Category Archives: Encouragement

Raymond Carver: Teaching and Mentoring a Writer Whose Goal Was Greatness

More than any other writer, Raymond Carver (1938-1988) revitalized the American short story when in the last third of the twentieth century that genre had grown stale. Carver’s subject matter had never been a part of American literature before and his writing techniques were also unique. In the 1980s when he was most active he was referred to by a British literary critic as “the image of Raymond Carver From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositoryAmerican Chekhov.” Another critic considered Carver “one of the greatest modern short story writers.” Poet Hayden Carruth wrote, “Among the great American writers of the 20th century, no question, Carver is the most endearing. He carries our humanity into the 21st.”

From the age of sixteen until his death, Carver’s goal was to be a great writer, and if need be, to sacrifice everything else to reach that goal.  He married young and had two children before he was twenty. According to biographer Carol Sklenicka’ s Raymond Carver: a Life, Carver and his  first wife Mary shared that goal “not to sell out Ray’s writing, to not have him get involved in some other career that would make him forget what he really was here on earth to do.”

“Mary had had a big dream that her husband was going to be not just a good writer, but a great one, and she was willing to waitress and sell encyclopedias, and do all this while he was back home drinking, dickering with his short stories…Whether you say her motives were religious or altruistic, she was completely devoted to having Ray become a great writer. She worked tirelessly to that vision and gave the best she had to give.” It was Mary Ann’s role to earn the money Carver needed to start as a writer’s tenuous career and to support him and see that “he got things done.” We will never know if Carver would have reached the success he did without her support.

Few writers have had such an impact on a genre of writing in America as Carver had on the short story in that era. He was not a novelist. Although he is best remembered for his eight books of short stories including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, he also wrote essays, plays, reviews, a screen play, and seven book of poetry, including A New Path To The Waterfall. Ten films have been made from his stories. About his poetry, the Times Literary Supplement found it “infused with a largesse of spirit that adds a new dimension to the impression the man left by the cool perfection of his stories.”

You cannot talk about Carver without mentioning his many troubles. Throughout his adult life Carver struggled with alcoholism, marital problems, divorce, and bankruptcies.  Drinking calmed his anxieties and resentments and allowed him to have fun, but his need for booze became more powerful as it helped him to medicate his feelings.  His private life was difficult and the strains destroyed his first marriage. As many artists are able to he had the ability to find literary material in the suffering he lived through. A stylist, he was able to relate his life’s conflicts to readers in direct, carefully-crafted stories and poems.

 

The Approach and Impact of John Gardner

A major turning point in Carver’s life and writing career was discovering the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov; another was his being taught and mentored in 1958 in a John Gardner From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositorycollege class at Chico State University by John Gardner (1933-1982). In years to come Gardner, then twenty-six, would become an important and influential person in American literature. Carver said that a good writing teacher is something like a literary conscience, a friendly critical voice in your ear, and that after being taught by Gardner, all his writing career he sensed him looking over his shoulder when he wrote, showing approval or disapproval over words, phrases, and strategies.

Gardner would write philosophical fiction best sellers Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and esteemed books for writers The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. When Carver met him, Gardner was an advanced thinker who worked day and night to refine his aesthetics and to communicate his sophisticated, yet practical knowledge to students.  He believed that “Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved.”

In a relationship such as Gardner and Carver had “a master transfers the knowledge, expectations, and experiences of a science, art, skill, or philosophy to a protégé who may eventually establish a new frontier in the field, break existing records, and create new traditions” (Donna Rae Clausen). The process of matching a promising novice with an expert challenges the novice and provides encouragement in the development of his or her talent.

Gardner’s teaching, personality, and work routines affected Carver profoundly. Gardner believed that to be successful writers had to possess something on the order of what I call “inner skills of the artist:” certain psychological traits such as a sensitivity to language, accuracy of observation, the special intelligence of the story-teller, and a writer’s intuition.

He said, “Art depends heavily on feelings, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rules, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green. It is feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportion of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things” He believed he could help students develop those traits through his teaching.

Gardner would begin the school year by assembling his students on the lawn, ask them a few questions, and tell them he didn’t think that any of them had what it took to be a writer, that as far as he could see none of the students had the necessary fire. He said he would do what he could for them, that they were about to set out on a trip and they would do well to hold onto their hats.  Starting the class that way was meant to intimidate students who weren’t serious.

Cartoon of man watering can as head watering man with plant as headGardner thought that a novelist needed “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” He was energetic and charismatic and his students responded. One student said “he was born with a quicker ratio to the passage of time than the rest of us.” Carver said that Gardner’s teaching “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.”  He considered Gardner the teacher who first inspired him and intimidated him, teaching him to be tough on himself.

Carver said, “I was simply electrified…(Gardner) was out of a different cloth from anyone I’d ever met…He was very helpful…and I was at that particular point in my life when nothing was lost on me. And changed the way I looked at things…my life was pretty boxed in, but I learned things from him and even if I couldn’t put these things into practice immediately, the things I learned were longstanding and abiding.”

