Category Archives: Creativity Self-Improvement

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

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:

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 Creators

A New Language For Creative People

A newspaper reviewer of my book Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life thought that a unique feature of the book is that it exposes the reader to an exciting new vocabulary–Asian terms for self-improvement for which there are no Western equivalents. The book begins with an example of what the book is about: the application of the psychological and spiritual insights of the samurai, the most remarkable warriors ever to walk the earth, to the everyday lives of ordinary working people—the most magnificent people of all.

samurai-161642_640It says: “The tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth. The shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease,” and tells the story of a sales woman who uses insights from the samurai Way to overcome her fear of an intimidating prospect and makes a sale.

I think it will be worthwhile to apply a select few of these terms to the lives of creative people–the Way of the artist, the Way of the writer, the Way of the composer, the architect, the performer–since so many creative people read my blog and the concepts will be so beneficial to them. As you read, think of the many applications there are to your creator’s life as so many people have.

Musha Shugyo: Samurai Training. Samurai were trained to fight in the service of a lord—with supreme self-confidence, courage, bravery, and superb samurai-67662_640skill with weapons.  Four things were especially important to samurai:

Duty—we must make good what we owe.

Self-Control—body, mind, spirit, emotions under control.

Commitment to Immediate Action—“The Way of the samurai is immediacy”—no delays.

Constant Self-Improvement—no resting on your laurels; always striving to do better; to develop your skills to the highest level you’re capable of. What creator is not trying to improve?

Ryuu: Dragons. For samurai warriors of feudal Japan all obstacles in a person’s mind, heart, and spirit were “dragons.”  A creator’s dragons are no longer of the fire-breathing variety that scared him or her as a child. They’re dragon-149393_150now a different species entirely, and to become all the creator you wish to become you will have to break completely free of them. When a samurai overcame a dragon he was “striking through the dragon’s mask.”

I arrived early at a conference room where I was to speak. Two men and a woman who’d come to hear me were early too and were at a table with their copies of Fighting To Win open. They seemed to be working hard and I asked “What are you working on?” The woman said, “We’re discussing our dragons.”  The main dragons the samurai faced and creative people face too are:

Fear: Creative women and men experience fear most every day. The samurai set out to master fear, to learn to be no more ruffled whatever he was facing—however terrible–than “someone sitting down for breakfast.”

Being Afraid to Take Risks: The desire for certainty, the sure thing, often makes us cowards. There’s no room for sure things in a creator’s world. Samurai were taught that the greatest rewards lie one inch from the foe’s blade—edge in close, take a chance. Why aren’t we more confident and bolder?

Thinking Too Much: To be creatively free creators have to learn to think much less about what might go wrong.

Doubting Yourself: The creator’s most powerful dragon is dwelling again and again and again on his shortcomings, on what he lacks.

Hesitating: Wanting to do something but stopping.

Cowardice: The Chinese language permeates the Japanese language. The Chinese character for “cowardice” is composed of two symbols, “meaning” and “mind.” Creators are often finding too much meaning in things—he or she thinks too much—often worrying and fretting and dissipating their creative energy, that fuel creators need so much of. If you believe you’re thinking too much and that it’s driving you away from instead of to your work, this could be a dragon you’ll want to get rid of.

Try to make it a point to remember the term tomaranu kokoro. No small thing in samurai fighting, it has been called “the secret essence” of the samurai martial-arts-291051_640Way. More important, it’s relevant to the Way of the Creator.  It means “a mind that knows no stopping.” If you have ever seen a master swordsman in action, you’ve witnessed tomaranu kokoro. Without once stopping he attacks, feints, cuts, slashes, turns, leaps, spins, and thrusts in a whirlwind of action.

The reason he is able to move so smoothly, effortlessly and quickly, his sword a blur, is that he is doing the same thing in his head. His body moves without stopping because his mind is tomaranu kokoro. His mind doesn’t stop to worry, to ask “what if”—“What if I lose?” “What if I die?”—or the creative person’s “What if I’m not good enough?” It doesn’t stop for anything. It keeps moving and facilitates the movement of his body.  You can see that tomaranu kokoro is an ideal state of mind for the creator–an uninhibited, free, fluent, effortless yet focused mind and body.

