Category Archives: Artistic Perfection

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:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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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:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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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/rogers

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by 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:

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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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20 Tips on Writing Like a Nobel Prize Winner

Writer Flannery O’Connor thought that any idiot with some talent can be taught to write a competent story, and something on that order may be true of all the arts. But a quest all creators aiming beyond mere competence are engaged in—writers, artists, actors, architects, dancers– or should be engaged in is discovering and refining a style which expresses exactly their unique vision and their unique skills and their unique selves.

old-1130735_640When they settle on that style their work leaps up in quality and they are whole.  But until they find it–it may take years– they cannot possibly come into their own and fully bloom and realize their highest creative potential. Style is the constant form in the creator’s work, the never-changing elements or qualities and expression of the person—his or her manner of communicating what is communicated.

Finding THE style that suits you supremely well is no small matter. A distinctive style that’s your own is the first sign of artistic greatness. There are styles that are okay for you and more styles that are wrong for you. And one style that is best. And the best may not be the style you’re writing in currently.

Nobel Prize winning writer Toni Morrison wrote that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.”  And the most influential literary stylist on earth in the last 100 years was American Ernest Hemingway whose Nobel Prize citation reads, “For his mastery of the art of narrative…and for the influence he has exerted on contemporary style.” Hemingway’s techniques “have profoundly influenced generations of writers across all boundaries of nationality, gender, race, ideology, sexual orientation, class, religion, and artistic temperament” (Robert Paul Lamb). Critic Alfred Kazin:  Hemingway “gave a whole new dimension to English prose by making it almost as exact as poetry.” Joan Didion said about Hemingway’s style: “I mean they’re perfect sentences.”

ernest-hemingway-401493_640Probably no fiction writer before or since worked so hard for so long or prepared so thoroughly to create a personal manner of writing that was so perfectly suited to the writing he wanted to do. If you’re looking for a model of how a writer should develop skills you can do no better than hard-working Hemingway.

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and  we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves” (First paragraph of A Farewell to Arms).

Until you perfect your own style and are satisfied with it, you may wish to pick out from the style of Ernest Hemingway whatever might be useful to you. If you want to improve your writing by learning from the master—and what serious writer wouldn’t–here are 20 practical tips on writing like a Nobel Prize winner:

* To cause the most powerful emotional responses in the reader always understate, never overstate. Don’t lay it on thick. Write prose that’s always less emotional than the events seem to call for. No emotional excess. Reject sentimentality. Hemingway doesn’t state characters’ emotional responses at all except in the simplest way. He might say the character “felt lousy” or felt “bad.” The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint you should use in writing about it. And then the result will be emotionally powerful. Flannery O’ Connor said the fiction writer has to realize that he can’t create emotions with emotion. If you want the reader to feel pity, be somewhat cold. Write in a subdued, unemotional voice. Make your prose cool and dispassionate.

* Don’t make the reader aware of your style. When you’re reading Hemingway you’re reading an extraordinary style. But you’re unaware of it.

* Have an intense awareness of the world of the senses. No one renders the physical world with more vividness than Hemingway. His descriptions of mountains, hills, plains, and valleys are beautiful and unrivaled.

* Base your paragraphs on simple sequences—the Hemingway character does this, then does that, then does something else—gets up from the table, crosses the room, goes down the stairs, and  then steps outside where the sun is shining and the flowers are red and yellow.

* Avoid describing the mental state of characters. Show it in the action.

* Simplify in every way you can.  Willa Cather said, “The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification.” “To write simply is as difficult as to be good” (Somerset Maugham). Fiction these days has shifted more and more toward greater conciseness and simplicity.

* Be completely objective. The more objective you are the stronger will be the impression your writing will make on the reader. State the facts.

