fear whatsoever, the way some soldiers are fearless—and happiest–when under fire in combat.  Such creative people have a high threshold of fear, just as some people have a high threshold of pain.

janet self protrait3

Janet Weight Reed, self-portrait http://janetweightreed.co.uk/

There are creative people who experience fear and are stopped by it. They may be superb creatively but that doesn’t matter. They’re at fear’s mercy. When you’re stopped by fear, you have only the slightest chance of being successful. That’s why the top is such an exclusive place—because fear stops so many people from reaching it. Thousands upon thousands of wonderfully talented creative people fall by the way and simply quit–hundreds or thousands every day– because fear paralyzes them and they aren’t able to recover. There’s no premium on gifted creators. Gifted creators with indefatigable courage are a rarer breed.

Then there are other creative people who feel afraid but conquer their fear by nevertheless doing what must be done. They feel as afraid as anyone else, but they react differently. They have a lower threshold of fear than the fearless person. But they don’t permit their fear to stop them. You look at them and you can hardly believe your eyes. You know they’re afraid, and yet are unstoppable. They know that the best way to conquer fear is to do what you fear to do no matter how afraid you are. And that you can do.

sea-gull-939474_640In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the old man Santiago is in his skiff out on the sea when a small bird lands on the boat to rest. The old man talks to it, saying that the bird can stay for a while but then must fly away, taking his chances like every other bird And so must we creative people take our chances, afraid or unafraid.

 

Paintings by Janet Weight Reed, one of my favorite artists and bloggers, are featured in this post. When I told her I was writing a post on boldness, fearlessness and sincerity and would like to use a piece of her artwork, she sent me three paintings, saying:

If ever a painting of mine symbolises boldness and fearlessness, it is the attached (large oil on canvas) self-portrait.   It was painted in 1989 during one of the biggest turning points in my life and career.     I keep the painting with me as a reminder of what it is to persevere through seemingly impossible obstacles.

The hummingbird  (watercolour) also symbolises for me the same traits.     They have been significant in my paintings, large and small over the past 35 years, symbolising the ‘unseen magic’ of our world….a source to be tapped into during times of great duress.

When I observe the life of cats (small and large) – I see the same traits…..

Loving all Janet’s work, it was very difficult for me to choose one of the paintings, so I have included all three she sent me.

 

© 2016 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/rogershttp://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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Extraordinary Creative Outliers

I think all creative people are extraordinary. You’re extraordinary. I’m extraordinary too. We’ve been extraordinary all our lives and one day at the age of six or eleven or twenty-one or fifty-seven something remarkable happened and we discovered we were, and then a corner was turned.

But a separate breed of outlier creator is so extraordinary and so driven and capable of such incredible creative feats and leads such an extreme existence of sacrifice that we wonder what there is about them that inspires them so. What sustains them and equips them so perfectly to produce such exceptional work? Theirs isn’t the only path to creative achievements—most creators lead more moderate lives. But it’s a path extraordinary creative outliers often choose.

Creative outliers are so absorbed in facing challenges and solving creative problems that they have almost no interest in anything else. Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow—the premier American writer of the second half of the 20th century– 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.” He was married five times.

Novelist Jane Smiley wrote, “Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, ‘God! This is fascinating.’” Ernest Hemingway lived in poverty early in his career and sometimes stole food and said a writer’s perceptions are sharper when he’s “belly-empty, hollow hungry,” that “hunger is good discipline and you can ballerina-534356_640_copy2learn from it.” Before taking the literary world by storm late-blooming novelist/essayist Henry Miller lived in poverty too. He once said, “I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive.” Emily Dickinson, the greatest American woman poet, author of 1,775 poems, said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry. Ballerinas—artistes of artistes–may practice until their muscles scream and their feet bleed.

We look at these creative outliers and we marvel and are impressed or appalled or shocked, and often ask ourselves “Could I live an unusual life like sunflower-395026_640that? Am I willing to sacrifice so much for my art and suffer so much and risk so much?  Is that possible for me? How much of my normal life am I willing to give up? If I sacrificed more could I be great too?” And ordinarily decide it isn’t possible at all and we’re not willing to sacrifice in that way, nor suffer, nor risk all that. We couldn’t because a life like theirs asks too much. We draw a line and dare not cross it.

All creative people are obsessed to some extent or another, from mildly to ferociously, so much so that when we obsessed-but-less-obsessed creators hear about these outlier creators we have no problems understanding them since they’re only different from us in degree.