Toraware—its opposite–means “caught,” and tomaru means “stopping” or “abiding.” You might want to remember them too, because they help explain why so many exceptionally talented creators are not as successful as they have the potential to be. It’s when your thoughts get caught (toraware) or stopped (tomaru) that you have trouble executing a creative action. It’s when your mind doesn’t flow from one idea to another but gets hooked or snagged on self-doubt or worry or anger, etc.  that you are prevented from fully functioning  creatively. Recall the last time you had problems with a painting, sculptor, story, composition, or performance and you were upset or troubled. It was because your thoughts got caught or stopped; they didn’t flow.  You were all tied up—your mind, your body.

Whenever you find your thoughts getting caught or stopped, tell yourself to remember toraware, “caught,” and tomaru, “stopping.” More important, tell yourself to get back to tomaranu kokoro, the mind that knows no stopping, and return with confidence to your work. Let your mind be free to function according to its own natural free-flowing nature.

Fudoshin: The Skill of Making the Body Obey the Mind and Immovable Mind

Have you ever run in a marathon, felt pain, thought of stopping but refused to?  If so, you’ve tasted fudoshin, immovable mind. No matter what you were athletics-229808_6401going through your mind wouldn’t budge from the goal of finishing. The samurai spoke of iwoa no mi, “rock body” and wanted his commitments to be as immovable as a mountain. Why not yours?

The skill of making the body obey the mind is this: going into action—getting your work done, being creative, thriving, reaching success in spite of your dragons.  Not letting any dragon stop you. You needn’t go off to the top of a mountain to overcome a dragon.  You can say, “OK fear, come along if you want. “ Self-doubt, hesitation, thinking too much—you can’t stop me.” “Come on, tag along. But you cannot stop me. I’ve got a story to write, an etching to complete, a performance to give, a career to manage.”

Every day in studios, work rooms, and theatres some creators are thinking: “In order to do it (whatever it is) I’ve got to first overcome my problem—my fear (or shyness, lack of self-confidence, bad habits, indecisiveness, etc.). Once I get rid of that baby, I’ll be all right. Then I’ll be able to create my great work.” The real problem isn’t what they think it is. It is not the fear or lack of confidence. It’s their belief that the fear has the power to prevent them from doing what they should be doing.

If the creator forgets about himself and his dragons completely and focuses only on adapting to what his creative life path requires of him, no dragon will ever stop him. The dragon has no right to stop you. But your mind must be immovable. Keep your mind focused on the task. Put negative emotions out of the equation.

*******

In my next post, Part II of this topic, I’ll discuss more samurai concepts creative people can apply to improve their work and lives.

© 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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Order Waging Business Warfare: Lessons From the Military Masters in Achieving Competitive Superiority

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Confidence of Creator Champions

I

How confident a creator are you? The reason I’m asking is that many creative people are blessed with talent that’s astonishing and dazzling and have magnificent promise. Yet, they puzzle everyone—especially themselves–by not reaching the heights as expected because although they have all the talent they would ever need, they don’t have the confidence to make full use of it.

It isn’t a question of ability. Creators who lack the inner skill of confidence may have as much ability or more ability, or much more ability than their confident martial-arts-291051_640counterpart who is less gifted but much more successful. Creators who aren’t confident avoid activities which, were they confident, they might excel in.  So they’ll never know how successful they might have been had they been confident.

But when a highly confident creator begins a project, she not only thinks she will do it well, she believes she will do it superbly, believes that her novel, painting, or stage performance will be remarkable. The higher your confidence, the higher you’ll set your goals and the stronger your commitment to achieving them will be. And it is high, challenging goals, not easy goals that lead to major achievements. When you’re confident, you work harder. But low-confidence creators facing difficulty lower their effort or stop completely.

I was asked to do a teleconference. Though it seemed I was talking about many topics in that hour, there was one that I went back to time and again. And that was the need for you, for me, for he and she to have confidence because the more thinking I do, the more I believe confidence is the single most important success factor. Whatever the field, wherever you live, it’s number one. Talent without confidence will not take a writer, artist, actor, composer, or performer—or English sales person, Swedish teacher, or French social worker far.