Gardner taught Carver that the best writers discover what they want to say in the process of “seeing” what their writing is saying, that writing was more than self-expression, and that the best writing had always come from a serious attempt to write in a particular form. Gardner believed in traditional plots and drew plot diagrams.

Gardner believed that art could have a moral impact (in 1978 writing the book On Moral Fiction), and was a believer in the importance to the would-be writer of what could be learned by a serious study of the best writers literature had to offer. Carver said that Gardner “was here to tell us which authors to read (such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Henry James and Camus and Proust) as well as teach us to write.” He taught Carver to prefer plain words over pseudo-poetic words–(“ground”, not “earth.”)

Carver was sensitive to criticism, but Gardner always found something to praise to balance the criticism. He wrote “nice” or “good” in the margins from time to time. When Carver saw those comments his heart would lift. The single principle that Gardner applied to all the stories was “If the words and sentiments were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn’t care about or couldn’t believe in. then nobody could ever care anything about it.” Gardner believed that writers should be aware of the battle that goes on in the writer between “those age-old enemies, the real and the fake.”

Possibly the lesson Carver learned from Gardner was that a serious and passionate writer might also be an unpublished writer. Carver was desperate to publish but the stacks of manuscripts in Gardner’s office gave Carver reason to hope and have patience in the years to come,

Gardner recognized that Carver had an exceptional talent, but was “desperately poor” and needed a place to work. He invited Carver to use his college office and typewriter on weekends.  Carver and Gardner did not become personal friends. There was a five year difference in age and other differences between them. Gardner with a Master’s degree and Ph.D was far better educated.

Gardner, who was to die at forty-nine, was supportive of Carver’s writing, and applied pressure on him to excel.  He deleted some of Carver’s words, phrases and sentences, and made it clear to him that the changes were not negotiable. Carver said, “We’d discuss commas in my stories as if nothing else mattered at that moment.” Carver became more and more committed to writing excellence. He said “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but it interfered with his writing.” Through his perseverance he was eventually published prolifically.

Carver was to teach writing at universities when he became established and more widely known and his stores were being regularly published.  Like Gardner Carver believed that to be successful writers must come to the role with certain traits. He said, “No teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place. “

Jay McInerney, one of Carver’s students, said of Carver, “He mumbled. I think now it was a function of a deep humility and a respect for the language bordering on awe, a reflection of his sense that words should be handled very, very gingerly.” Carver taught that literature could be fashioned out of “real life, whatever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup.”

Carver didn’t believe that the work of a student should be negatively criticized. He was not there to discourage anyone. His harshest criticism was “it is good you got that story behind you.” Another of Carver’s students said, “He taught me passion and anger and focus.” Just as Carver received invaluable help and feedback from john Gardner, Carver, in turn, provided that type of assistance to his students.

In the spring of 1982 a student happened to stop by Carver’s house a few minutes after Carver had heard that Gardner had died in a motorcycle crash. Carver was distraught and couldn’t sit still and he talked about Gardner. He said that before he met Gardner he didn’t even know what a writer looked like, but “John looked like a writer.”

Every writer will benefit from feedback and active help. A writer of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly from someone whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that?  If not, I must. Am I receptive to constructive criticism?  If my mind is closed I won’t benefit.”

No one on earth has achieved anything significant without help.

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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Inspiration and Information for People in the Arts: Parts 2 and 3

PART TWO

Monet painting of man and woman in a boat

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMALL ART AND GREAT ART

  • “The great art includes much that the small art excludes: humor, pain, and evil.” (Oscar W. Firkins)
  • “Great art is either easy or impossible.” (George Bernard Shaw)
  • Indifference to the response of an audience “is a necessary trait of all artists who have something new to say.” (Art critic Roger Fry)
  • “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (Jonathan Swift)
  • “Every great and original writer…must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

 

UNDERSTAND THAT IT IS NOT POSSIBE TO DESCRIBE THE COMPLETE, COMPLEX STRUCTURE OF KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS AN EXPERT ARTIST HAS ACQUIRED;

  • “Mastering accumulated knowledge, gathering new facts, observing, exploring, experimenting, developing technique and skill, sensibility, and discrimination…The sheer labor of preparing technically for creative work, consciously acquiring the requisite knowledge of a medium and skills in its use, is extensive and enough to repel many from achievement.” (Brewster Ghiselin)
  • “Every artist was first an amateur.” (R.W. Emerson)
  • “When a painting is finished, it is like a new-born child. The artist himself must have time for understanding it.” (Henri Matisse)

 

THE VALUE IN ALL ARTS OF SUCCINCTNESS, INCLUDING ONLY WHAT IS ESSENTIAL

  • “In art economy is always beauty.” (Henry James)
  • “The first and most important thing of all, at least for writers today, is to strip language clean, to lay it bare down to the bone.” (Ernest Hemingway)
  • “A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end.” (Henry David Thoreau)