What humans in their craft can accomplish extraordinary outlier creators are willing to push themselves upward toward.  They have a genius.  They’re self-absorbed. They’re determined. They’re completely taken by a way that’s too demanding for the ordinary run of women and men. But for a select few like these outliers their craft becomes a way of life, a journey, a goal, an inevitable struggle of someone rare who’s capable of achieving the impossible.

Creative outliers pour themselves heart and soul and muscle and blood into their work. They work and they work and they work repetitively, and think bird-226700_640about their art or their writing, acting, or dancing continually, and have a monumental amount of confidence. Any time they’re not working they’re making plans for improvement because they know no matter how good you are and what you’ve accomplished you can always be better.

The fundamental role of all creators without exception is to create—to produce works–and they do with a vengeance. Pablo Picasso produced 50,000 works—1,885 paintings ,1,228 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, thousands of prints, and tapestries and rugs.

There wasn’t a moment of his waking day all his career that Nobel Prize dramatist Eugene O’Neill wasn’t thinking about writing.  He produced 35 full-length plays and 17 one act plays and revolutionized American theater. Writing  long hours, English novelist Charles Dickens—the most popular writer in the world at the time– would sometimes put his head into a bucket of cold water, dry his hair with a towel, and then go on writing.

Creative outliers learn—often at an early age–that they will achieve more if they concentrate their efforts in one area. They are aware only of the work before them, and let nothing divert them from it. French novelist Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. He said too, “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.”

French novelist/poet/dramatist Victor Hugo started his day by handing his clothes to his servant with strict orders to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of seven hours. Composer Igor Stravinsky and novelist Thomas Wolfe worked all their lives in a frenzy—Wolfe in a “wild ecstasy” at top speed, never hesitating for a word, as though he were taking dictation.

You can’t measure intensity and a person’s pure life force. But the energy pouring out of outliers like Vincent van Gogh would bowl you over. Van Gogh vincent-van-gogh-starry-night-1889worked  furiously at a fever pitch, gathering up the colors as though with a shovel, throwing them on canvas with rage, globs of paint covering the length of the paint brush, sticking to his fingers. Goethe called such super-charged outliers “demoniacs”–people with a super-abundance of vitality, “something that escapes analysis, reason, and comprehension.” Goethe was aware of this power in himself.

Russian Anton Chekhov wrote 10,000 pages of short stories, and also produced great plays like The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, and was a practicing physician too. Noted architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed—because if he didn’t, he would die.

Extraordinary creative outliers are guided by an ambition, a notion so bold that it’s almost outlandish:  that you’re born with a certain aptitude and with direction, discipline, and sacrifice you can transform yourself into something magnificent. Their focus is maniacal—all day long every day. When they’re away from their work they long for it.

Nobel novelist Toni Morrison said, “But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I Toni Morrisondon’t go to cocktail parties. I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate.” Outlier novelist Philip Roth said, “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours.” American William Faulkner said jokingly, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

We live in a world where everyone is selling something. Everyone has an ulterior motive. They want to be a brand. But these outliers only want one goal: to reach the highest heights they can. That’s it. There’s nothing else.

You look at Picasso and Faulkner and say, “Oh, that’s why painting and writing were invented. As if the gods of the arts declared, ‘To show you others how it should be done we’re going to make a person to represent perfection’.”

They have bad days, difficulties, and setbacks, and still believe in themselves. Andre Gide said, “The great artist is one …for whom the obstacle is a springboard.”   They know that effort is more important than talent. And if you say to them, “You’re just so gifted” they’ll stop you and say, “No, I’m no more talented than anyone else, no more talented than you, but I work much harder” and tell you and me, “If you want to excel you’ll have to overcome the notion that it’s easy.”

They’re a psychologically phenomenal combination of purity of focus and energy-1101474_640purity of discipline and purity of energy. Their creative lives are both comfortable and disciplined.  Even when they’re miserable they’re happy. Age has little effect on their skills except to improve them. They’re never happier and more at ease than when under pressure. They have a sense of being destined for something that very few other people are fitted for. But they are and they know they are.

They have a supreme care about their craft, and they never forget their failures. Their craft is their sanctuary. They’re never better than when doing their craft.

Outlier playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “I am of the opinion that my life sparks-142486_640belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible…”

 

© 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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