There is no premium on talented people—he’s talented, she’s talented. Practically everyone I know is talented. But talented people who are also confident and are making full use of their talents and reaching the successes they desire are a much rarer breed. Some degree of that stuff we call talent is just one of the requirements of the creator who stands out. But it’s naïve to think that talent without confidence is sufficient to take a creator to great heights.

It’s my theme in everything I do—something I discovered a long time ago–that there’s more to everyone than they realize, more to you than even you are medal-1622523_640aware of. You are more extraordinary than you know. Being as great as you are, don’t sell yourself short.  Be confident. Aim much higher. Then you must take up the idea of becoming all the writer, painter, actor, dancer, composer you can become.  Make that idea part of your life. Think of it. Dream of it. Let your brain and every part of you be full of that idea. That’s the way to great success.

II

As a boy I was shy and had been trained by my parents to be modest and self-effacing, maybe the same as you. There was a girl in my Chicago neighborhood I had my eyes on. But after all, I was shy. I never asked her out, never talked to her. Years later she told me she wished I had.

I think I spent half my childhood and adolescence running. I loved running so much—the feel of it through my body, the joy. My first season running the 800 meters on the high school track team I did well, finishing second in the conference championship. As the second season was beginning the best senior middle distance runner sat down beside me on the bench in the locker room. We’d never spoken and I was wondering what he wanted. He said, “You’re a talented runner. I see you working harder than anyone. You’re a nice guy. But you’re not confident enough. It hasn’t sunk in yet how really good you could be. You’ll have to get over that. You have to be bold and have a concept of yourself as the best, the champion, if you hope to BE the champion.”

His doing that so selflessly, knowing I would be his main competition, meant a great deal to me and put me on the right path.  I did win the championship and set a record. Like runners, all creators and all people in whatever life’s pursuit have a need if they are to reach their peak achievements for:

Supreme self-confidence

An empowering concept of themselves

The realization that with application and never-stopping persistence high excellence is possible.

If a creator lacks self-confidence he/she must acquire it. The most powerful oscarand direct basis for confidence is past success.  If you have some kind of proof that you have the ability to achieve what you want to achieve—the skills, motivation, and know-how–because you’ve succeeded in the past, you will try to achieve it again. If you feel that way, you’ll be confident and will not likely be stopped by self-doubt, a creator’s main psychological obstacle. Strong self-confidence helps you overcome the scourge of discouragement, that dreariness that has ended thousands and thousands of creators’ careers.

Even the most self-doubting or discouraged creator has had past successes. No one fails at everything all the time. There is always something very positive that will fuel your confidence to fasten onto during periods of doubt—prizes you’ve won, awards you’ve received, the best piece of work you’ve produced, a new skill you’ve learned, a compliment. Make them the foundation of becoming the champion you deserve to be.

We are what our thoughts have made us.  Confidence says, “Never mind failures. They’ll wake you up.” Be a creator-warrior. Dwell only on success. Kick every other thought out of your mind.

 

© 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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Turning Points In The Lives Of Creative People

From the time I was a little boy watching mystery movies I’ve waited for the first clue. From that point on the solution is just a matter of time. All fates are sealed with that clue.  I will watch movies over and over, waiting for that definitive clue. And then I’m thrilled.  In the same way, I can’t think of any time in my life I haven’t been intrigued by those events in peoples’ lives that started them on the course that would define them as human beings—the Turning Points in their lives. The first clue.

Why were they this and then became that? What happened?  I would like to know. That’s true now of artists whose lives fascinate me—writers, painters, sculptors, actors, ballet dancers, composers, musicians. Was it a lucky break or a bad break? A triumph or a failure?  An illness? A significant man or woman?  A teacher? A lover? A walk on a beach?  A birth, a death?

If you and I were ever to meet–how nice that would be–I’d ask you about yours. I think you would tell me that after the Turning Point you knew right turning-arrowaway you’d never be the same. You were facing in a new direction. Winds picked up and caught your sails and you set out to sea. You were on a quest and were experiencing the pouring-out of floods of creative thoughts. You’re confident that your quest is still leading to something though you might not be aware yet just where it will take you. You will have to see.