 

ARTISTS ARE BY NATURE INDEPENDENT, RESTLESS, AND CONFIDENT OF THEIR TALENT

  • “The artist must do the launching of his own career. He has to prove what he can do for himself.” (Vladimir Horowitz)
  • “I have never known a poet who did not think himself super-excellent.” (Cicero)
  • “How few writers can prostitute their powers. They are always implying, ‘I am capable of higher things”.” (Edward Morgan Forster)
  • The process of creativity is “characterized…by restlessness, and creative people often move on to other projects just when the world is beginning to catch on to what they have done.” (Jane Piirto)
  • “The experience of most artists is that the quality of their production is in keeping with the intensity of their wish.” (Abbe Dimnet)
  • “Writing is a compulsive and delectable thing.” (Henry Miller)

 

MOST ARTISTS HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR

  • When a young man approached him and said, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” James Joyce said, “No, it’s done a lot of other things too.” (James Sutherland)

 

HOW ART WORKS: THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST

  • “Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment in recognition of the pattern.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
  • “Without charm there can be no fine literature, as there can be no perfect flower without fragrance.” (Arthur Symons)
  • “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts.” (R.W. Emerson)
  • “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (James Joyce)
  • “The work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it.” (John Dewey)
  • “The chief stimulus of good style is to possess a full, rich complex matter to deal with.” (Walter Pater)
  • “A man’s (writer’s) works often describe his longings or temptations and almost never his own true story.” (Albert Camus)

 

PART THREE


Van Gogh Cedar trees

ART WHOLLY TAKES OVER THE DEVOTED ARTIST

  • The painter’s brush consumes his dreams.” (W.B. Yeats)
  • “What artists call posterity is the posterity of the work of art.” (Marcel Proust)
  • “Many excellent writers, very many painters, and most musicians are so tedious on any subject but their own.” (Arthur Symons)
  • “I do not believe there lives the Southern writer who can say without lying that writing is any fun to him.” (William Faulkner)
  • “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” (John Ruskin)

 

OFTEN ARTISTS DON’T THINK HIGHLY OF THEIR CRITICS

  • “You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art.” (Benjamin Disraeli) But when T.S. Eliot, an editor himself for a time, was asked if he agreed that most editors are failed writers he said, “Perhaps, but so are most writers.” (I.A. Richards)
  • “Some critics haven’t had a new idea since they were undergraduates.”(Saul Bellow)
  • “I am convinced that the spontaneous judgment of the public is always more authentic than the opinion of those who set themselves up to be judges of works of art.” (Igor Stravinsky)
  • “A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate it to the world.” (Joseph Addison)

 

THE ARTIST WORKS HARD, BUT COULD WORK HARDER

  • “Genius has been defined as a supreme capacity for taking trouble.” (Samuel Butler)
  • “If you wish to be a writer, write.” (Epictetus)
  • “Nine out of ten writers, I am sure, could write more. I think they should and, if they did, they would find their work improving even beyond their own, their agent’s, and their editor’s highest hopes.” (John Creasey)

 

ARTISTS ARE SENSITIVE ABOUT EVEN THE SMALLEST THINGS

  • “A poet can survive everything but a misprint.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • At tea once, novelist Ronald Firbank said to poet Siegfried Sassoon, “I adore italics, don’t you?”

 

ARTISTS ARE INDEBTED TO THE WORK OF OTHER ARTISTS

  • “Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total of knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available to his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.” (Ernest Hemingway)
  • “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” (Albert Einstein)

 

AMONG THE INSPIRATION AND INFORMATION FOR PEOPLE IN THE ARTS IS THE UNVERSAL TRUTH THAT CRAFT SHOULD BE SUBTLE AND NEVER DRAW ATTENTION TO ITSELF IN A WORK

  • “Art lies in concealing art.” (Ovid)

 

ARTISTS MUST SACRIFICE

  • “To follow an art you’ve got to give something up.” (Katherine Anne Porter)
  • “Tolerate nothing around you which is not useful to you or which you do not find beautiful.” (John Ruskin)

 

ARTISTIC LICENSE

  • “Poets have a license to lie.” (Pliny the Younger)

 

ART BENEFITS FROM PATIENCE:  DON’T BE IN SUCH A HURRY

  • “Art done least rapidly, art most cherishes.” (Robert Browning)

 

WRITING IS NO GOOD WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE

  • “The reason that so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” (Walter Bagehot)
  • “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • “All our words from loose using have lost theirs edge.” (Ernest Hemingway)
  • “The literary artist is of necessity a scholar.” (Walter Pater)

 

STAY AN ARTIST AS LONG AS YOU LIVE

  • “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” (Pablo Picasso)

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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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

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