If you are to be a writer who will be recognized, you must have faith that you have been created to be a writer, that writing is a destiny toward which your life has been aimed. Virginia Wolf and Toni Morison felt that way, and James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, and Ernest Hemingway. Many writers we haven’t heard of yet, but will, also feel that way. The faith that you are fated to be a writer is a writer’s first requirement. You must believe that it is when you are writing that you’re doing what you were brought into the world to do.
That sense of being fated stirs writers to action: now they must go out to embrace with their whole being their writer’s destiny, to accept it, to resolve to be it, to realize their writer’s vocation, and not flee from it the way many people flee from the heights they could have reached.
As a gift to you–a person with a literary talent–nature has singled you out. You have been specially endowed with not only “creative stuff” that is the source of achievement in all the arts and is possessed by only a minority of people, but with personal qualities that equip you specifically to fulfill the writer’s demanding role–energy, high intelligence, curiosity, a love of your language, a dictionary in your head of favorite words, the playfulness of a child, doggedness, discipline, daring, intuition, intensity, deep emotions, imagination, self-assurance, a warrior’s courage, the stamina of athletes, maturity, refined taste and wise judgment.
History shows that writers who will amount to anything also all have an attitude of “seriousness” about their work and their lives: “This is my only life; I am not playing games. I try to write every day. I strive to get better and better still and will do that all my life.”
It is the identity of a writer that gives you the confidence that you are a person with a definite life task—to write, to spend your life writing, to create poems, stories, novels, dramas, screen plays, essays–whatever form of literature you desire that comes out of you assembled in your own words, fashioned from the disappointments and glories of your own life, different as your life and your writing are from the life and writing of all other writers who are alive now or have ever lived.
Writing–the physical acts of writing, the movement of your muscles to write, your eyes to focus, the shifting of your weight in the chair–is so essential to writers that if they are prevented from writing for any reason, they will be tense and conflicted until circumstances change and once again they are able to write freely, confidently, and without holding back. And then, as though touched by a healer with extraordinary powers, they will be well again.
As a writer you must be true to your awesome potential–must be in fact what you are potentially. If you are not doing enough with your gifts, your conscience lets you know. The conscience of a writer asks, “Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Have I become what I should have become? If I have not become what I should have become, what will I do now?” Your writer’s conscience is the voice that calls you to be the person you are fully prepared to be, the uniquely talented writer you have been created to be.
Once you are a really good writer or artist, you enjoy many advantages. But beware because now you will also have new weaknesses.
As 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. He 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.
Unlike 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, including 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.
Really 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?
Really 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.
Genius 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.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know a primary interest of mine is in the inner skills needed to achieve success, especially for those in the arts. Even the most superb techniques of craft will take you only so far without additional skills. I’m talking about inner skills of the heart and spirit, including persistence, confidence, durability, patience, courage, vitality, intensity, flexibility, and so on. What follows are some insights into those inner skills.
Run Through the Tape
Why what I’m going to say now is true, no one has been able to figure out, but almost all people relax their efforts when they get close to achieving even their most important goals. They struggle and struggle and then seem to get lazy and disinterested. They are like a sprinter who runs fast to the tape and slows down or stops. But good coaches advise runners to “run through the tape.” Whatever you do, don’t relax just when you’re getting close to success, but persist in applying your utmost energy
Talk to Yourself: Increase Your Drive
When you’re facing difficulties or your motivation is faltering and you’re losing interest, talk to yourself about your need to work on and reach the goal. Whether you are an amateur or professional, a novice or expert, tell yourself that it’s important that you complete the tasks and get to the goals: “I’m feeling a little tired and want to quit for the day, but it’s important to me that I finish writing this article, so I will just continue working.”
Value Failure: Don’t Be Afraid of It
Why are you and I so afraid of failure? Many people live in terror of it and feel they must never fail, but always succeed, trailing clouds of glory. Yet failure can be a blessed life-changing event. If you experience only successes, you come to expect quick and easy results, and your sense of confidence is easily undermined if you suffer a setback. Setbacks and failures serve two useful purposes: Not only do they show us that we need to make changes and adjustments in order to gain the success we are seeking, but also they teach us that success usually requires confident, persistent, skilled, focused effort sustained over time. Once you set failures aside and become convinced that you have what it takes to succeed, you quickly rebound from failures. By having courage and sticking it out through tough times, you come out on the far side of failures with even greater confidence and commitment.
