Category Archives: Excellence in the Arts

The Three Qualities Found  in Successful Artists and Writers

A Story of Three Artistic Friends

I was sitting in my living room that wintry Saturday night with three old friends who were successful in the arts:  a novelist, a poet, and a Path and trees covered with snowpainter. The storm buffeting the windows and pelting them with hail and snow made impossible even the thought of digging cars out and driving home. But everyone was in a good mood, and the house was warm. We were happy being together again after being separated so long by COVID.

For a while the conversation wasn’t really a conversation–just random comments, funny memories from their careers and mine, times we had spent together, and our favorite projects. I told them that I had an idea. I had a topic that had intrigued me for a long time. The novelist, a very cheerful man, said, “What topic is that?” I said, “I’m glad you asked.” Everyone laughed, and I said, “I would like to know what  main qualities bring a person success in the arts–qualities that Da Vinci had, and Shakespeare, Monet, Brando, Faulkner, and anyone successful in the arts now, in the past, and in the future. What are the main qualities instrumental in their success?”

Everyone was agreeable, and Norman started things off.

 

Norman the Poet

Energy

Norman is an award-winning poet I have been friends with since I attended one of his riveting readings. The principal feature of his personality is gentleness which is reflected in his often-tender lyric poems. He said, “I’ve given this question some thought too.  I think a lot of Depiction of swirling energy in pink, blue, yellow and greean against a black backgroundaccomplished people in the arts have wondered what they have that makes their creative work possible. The main quality anyone must possess if they are trying to be successful in anything, not just the arts, but certainly the arts, I feel, is energy. Powerful, potent personal energy equips creatives to produce a steady flow of works. Isn’t that our goal?

“Phoebe and Paul, I know you will each have something important to say, but I think an accomplished person in the arts is inconceivable without a high level of sustainable energy. The most successful artists have the energy and reserves of energy to work very hard, sometimes in a creative frenzy, and produce their art steadily over the course of a satisfying career.

” I cannot imagine people in any field having more energy than those of us in the arts. Athletes may equal us, but don’t surpass us. Artists are the antithesis of lazy, but have a passion to roll up their sleeves and work. I think they have had this passion all their lives. Their energy breeds more energy, as though their supply of it is inexhaustible. In a creative state of mind and body they don’t seem to get tired the way other people do. They can work long hours when working long hours is needed, as when they have a deadline. Imagine writing a novel. It is a pleasant ordeal that requires the expenditure of energy every day from the first draft which may have been written a thousand days before the finished book is available to readers.

“Consider the staggering achievements of Shakespeare. He wrote more than thirty tragedies, comedies, and histories, and the sonnets, and directed plays and acted in them. He managed a theatre company and had a wife and children to take care of.  Vincent van Gogh produced three thousand works in his brief five year career. That’s two works a day`. Picasso was even more productive.

“I’ve never known a successful creative person who lacked impressive energy. Their main goals are to pay their dues mastering their craft and then to produce one work after another non-stop. A big reason for a creatives’ failure is just lack of the energy that excellence in the arts requires.”

 

Phoebe the Painter

Talent

Phoebe has long experience and has had many shows. Her work can be found on the walls of several museums. She oozes confidence–a woman giving an impression of total self-possession, independence, and fearlessness. She is remarkably attractive. A friend once described her to me by saying, “And then I saw crossing a bridge the most beautiful woman on earth.”

She said, “I believe that the most important quality in an artist is talent. People in the arts are people with a gift, and that gift is their talent.  Shakespeare, Picasso, and van Gogh had tremendous energy but if they hadn’t had more talent than other people, they wouldn’t be the artists we admire so. An artist will not succeed without substantial talent.

Talent is the most recognizable quality in the creative world. It is everywhere. The most impressive thing in the world of art is the virtuoso performance, a display of talent by an individual that is so great that you will remember it long after you have forgotten everything else. There it is in Norman’s poems and Paul’s novels, and Degas’ and Jackson Pollack’s paintings, Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet, and Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels. Their talent is–how should I say it–extreme.

Colorful photo of young girl working on artwork“Painters, writers, actors, and dancers enter the world talented. From the beginning of their lives they can draw better than other children or write more interesting compositions, act out scenes more skillfully, dance more gracefully. Just look at the lovely paintings some little children can paint and the poems they can write.  Some children are too young to have learned to paint, yet they paint wonderfully and have technique. No one has taught them. They can paint superbly before being taught.  When they are being taught they absorb information so quickly, it’s astonishing. That’s the definition of talent.

“Talent cannot be depleted. If you have it you will never lose it. There will always be more. To be very good or great you must add to your talent. Creative people have been favored since birth, but not without the gods requiring something in return, and that is the responsibility to augment their talent.  Much of the energy Norm was talking about an artist applies to getting better–studying, practicing, experimenting.

“Raw talent is a quality which grows in quantity with effort.

