Category Archives: Emily Dickinson

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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Filed under Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Literature, Motivation, Outliers, Picasso, Poetry, Preparation, Self-Confidence, Self-Direction, Stamina, Success, The Writer's Path, Thomas Wolfe, Vincent van Gogh, Work Production, Writers

Self-Taught Artists and Writers

I’m guessing that very few of you reading this post graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and  many did not graduate from any graduate writing program, and possibly you were not even an English or journalism major in college. You might have had a major that was totally unrelated to writing, like Nobel novelist Saul Sorbonne634035_640Bellow, an anthropology major, or innovative French novelist/ screenwriter/essayist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an agronomist, or may not have attended college at all. Many great writers, like Nobel winner Ernest Hemingway, had no interest in attending college, and many others, like Nobel winners William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O’Neill didn’t take college seriously (well that’s probably true of 30 or 40% of all college students), and quit it because they thought it was not only not helping them, but holding them back. And I’m guessing that not more than, let’s see, two of you painters attended the Sorbonne, and some possibly never attended any art school. Yet you’re capable and have had writing and painting success. Your work has been published and art works have been shown. Some of you are professionals earning a substantial living.

The majority of you are autodidacts—mainly self-taught–and many of you autodidacts, you formally “untutored” creative people, have surpassed and achieved more success than many if not most Iowa writers, and Sorbonne painters. When most of what you know about how to paint or write creatively is a result of what you have taught yourself, of knowledge and experience you’ve acquired on your own, there is directness, freshness, and truthfulness in your work that you might not have achieved had you followed a more conventional developmental route that “everyone else” seems to be following.

French painter Henri Rousseau (1840-1910) was a self-taught autodidact too. An official with the French customs office, he began painting as a late-blooming amateur “Sunday painter” who might take his cheap paint box out into the park for an afternoon’s relaxation. He signed Rousseauhis first picture at the age of 36 and exhibited in his first show at 40. His earliest paintings were technically incorrect and unsophisticated as the work of a beginner usually is. The forms were stiff and simple; the proportions were inaccurate, and the perspectives were wrong. But in his work there was “something” that drew the attention of critics and the public—the honesty in the works, a directness that came right out of his obvious joy in the act of creation. He was an advanced autodidact and did things that other unschooled artists did not usually do, and conventionally trained painters did not do. Paint which in a run-of-the-mill painting of a beginner would be thin and dry is applied with rich body. Colors that would be anemic or muddy in the ordinary newcomer’s work were clear in Rousseau. His work continued to grow in popularity. His paintings created a world of enchantment.

This was a dangerous point for Rousseau because he had to strike a balance of learning to be more technically proficient, but not to the point that technical qualities would obliterate the originality that came to him naturally, just as I hope however technically advanced you become, you never lose your natural and authentic voice.  Rousseau had to guard his naiveté and so he created for himself a personal style based on the forms that had been spontaneous to him as a beginner—a highly cultivated style that at the same time was rooted in an untutored simplicity. And that is Rousseau’s special charm.

Although seriously technically limited by conventional standards, a painting or a story, poem, or novel, or any creative product, may be a work of art even if the work’s quality is half-accidental, as it was with Henri Rousseau.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), another thoroughly self-taught autodidact, ended his formal education at eleven. During the six years between 1849 and 1855 he turned himself from a lazy second-rate journalist and less than average creative walt-whitman-391107_640writer who couldn’t hold a job into–through a “liberation of language” never seen before on earth—one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. Prior to his first book– Leaves of Grass–he seemed to be a very untalented man. Before becoming the” father of American poetry,” he worked as a carpenter (building his own home) and as an elementary school teacher, printer, editor, shopkeeper, and in the world of newspapers, paled around with artists and sculptors, attended operas (said he learned more about writing from operas than from anything else), studied history and astronomy on his own, read voraciously, and believed in self-help and self-education. He said that during those years before Leaves of Grass when he was writing “conventional verse” he was “simmering, simmering, simmering.” This man who wrote, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am” developed in those mystical six years a vision and style that no one since has been able to duplicate. His poetry startled the literary world and started a new direction in poetry. Readers were astonished.

Living not far from Whitman at the time, and working in solitude, unknown to the literary world, was quiet, subdued poet Emily Dickinson. Do you think it is a coincidence that those two untutored autodidacts who worked alone, were unknown, taught themselves, and never met,  would become America’s finest poets and produce work the likes of which no one had ever seen before?

Most often the reason a writer, artist, composer, etc. is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented, but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet. In writing and every other art, every other discipline, knowledge isn’t everything, but almost everything. The more you know, the more you can achieve—the greater your reach. The self-taught creator knows that and follows an atypical but most productive route to the knowledge she needs to excel. She looks for it wherever it may be and acquires it on her own. She has high motivation and a thirst for learning about her craft that cannot be quenched.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was reading Whitman in 1886 around the time he was painting the apocalyptic “Starry Night.” If you know your Whitman that makes perfect sense. A solitary who worked outside of any school or tradition, vincent-van-gogh-89422_640van Gogh was self-made. He had only one year’s total training from instructors, but studied ceaselessly on his own, the autodidact of autodidacts. He had tremendous faith in the future of his work, and felt it was worth sacrificing everything for it. He was a harsh self-critic, considering many of his paintings now accepted as masterpieces mere studies. At the time of his death he had sold one painting and traded another for brushes, had been represented by just a few dealers, had participated in a half-dozen shows, and had dissuaded critics from writing about his work. Few artists of any kind have made themselves as knowledgeable or clear-sighted about their art, or have a more developed understanding of painting. He rarely signed his works, believing that to do so was arrogant, and that an artist should work humbly. He had a short but prodigious career, leaving behind a legacy of more than 2,000 paintings and drawings at his death at thirty-seven.

Artists and writers and people in general who don’t follow a traditional route to expertise and beyond that to excellence–who go off on their own–may produce direct, fresh, original work they might not have been able to produce had they followed a traditional path. They are original often because they see that the traditional rules don’t suit them, or they don’t know the rules and aren’t limited by them. It may take them longer. By necessity they may have to be late-bloomers like Rousseau, van Gogh, and Whitman. But what does time matter if time is needed for you to come into your own? When writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman told himself, “Make it new.” and he did.

What we learn from autodidacts is to be original, be true to ourselves, be honest, be direct, don’t hide from ourselves, and find our own truth though it may be different from everyone else’s. You are not like other artists or writers. In Leaves of Grass Whitman writes, “I celebrate myself” which seems to me not a bad place for creative people to start.

(For further reading, you may wish to see the excellent Van Gogh: A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein, and Geoffrey Dutton’s Whitman)


© 2015 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 Artists, Audidacticism, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Emily Dickinson, Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh, Walt Whitman