* Tell the truth.  “A writer’s job is to tell the truth…Do not describe scenes you have not witnessed yourself” (Hemingway). Write down what you see and feel in the simplest way you can. Anton Chekhov: “One must never lie. Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…there is absolutely no lying in art.” Hemingway’s works are generally autobiographical and stamped with authenticity.  He never wrote about anything he hadn’t first experienced himself.  He said, “I can only write from memory.” That creates trust in the reader.

* Show absolute sincerity. The particularly effective writer will develop a relationship with readers that goes beyond liking to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity the reader finds in the work. Hemingway is the sincerest of writers.

* Do no moralizing, no moral judgments—have no “messages.” Don’t preach.

* Eliminate long words or use them sparingly. But always use the mot just, the single best and most accurate word to convey exactly what you’re trying to say.  “I have never used a word without first considering if it is replaceable” (Hemingway). Put the right words in the right order to do the subject the most justice.

* When writing short stories make the stories simple—simple plots. The more elaborate the plot of a short story, the less effective as a work of art it tends to be. In many Hemingway stories very little happens.  In fact some of them aren’t even stories, but sketches that are only a few pages long. The same is true of Chekhov, and he and Hemingway, along with Guy de Maupassant, were the three greatest short story writers in the history of literature.

* Be brief, condensed, maximally concise. Not a single word should be unnecessary or superfluous.  A minimum number of words selected with care.

* Provide few details and make them precise and concrete. Too much detail exhausts the readers and takes their mind off the action—and that’s where it should always be.

* Stress clarity at all times.

* It’s not necessary to state everything. Rely on suggestion.  Leave some things for the reader to figure out.

* Write in a style that’s easy and flowing and has simple rhythms—a tremendously appealing sensual style.

* Keep sentences short and simple–a series of short declarative simple sentences, generally not complex or compound. No ornamental rhetoric. Write forceful and direct prose. There is hardly a single simile or metaphor in all the works of Hemingway. Dialogue sentences especially should be short.

* Severely limit adjectives and adverbs. Emphasize nouns and verbs. If Hemingway used adjectives they were inexact and common—“The trees were big and the foliage thick, but it was not gloomy.”  The colors were “bright.” “Hemingway certainly helped bury the notion…that the more you pile on the adjectives the closer you get to describing the thing” (Tom Stoppard).

* Cut exposition to an absolute minimum.  No explanations, discussion, analysis, and comments. Eliminate the frame. It’s not necessary. Jump right into the action.

stockholm-952497_640Having found your right style you’ll be equipped to achieve the writer’s objective “to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader” (Hemingway). Everything with brevity, economy, simplicity, intensity. It isn’t possible to overstate the influence of Hemingway on the way Americans speak or on how writers everywhere write fiction.

 

© 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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Filed under Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Literature, Motivation, Preparation, The Writer's Path, Work Production, Writers, Writing Style

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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Woman with a Broken Heart

This is different from the kind of posts I normally write, but I discovered it and I wanted you to see it.

George Voyajolu (2)

Storm By The Gulf by George Voyajolu

There are many reasons why this strange mesmerizing work has such a powerful effect on so many people. One is its economy—the writer’s rarely-achieved ideal of not a single unnecessary word. Others are its lyricism and its evocative imagery, its haunting non-metrical rhythms, and its repetitions and grammatical strangeness that lead at the poem’s end to an almost unbearable emotion.

The poem’s uniqueness is struck right away in the opening line by the mixed tenses—“It is” (present tense) is matched with “last night …was speaking of you” (past tense). The “correct” tenses would be far less effective in portraying the feelings of this woman.

It was written by an anonymous 8th-century Irish poet and translated into English by Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932). It’s titled “Donal Og,” “Young Donal.”

Read it out loud to yourself.

 

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you forever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me.

 

The poem is rich in exotic descriptive detail along with great simplicity and lack of straining for effect—qualities of all true art. The imaginative phrases as well as the rustic setting blend with the lonely speaker’s sad lament, contributing to the reader’s compassion and the poem’s powerful effect.

 

© 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/rogers

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

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Preparation and Creative Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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