Seek Feedback, Not Crticism
The effect of feedback depends both on its source and on the way the creative person interprets it. If an expert judges the value of a beginner’s work based on the expert’s standards or tells the beginner what he or she should be doing, the feedback may be seen as controlling. That kind of feedback negatively affects creative performance. Useful feedback is empowering rather than controlling and doesn’t have a negative effect because it is viewed as usefulinformation–not criticism. Feedback designed to evaluate reduces creativity and motivation, but informative feedback increases them. Both the person giving the feedback and the person receiving and interpreting it play a role in making it informative, and thus useful.
Get Feedback Addressed to Your Needs
Tell the person whose feedback you are seeking what you’re trying to accomplish and what kind of help you need from them. For example, an artist might ask what she can do to make a figure look more three-dimensional; a writer might ask for advice on making a dialog more natural. Feedback should always focus on the work–never on the artist.
Persist, Persist, and Persist
Persist until you finish your novel, sculpture or symphony. The work that matters to creative people is finished work. Persistence is an extraordinary attribute that the majority of people do not possess. It separates writers, painters, actors, ballerinas, composers, and performers who have long, successful careers from those who disappear. Potential combined with a focused and tenacious pursuit of important goals is the hallmark of high achievement in the arts.
What it takes to persist is simply to persist, “staying with it longer than you might.” If you persist, most other success factors will automatically fall into place. Persistence is that important.
Confidence is needed if you are to be successful as an artist. Make it a point to never lose confidence. If you find yourself losing it, use affirming statements, such as “I can do this; I believe in myself.’
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 ones–that lead to worthwhile creative achievements. You’ll feel serene, for now you can make full, free use of all your talents. You won’t be tentative because you’ll have faith in your problem-solving abilities. You’ll rework problems or you’ll be decisive in abandoning what isn’t working.
Confidence touches every aspect of your being—whether you think about your prospects positively or in a self-defeating way, how strongly you motivate yourself, and whether you persist in the face of adversity and setbacks. It also reduces your susceptibility to discouragement, and enables you to make positive changes in your life.
Gertrude Stein was a writer with supreme confidence. She said to cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, “Jacques, of course you don’t know too much about English literature, but beside Shakespeare and me, who do you think there is?” She said to her friend Pablo Picasso, “There are two geniuses in art today, you in painting and I in literature.
You’ll be very reluctant to give up if you are confident. You’ll make better use of your time because confidence and energy go together: one feeds the other. You will be electric with that rarest of human qualities—INTENSITY. When you face difficult tasks, if you are confident, the challenges will excite you rather than intimidate you. You’ll be more likely to seek help and assistance to improve your performance than the less confident artists or writers who are afraid that asking for help will expose their limitations.
Make Effort a High Value
The most successful people have high career aspirations, are confident, and generally attribute their success to high effort and failure to lack of effort.
They believe that creative success comes mainly from ability combined with hard work, probably over a long period of time. If they fail, the goal becomes even more attractive to them. They get hungrier to succeed. If things don’t turn out well, they don’t believe it’s because they aren’t capable, intelligent, or gifted. It is because they didn’t work hard enough. That brings them hope. Optimism is kept high because effort is a virtually limitless resource. You can always work harder.
Work Harder, Not Less Hard
How expertise is developed in a field is a hot subject these days, including expertise in the various arts. A number of scientific studies comparing novices with experts in most fields support the common sense notion that because of their great knowledge and skill, experts are able to accomplish with almost no effort what non-experts can accomplish only with difficulty or can’t accomplish at all. But don’t be deceived: experts work harder, not less hard than non-experts.
Think the World of Yourself, but Don’t Be Above Asking for Help
Creative people who are the most likely to ask for help are those with a high opinion of themselves, while those with a low opinion of themselves are the least likely, although they may be the most in need of it and would profit from it. Asking for help shows that you’re serious about reaching your goals. Useful feedback can help you evolve and reach high levels of satisfaction and achievement.
The helper may encourage and inspire you, and that may be what you need to push you toward the goal, or they may provide material support. T.S Eliot’s friends subsidized him till he established himself. Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo bankrolled him. So without reluctance say, “I would appreciate your help…” I have no problems asking for help, and all my life, I have almost always received the help I asked for and have tried never to deny it to someone who asked me for it.