American Nobel Prize dramatist EUGENE O’NEILL’S Turning Point was a life-threatening illness. The son of a rich and famous actor, he quit college after a year, worked as a deck hand on ocean-going ships, drank heavily in various ports, and dissipated his life.

Then he experienced his Turning Point: “I just drifted along till I was twenty-four and then I got a jolt and sat up and took notice. Retribution overtook me and I went down with T.B. It gave me time to think about myself and what I was doing—or, better, wasn’t doing. I got busy writing one act plays…If I hadn’t had an attack of tuberculosis, if I hadn’t been forced to look at myself, while I was in the sanitorium, harder than I had ever done before I might not have become a playwright.” He would, he said, “Become an artist or nothing.” From that point on, his life was centered on, focused on, and organized around writing plays.

Writer RAYMOND CHANDLER’S Turning Point was getting fired from a high-paying executive job. For many years he drifted from job to job. He started in silhouette-144967_640business as an accountant and rose to the ranks of the director of eight oil corporations. He was called by some the best businessman in America. He drank so heavily that he started going off on his own on binges without telling anyone for weeks at a time and eventually was fired– the worst crisis of his life.

But while driving along California’s Pacific coast to a cabin where he planned to figure out what to do now, he stopped at a gas station and picked up reading material: copies of Black Mask, a magazine of hard-boiled detective stories. Reading them, he decided that he could write stories as good as those, and that’s what he did, starting a  writing career at age 44 that saw him establish himself as probably the greatest writer in that genre.

Self-taught VINCENT VAN GOGH’S Turning Point was reading a particular book. Before deciding to devote himself to art he wrote to his brother Theo: “I quite well remember that when you spoke at the time of my becoming a painter, I thought it was very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me cease vincent-van-gogh-self-portrait-1887to doubt was my reading a clear book on perspective, Cassagne’s Guide to the ABC of Drawing and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with a stove, chair, table and window, in their place and on their legs, while before it had seemed to me witchcraft or pure chance to get depth and the right perspective in drawing. If you had only drawn one thing right, you would feel an irresistible longing to draw a thousand other things.”

Many creative people have Turning Points in childhood. They fall in love with some activity. Children who know what they are in love with and are pretty boy-paintingsure what they will be when they grow up are likely to be creative as adults.

At the age of eight Nobel writer SAUL BELLOW was hospitalized for half a year in the children’s ward. With boys and girls dying all around him he decided that his own survival was a near miracle; that he was “privileged” and that there was some form “of bookkeeping going on.”

He did his own mental bookkeeping and decided he “owed something to some entity for the privilege of surviving.” He believed he had “better make it worth the while of whoever it was that authorized all this.” In his twenties he turned to writing and went on to achieve all the highest literary awards. Until he died he thought it possible that he had “gotten away with something but that it had been by permission of some high authority.”

Short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER’S Turning Point was meeting a teacher– being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by John Gardner and pen-27043_640being 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.”

Gardner taught Carver to be tough on himself, showing what is best about all good teachers. Through them you learn to adopt an objective critical attitude toward your work.  You learn “taste.” At that point Carver and his wife Maryann shared the goal of Raymond not selling out his writing and not have him get involved in any career but writing. Not to forget that he was put on earth to be a great writer and for no other reason.

MARY CASSATT’S Turning Point midway in her paining career was the result mary-cassatt-89730_6401of a sequence of Turning Points: living in Paris, mingling with the French Impressionists, especially Edgar Degas, and becoming an Impressionist herself. But the single most important turning point for Cassatt was finding her true subject: mothers with their children.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY’s Turning Point was deciding a college education wasn’t for him and landing a job as a journalist on the Kansas City Star.  Over the years the “Stars” editors had complied a book of 110 rules designed to force reporters to ernest-hemingway-401493_640use simple, plain, direct, cliché-free English, and those rules were strictly enforced. Hemingway’s writing style that revolutionized the way writing is done across the globe, was based on those very rules. He later called them, “the best rules I ever learned about writing.” He showed the first cable he ever wrote to fellow writer Lincoln Steffens and said, “Steffens, look at this cable: no fat, no adjectives, no adverbs…It’s a new language.”