 

Paul the Novelist/Actor

Focus

Paul had his first literary success as a college sophomore when his short story received an O’ Henry Award. He went on to write novels, and then in his words “branched out” into theatre acting where he also found success. That snowy night he said, ”Who can argue with a creative person’s need for inexhaustible energy and for talent that is exceptional? But I think that focus that is the salient factor that brings success to anyone in any field, especially in the arts, where the creator must concentrate so hard so often on so many things.”

He continued, “People often think of broad periods of time: ‘In eight months I’ll take my vacation and in eighteen years I’ll retire.’ But the creator in the act of creation focuses, thinking only of what occurs in single moments, such as ‘this brush stroke’  and ‘this sentence,’ ‘this musical phrase,’ or ‘these lines in this play I am to deliver now.’ The best moments of a creative person are that sliver of time when your mind is sharp and focused only on your work, when your mind is alert and clear, your concentration undivided and pin-point.

Magifying glass illuminated in gold light“I think that focus is a rare quality–the famous image in Zen of lack of creative mindfulness being a drunken monkey. People in our business have to learn pretty quickly to discipline their minds, so they don’t wander, but stick to the creative job at hand and not let any extraneous thought cancel that mysterious moment when you’re hard at work, focused, and being as creative and fulfilled artistically as you will ever be.”

Paul said, ”I also think that people in the arts have to be sure that they are in the art that most suits them and where their energy, talent, and focus will bring the best results. That may seem so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning, but what has struck me is that practicing artists sometimes discover they are focusing on the wrong art or genre, or that other artistic careers are right for them too, the way I discovered I could act and write both. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it that a creator wouldn’t realize that another art or creative specialty would be more suitable. But it happens.

“There are other examples of people in the arts who were focused on the wrong specialty. Thomas Wolfe began by thinking that he was a playwright and was educated to be one in college and at graduate school at Harvard.  It was only after studying and writing plays for ten years, when his lover said, “Tom, you’re not equipped to be a playwright. You’re intended to be a novelist” that Wolfe became a novelist. Mary Cassatt spent several years painting in a conventional style before living in France and falling under the sway of Impressionism. She became an Impressionist herself. She destroyed all the paintings she had produced prior to making that change. “

“For me the key to success in the arts more than anything else is focus, both in the sense of mindfulness in the moment and in the sense of concentration on the most suitable and rewarding art.”

 

Application of Energy, Talent, and Focus

We thought our evening together had been fun–and enlightening. I said, “Other qualities are important to creators too. Self-confidence, intelligence, a rich imagination, detailed memory, drive, intensity, curiosity, experience, and careful preparation, for example, and beyond those of course is luck–is the person lucky? But energy, talent, and focus–I like that. We could look at the theatre department of a small college. Let’s say there are thirty students in the department.  They will all receive exactly the same training in acting, but the results will be different.

“Let’s estimate that after college fifteen will have no further connection with acting.  Ten will get involved in community theatres.  Five will become professional actors, two in lead roles. One will become a star. What we’re saying is that it’s likely that those who will become professionals will have more energy, talent, and focus than the others, and that the star will have more than anyone. I think we have something.”  Phoebe said, “Something good happens whenever we’re together.” Norman said, “We’re a good team.”

Going Home

painting of a simple house on a snowy nightThe storm still didn’t look so good, so they stayed the night. In the morning Paul insisted on making breakfast. I made coffee. We vowed to get together again soon. Then in early afternoon a bright sun came out, the winds died, and they left for home where work and many challenges were waiting.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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Filed under Artists, Creativity, energy, Excellence in the Arts, focus, talent

What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Really Good Writers and Artists?

Once you are a really good writer or artist, you enjoy many advantages. But beware because now you will also have new weaknesses.

Red silhouette of a woman on yellow background, with an indication of her brain, as she looks at shelves of booksAs a really good writer, painter, actor, architect, or composer you have the ability to generate the best solutions to creative problems. The solutions are much better than the solutions less capable creatives settle on. Your aesthetic judgment is better than theirs. You perceive features of the problems facing you and the solutions to them that lesser creatives don’t notice and can’t think of.

One reason why you are so capable is that if you are  really good at your craft, you are able to keep huge amounts of useful information in your working memory, far more than less excellent writers, painters, etc. can keep in their minds. You can easily draw on that wealth of knowledge you’ve acquired about your art–its history, its techniques and artists, its methods leading to success and those that lead to failure or exasperation. Even genius, left alone with no help from extensive knowledge, is not strong.

As an example of the wealth of knowledge possessed by excellent creatives, let me cite multiple Academy Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize winning composer and song-writer Marvin Hamlisch. Torn or burnt fragments of sheet musicHe had a staggering knowledge of American songs. I knew Marvin and would do exhaustive research trying to stump him with the least known and most esoteric songs my research could find, asking him “Who wrote…?” and “Who wrote…?” However obscure the song and no matter how confidently I thought, “He will never know this one,” he always knew.