Focus on Perfecting the Most Crucial Skills of Your Art
It is not possible to describe the complete, complex structure of knowledge and skills the experienced artist has acquired. It is a mistake to think that success in a creative field is attributable to one blessed aptitude such as awesome natural talent, or to three or four aptitudes. Success in the arts is attributable to a combination of many capabilities. The most prominent creatives focus harder on developing to a high level the most needed skills of their field. The best predictor of creative success isn’t just time spent working, but the kind of time–the amount of time devoted specifically to improving writing , painting, acting, etc. skills. And not just this skill or that skill, but the five or six specific skills which are the most essential if a person is to become excellent in that field.
For some artists the development time is short–almost immediate. Poets in particular, such as Dylan Thomas at nineteen, may reach high excellence with blinding speed. For others success occurs only after years of perfecting their craft. Like athletes, artists develop at different rates.
Make Sure Your Skills Match Your Goals
Of special importance to writing, painting, composing and performing success is the state in which your skills perfectly match the goals you’re aiming to achieve. The skills are exactly what’s needed to reach the goals. That’s what you should aim for—a perfect match. It’s foolish to ask yourself to try accomplish objectives you don’t have the skills to achieve, and there’s no thrill accomplishing goals that don’t challenge you. So you must focus on identifying and developing the specific skills you need to accomplish the ends and the fulfillment you aspire to.
Creatives do exceptionally well what others find difficult, and that is the definition of a talent. Talent is the distinguishing quality of creatives, usually talent in one field. Although a creative can be very talented in more than one area, as many bloggers are, as Vincent van Gogh, a wonderfully expressive writer of letters as well as painter was, the creative’s talent in one area dominates. My seven year old grandson is a much better painter than I am because he is gifted in art, and I certainly am not. (It doesn’t take long for the buds of talent to burst into bloom in a child). My talents are linguistic, and of all the arts I, who grew up in home where music filled the house, I’ve always wished I could write beautiful music–but I can’t.
I have a composer friend whose music is performed by major orchestras. He’s received many prestigious awards. But he can’t paint as well as my grandson. I can’t touch my friend in any aspect of music. He is much too talented musically for me. But he can’t write poetry or prose as well as I can. Nature specializes creatives and points them in a direction. Whether they will choose to follow that direction in the course of their life or will not is their choice. How serious they will become about developing their talent–whether refining it to a high level or ignoring it–is up to them.
When you’re making use of your main talent you’re as effective as you will ever be in any area of your life because your talent is what psychologists call your “dominant faculty.” Putting it to use habitually, day after day, to be free without being interfered with in any way, is a wish, a hope, a goal, of all serious creatives.
For the creative the quality of curiosity is extraordinary because it is so intense. Also there is a fascination with how everything works, fits together, and is useful that starts of its own accord in childhood and stays with creatives to the last day of their life. Being curious and having an aptitude for picking up knowledge here and there is important. People who have stored up a wide range of knowledge have a very good chance of being creative. Once they are serious creatives and are deeply involved in their field, they have a hunger for extensive knowledge of it: “The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, (and) amassed tremendous knowledge of it” (Geoff Colvin).
Then there is a desire, impossible to satisfy in a single lifetime, to create original things–poems, symphonies, paintings, performances–that are added to the culture, and in doing so to leave behind at career’s end a legacy, the traces of a vital human being who walked this earth, breathed, achieved, and had a personality, a name, and a reputation which will outlive the talented person by a year, or ten, or a hundred.
At a certain eventful time in creatives’ careers when they are no longer a novice and have matured as a craftsman, the need to paint or write, compose, act, or dance takes over, becomes powerful, and can’t be ignored. This is a turning point in the career of the creative, a new level of involvement with their craft. The creative may well feel as novelist Henry James did, that “It is art that makes life, makes intensity, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” The creative becomes willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of practicing an art because it is both fulfilling and challenging in a way little else is.
To practice the art may be more than adequate compensation for disappointments in other areas of life. Disappointed in love or work, if novelists they may choose to stop thinking of their hurt and turn their active minds to the task of writing a story with many characters and an intricate plot. Rather than grieving a loss, a ballerina turns to the only art she’s known since childhood and begins to warm up.
There is now something in the movements of the body and mind of creatives as they work, of muscle and thought, of experimenting with ideas, and entering the pleasant elevated mood of losing oneself in the work–some force implicit in the creative act–an urge that is more intuitive than rational, subliminal and subconscious. Those aspects of the processes of creation add up to an experience which may be so blissful that it can be as addictive as abuses of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex. But creativity is a positive addiction, not a harmful one.
As a mature creative, your thoughts are continually on how to get better. In an interview Pablo Casals, aged ninety, was asked why he, the best cellist in the world who had been practicing the cello for eighty five years, still practiced every day, and he said, “Because I think am making progress.”