Novelist THOMAS WOLFE’S Turning Point was submitting his first novel to Maxwell Perkins and Perkins becoming his editor. Perkins was the most acclaimed book editor of the twentieth century and thus far in the twenty-first. During the 1920s and 30s his Scribner’s writers included the greatest and most gifted working with one editor in the history of American publishing. They included, in addition to his protégé Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ring Lardner. Wolfe’s association with Perkins is the most celebrated author/editor relationship in American literature.

Wolfe was stupendously talented. But his main problems were his uncontrollable, obsessive verbosity and a chronic inability to cut that resulted in unedited manuscripts of fantastic lengths, three or four times longer than a publishable book could possibly be.

Those problems in turn were caused by Wolfe’s difficulty making any kind of vintage-typewriterindependent decisions. He didn’t know where or what to cut. He would stare for hours at the manuscript before eliminating a few sentences when his agreement with Perkins was that he would strike out tens of thousands–a hundred thousand—words. He would start by rereading the manuscript section by section, trying to find things that were unnecessary and could be omitted. But he was totally blind to them. He never in his entire career had a concept of a publishable book.

The day before Christmas, 1929 Wolfe wrote to Perkins: “One year ago I had little hope for my work, and I did not know you…. You are now mixed with my book in such a way that I can never separate the two of you. I can no longer think clearly of the time I wrote it, but rather of the time when you first talked to me about it, and when you worked upon it….You have done what I had ceased to believe that one person could do for another–you have created liberty and hope for me.” Wolfe wrote a note to Perkins: “In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend.”

I doubt there’s ever been a great creator who after a Turning Point didn’t have a powerful sense of single-mindedness and an ability to persevere, face difficulties, and concentrate on reaching goals while resisting distractions.

And rarely, if ever, wandering off on tangents. High-powered focused attention is a result of Turning Points–the ability of the creator to be absorbed, caught up in, and wholly involved in his/her creative existence.

Do you remember your Turning Point?  Just look up from the screen now and reflect on when the first clue appeared in the mystery you call your life and you turned from this direction to that.

 

© 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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15 Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure

When most creative people pursue their goals they imagine what it would be like to reach them (Hope of Success). And they also worry that the goal will not mountain -seabe reached (Fear of Failure). Those two emotions go together and are reverse sides of the same coin. That creators’ fear of failure is perfectly natural and is to be expected whenever you’re facing a difficult, challenging task, such as a writer crafting a play if she’s never written one before, or a lithographer preparing a work for an important contest.

But at times the fear of failing becomes a major psychological obstacle that keeps creators from reaching the success and satisfaction they’ve been hoping for. Creators who are dominated by the fear of not succeeding, but failing have developed—often without realizing it–characteristic tactics for protecting themselves from enduring what often is not just a fear of failing, but a much more dreadful terror of failing. Ironically, those tactics do more to contribute to failure than to prevent it.  It’s worthwhile looking at those tactics that you might recognize in yourself so that something might be done about them.

Rather than enduring the misery of experiencing that terror of failing the person harried by it may:

  • Avoid competing with others of comparable ability. They prefer being the big fish in the little pond.
  • Be perfectionists. They don’t attempt things in which they won’t be able to attain perfection or near perfection. The tactic here is to carve out a very narrow area of competence in which they excel and can approximate perfection.
  • Prefer very easy or very difficult tasks, nothing in the middle. In contrast, most high achievers generally pursue tasks and goals they have a one in three or two in three chance of succeeding at. Not a sure thing and not an impossible thing.
  • Avoid displaying their abilities in public. A pianist may be able to perform beautifully in private, but shy away from performing in front of people.
  • Avoid attempting anything important. The more important the activity, the more they avoid it. A writer may avoid trying to get his work published even though publication is the logical outcome of the writing process.
  • Avoid taking risks. Most creators who become eminent experience turning points at which they take a risk which their less eminent contemporaries are too timid to take. Fear of taking chances melts in the face of a strong and urgent purpose and self-confidence (If you’ve been reading my posts you can’t have helped but notice I’m enamored with self-confidence because it, along with skill, is the antidote to most creator’s main problems, including self-doubt and discouragement).
  • Have trouble performing under time pressure. They panic as they approach the deadline. Even the word “deadline’ scares them. They delay. They give up. They shut down. More confident creators are challenged by a race against time and are often the most excited and highly focused and at the height of their skills when the clock is ticking. The best tactic is to forget about the deadline completely and focus totally on the task.
  • Prefer practice and games rather than the real thing.
  • Seek social support. People who fail tend to have as friends others who fail.
  • Have unrealistic expectations–oddly enough, on the high side. Asked to estimate how well they’ll do at achieving a goal they will say they’ll do far better than they actually will. I had an egotistical friend in college who wrote a paper for English in which he said he was brilliant, a great lover women couldn’t resist, handsome, a wonderful athlete, and a conversationalist who could charm birds out of trees. The professor returned his paper with the comment scrawled on it: “It’s a shame you can’t add a command of the English language to the list of your other accomplishments.”
  • Misjudge past performance. They also exaggerate how well they did in the past.
  • Reject the measure of a skill. For example, the student who doesn’t do well and says, “Getting good grades doesn’t mean a thing.”
  • Avoid measurements of their performance. They don’t want to know how well or poorly they’re doing, for if they knew they might have to admit they failed. Without contrary information they can always say, “I’m doing pretty well.” At work, they are the employees who dread performance evaluations. They might even arrange to stay home on the day of the evaluation. The best writers, best painters and actors are just the opposite. They want to know if they’re doing well or poorly. They welcome feedback, and actively seek it, feedback that is rapid, specific, and helpful. They are always asking about their work, “Well, what d’ya think of it?” Studies of highly creative people show that they accept helpful guidance and have “an openness to advice.”
  • Not try. A fear that dominates many creators and makes them quit trying to succeed is the fear of failing to reach financial success, or just break even. Writer Francois Voltaire and painter Claude Monet won Money treefortunes in government lotteries and were able to devote themselves completely to their work. But Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner spent most of his writing life in virtual poverty. When his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine he couldn’t  pay his electric bill of $35. He wrote: “People are afraid to find out how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.” But financial risk is part of the creator’s life style and for many writers the fear of being broke can be exhilarating, a source of creative energy. Most creators perform better under some amount of financial pressure. Sherwood Anderson’s publisher thought financial security would help him produce more and sent him a weekly stipend. But that made him less productive, and Anderson asked them not to send it anymore: “It’s no use. I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face.” In The Courage to Write Ralph Keyes says, “Knowing that there is a direct line between putting words on a page and food on the table keeps me focused.” Picasso said he was rich but tried to work as though he was poor.
  • Reject responsibility for their failures. If you wipe your hands of responsibility, all pressure is off and all fear of failing disappears. You might know creators who go to great lengths to avoid responsibility. They concoct elaborate excuses for their failures.

symphony-hall-893342_640A not uncommon fear of failure among creators takes the form of “encore anxiety.” It is the fear after producing a successful first work that no matter what you do you won’t be able to produce a second work that’s as good or as successful.

 

To overcome fear of failure, go down the above list and develop counter-tactics. For example:

  1. Always try; don’t not try.
  2. Be interested in measurements of your performance; don’t avoid them.
  3. Consider your past achievements dispassionately; put your ego aside.
  4. Associate with other successful creators of comparable ability, not failures with less ability.
  5. Pursue goals that aren’t easy, goals that are a little out of reach.
  6. Open yourself up to areas in which you haven’t yet mastered perfection
  7. Take more chances; that shouldn’t he hard because creators are attracted by risks.
  8. Have realistic, not unrealistic, expectations.
  9. Judge your performance as accurately as you can.
  10. Actively seek feedback on your performance; don’t avoid it.
  11. Have no fear of financial pressures; let them motivate you.
  12. Be confident that you will succeed again.
  13. Don’t be intimidated by deadlines and time pressures; they help you perform better.
  14. Don’t fear competition. It may bring out the best in you and help you reach a level of success in your craft you’ve never dreamed of.
  15. Accept responsibility for failures.

success-620300_640All creators are capable of overcoming fears of failing, and when they aren’t extreme and debilitating, those fears can be positive—a push, an incentive– and have helped many creative people reach success.

 

© 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

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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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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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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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