But you must guard against a common weakness of really good creatives: over-confidence in their artistic judgement. Capable as you may be, your judgment is not infallible, and sometimes it is wrong. For example, even a supremely talented writer, painter, or architect can waste months or years on an ill-advised project that looked promising but turned sour. Thomas Wolfe studied playwriting at Harvard and wrote bad plays for nine years before realizing, at the suggestion of his lover, that he had no future in playwriting, but was “meant” to write novels.

In another instance it took George Bernard Shaw five years of submitting to publishers one novel each year to realize the opposite: that he had no future writing novels, but could write plays masterfully. An editor who had turned down Shaw’s novels had said, “Unfortunately we must reject this novel too, but the dialogue was wonderful. Did you ever think of writing plays?’ That was all that was necessary for Shaw to turn the direction of his career.

Really good artists and writers are generally (though not always as in the cases of Wolfe and Shaw) good judges of their own abilities. They are self-critical and self-demanding to a very high degree. They are self-absorbed in a positive way and closely study themselves and their work, which they are obsessed with. They are motivated by a so-called “urge to improve,” and monitor themselves so that they are able to detect errors in their knowledge, technique, style, and skill, and do something to correct those errors.

Woman's hands typing on a laptop with a yellow post-it note stuck on the corner of the screenUnlike ordinary writers who might not be aware that their plots are not believable, a really good writer would be aware if theirs were not. Yet, in spite of being vividly aware and quite objective and accurate about their own work, expert artists and writers have the weakness of often being wrong in their predictions about the performance of novices they have been asked to evaluate. It is as though they are unable to recognize talent while it is still in a formative state. In fact, the greater their expertise, the more likely they are to be wrong in predicting the performance of novices.

Something very similar may happen in the field of professional editing–highly experienced editors not recognizing the promise of young writers. For example, when young English schoolteacher William Golding’s submission of his first book, Lord of the Flies, was being considered by Faber and Faber Publishers, the editors, Wooden table with sheets of paper with a red pen on top and a cup of coffee on the sideincluding the senior editor whose judgment was “always right” rejected it as impossible to understand. Only Charles Monteith, who had never edited a book before, argued angrily on behalf of the book he had fallen in love with despite its obvious flaws. Unlike the experts, he saw that good editing could remedy its weaknesses. Lord of the Flies, edited by Monteith, became an international best seller.

Golding went on to write many books, essays, and plays. Golding and Monteith became an example of a superb writer-editor-friends team working together in harmony for many years of productivity culminating In Golding’s Nobel Prize.  So if you are a novice and are looking for objective and accurate appraisal of your ability, it may be a good idea not to ask an expert, but to go to a teacher and to hope  the publisher’s editor assigned to you is as enthusiastic as Charles Monteith was and as willing to fight for your book.

To improve their artistic performance, really good artists and writers will be more opportunistic, making use of whatever sources of information they need to solve their creative problems. Just as stand-up comedians steal jokes from each other, artists and writers “borrow” insights and techniques from other artists in their own art and from other arts as well, and from any other field they are familiar with.

green and yellow field with a fantasy-like swirl going up to a cloudy sky of blue and whiteReally good creatives are able to pull out of their minds–with ease–the insights they need. They are so able and accustomed to using the substantial skills they have developed, that they do so automatically, “without thought” as a Zen master would say. To them writing or painting is easy.  Yet, at the same time, they may be victims of inflexibility in the face of new circumstances. At times they have trouble adjusting to situations confronting them.

For example, marvelous actor Charles Laughton was offered the starring role in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, but hard as he tried, he could not form a concept of the role sufficient for him to play it. He turned the role down. He said that he finally realized how it should be played when he saw Alec Guinness play in the movie the role he might have had. Was it an Academy Award winning role, whoever would have played it? Would Laughton have won the Oscar for best actor as Guinness did?

blue, purple, and pink jigsaw puzzle pieces in a disordered pileReally good creatives spend considerable time analyzing the problems facing them while less accomplished creatives spend less time and are not as patient as the exceptional creatives. A study discovered that students in art school who would become the best and most financially successful after graduation took much longer to meditate on and plan their paintings, lithographs, and sculptures.

A weakness of many really good artists and writers is overlooking details that don’t seem to them to pertain to the problem, but do pertain to it. Highly talented people are notoriously blasé about details, don’t worry about them, and don’t like to bother with them. (For example, when F. Scott Fitzgerald submitted the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, it had more than 100 misspellings.) That can also be seen in areas other than the arts. People with extensive knowledge about a sport recall fewer details of a text about that sport than people with little knowledge of the sport.

painting of a serene blue-green lake with trees and blue mountains in the backgroundGenius in the arts or in any other pursuit is almost always specific to one art, one domain. Often it is assumed without too much thought that a person with a high level of skill in one area will almost automatically be skilled in another area or many other areas. That’s called “the halo effect.”  Yet while there are exceptions, the halo effect is generally invalid.  High-performing creators do not excel in areas where they have no expertise. But in a single domain they are on their home turf, and their work is really good.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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

Interview with David J. Rogers

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Filed under Acquiring Knowledge, Artists, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Excellence in the Arts, High Achievement, Writers, Writers' Characteristics