You’re already excellent at your craft–you are far above average–but are not satisfied and talk about getting better. You study, you read, you learn, you discuss. You seek feedback and help because no one in the arts or sciences–no one in life–succeeds in a noteworthy way without someone advising and helping them–a teacher, a mentor, a friend, etc. You work exceptionally hard because if you are an artist you can’t help yourself and there is no other way to work, not always knowing why you do, but feeling strongly you must.
You know, and experience of the creatives who have preceded you bears out, that the more hours you work, the better you get. And your skills improve–you can see that–and your work does get recognizably better–either slowly, or moderately fast, or by leaps that may astound you. Your satisfactions, ambitions, optimism, and hopes rise as your work improves.
Creative people are models of focused human effort. Few people seem to recognize that. In my many speeches to businessmen and women I had an unusual point of view. I referred to my life-long love–artists–as the best examples of highly motivated people. I’d say, “Strive to have the soul of an artist. Learn what it’s like to create something and the value of persistence from artists. Study artists. Read biographies of artists. Let their habits filter into your behavior.”
The commitment to write (or sculpt, perform on stage, etc.) can be extreme and may surpass other of your commitments. Nobel laureate writer Saul Bellow said writing had always been more important to him than his wife and children. There are other creatives such as painter Paul Gauguin and short story master Sherwood Anderson who felt the same and abandoned their wives and children for art.
The overriding aim of creatives is very practical. It is production: to produce polished works that must be completely finished because “It is only as the work is done that the meaning of the creative act” can be understood (Brewster Ghiselin). “The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about … but simply written” (Janet Frame). Psychologist Howard Gardner writes about high-excelling creative people. He says, “Individuals whose stock in trade is to do things which are novel, are people who’ve got to have a pretty good command of how they work.”
The creative sets out to answer the production question, “How can I produce the quality and quantity of work I want?” A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being at your work place ready to work repetitively the same time day after day, the power of good habits goes into effect.
If creatives are unable to work or the work doesn’t go well, they suffer. A creative must always have goals and begin every day’s work with those goals in mind: “Today I will buckle down and…” Many tremendously talented creatives aren’t nearly as successful as they have the talent to be. They are frustrated because they haven’t figured out for themselves the best work/production program that will achieve a desired level of high-quality output.
If you are a creative, if you could you would create night and day because for you there is never enough time and your talent finds resting very hard. Long before you finish one work, you’re contemplating the next. When artists work, they are seeking freedom of expression through perfect technique. Many of them are willing to sacrifice material rewards just to be able to exercise their talents and do their work without being interfered with or restrained–to make creative things free of conflicts. Many creatives choose lower paying jobs that will allow them time to do their creative work over higher paying jobs that don’t allow them to.
You may be working on 3, 5, or more projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, putting one aside and picking up another. A creative’s lively, but unsettled production-oriented mind is a cornucopia spilling over with concepts, words, techniques, methods, facts, recollections, hopes, fears, needs, problems, solutions, texts, authors, disappointments, successes, plans, possibilities, family, projects, and if a professional, finances. It rests only at bedtime. And often, not even then.
The logical end of the Creatives’ Way is to have the identity of a capital C Creative, a Real Creative–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, other creatives and lovers of the arts, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about producing creative work, and is very good at it.”
The trappings of your chosen discipline appeal to you. Great writers “loved the range of materials they used. The works’ possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and they loved them….They produced complex bodies of work that endured” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life).
When you’re away from your art you miss it. If you’re away too long you become edgy. Away from it longer, you become irritable and hard to live with. If you don’t do your art for 48 hours, your skills begin to decline. The only relief is to get back to your work as quickly as possible. You try to work at least one hour every twenty-four. If you work for four hours you are more satisfied with yourself than if you work for two hours.
Creatives are subject to the heights and depths of moods. The act of working makes you happy, makes you confident, and empowers you. However badly you might feel when you begin a day’s work, you feel better when you are working and when you finish you almost always feel good–but you need to work at least a little. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.
When you’re producing your art, you’re searching for something: authenticity. You’re trying to cut through the fakery, the tricks, the games, the insincerity, the deceit and phoniness, and the lack of conviction so that you might tell the whole truth as you see it–accurately–withholding nothing. You are modest and try to do nothing merely to make a splash because you believe that it’s only through producing work that is sincere and deeply felt that the truths you’ve discovered and now believe in and feel strongly about will be expressed.
For many serious artists, the art’s process itself is more rewarding than the product that ends the process. In this world there are many competent writers who have almost no interest in having their work published. That doesn’t excite them, but the process does. There are pianists who prefer practice to performing in public.
Patience is a necessity for creatives. Eventually after a long period of impatience you learn patience. “It’s so hard for people to be patient. It took me a very long time to get better, and a very, very long time to begin to publish. I wasn’t very patient. It’s painful….Young people are pushed so hard right out of school to get the first novel done. It takes time to write well. You have to sit with it. You have to be patient with it. You have to trust your intuition and your own material and stay with it as long as it takes” (Andrea Barrett). It’s been said that genius is nothing but an aptitude for patience.
Creatives must have a stomach for loneliness and must be able to adjust to it when it strikes. They have no choice. Pleasure increases the more you work on your art, partially because you work alone, independent, isolated, on your own, self-sufficient, and that is how most creatives enjoy working. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, they are no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse). Creatives solve many problems every day. Creatives are problem-solvers. Research on problem-solving shows that people are likely to come up with better solutions when they work alone. Poet Lord Byron said, “Society is harmful to any achievement of the heart.”
At times you live in uncertainties, doubts, tension, anxiety, and fear. But over the years you develop the strength to resist them. You acquire confidence and faith in your abilities and judgment. You fear fewer things. You grow less anxious and have a much fuller and more accurate understanding of yourself. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter play a necessary part in making you stronger. Your strong faith in yourself helps you persist through obstacles, psychological blocks, and setbacks. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”
Through your art you’re drawing out of yourself the end result of the entirety of your being–100 percent of yourself from your toes to the top of your head. That includes all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, good and bad, happy or painful, what your emotions are and the breadth and depths of feeling they are capable of because art depends so heavily on feelings, how courageous you are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. Then, self-aware, you have a clearer understanding of who you truly are, and how high the talent you possess that is growing stronger and more apparent might take you, and what new pleasures your talent may open for you.
The beautiful paintings featured on this post are by Australian artist Richard Claremont. He says, “A successful artist knows that we do art because we have to. We would do it even if no one ever got to see it. What really matters is our commitment to our own vision, painting from our heart, creating work that matters.”
Creative artists in general welcome aloneness and are often apart, by themselves, and deliberately seek heavenly solitude. To be able to work with no one to bother them and boss them around and divert them from their creative goals may be the main reasons they go into the arts to find fulfillment nothing else brings. Some creatives cannot produce a single thing unless no one is near. However, they cannot work alone forever.
The day inevitably dawns for artists–particularly if they have any hope of making money from their art or of establishing any kind of favorable reputation–when they must come out of hiding and leave their easel or keyboard. They must go somewhere, telephone someone, meet people, sometimes in groups, and talk. In that world of person to person conversation and group dynamics, rules other than sentence structure and perspective apply. The artists leave their expertise and often become fledglings in a world they don’t quite feel secure in. The artist wishing to survive in that give and take and take again competitive marketplace of the arts today will have to learn new skills related to how they present themselves to groups and the media.
Nowadays authors usually do their own promotions, but in the past the deal was that that was the publisher’s job. I was surprised back then to learn that not all writers were sent on promotional tours to tout their book–in a way shocked–that some authors make a poor impression in the media. The publishers’ thinking was, “The book looks good, but if the author is not able to inspire audiences to purchase it and may even be a disincentive, why send them out of the road at the cost of…?”
You might think that having a facility with language, authors in particular would be articulate and persuasive and make good guests. But that is not always–maybe not usually–the case. That has been confirmed a number of times at various author’s readings, author’s speeches, and at book signings, etc., I’ve attended, the uncomfortable authors obviously as aware as everyone else that they had lost the audience. At times I have been embarrassed for the author and wondered why in the world they didn’t take the time to learn how to speak effectively.
I participated in an arts center poetry reading, and I noticed that many of the poets that day were rather diffident and shy in front of the audience. Although many were fine poets, they lacked confidence. Speakers wishing to connect with their listeners must be sure of themselves, their skills, and the positive effect they will have on audiences.
The objective when a writer, artist, or most any other person in the arts appears on radio, television, and cable, discusses their work in face to face contact with people in groups, gives a formal speech, talks with journalists, or is involved in any other public forum is usually ultimately to behave in such a way that results in the sale of their work. Oh, a desire to inform and educate may be there too, but creative artists are always aware of their desire to have their work published or put in a show or gallery, or produced in a theatre, etc. I’ve had considerable experience with media appearances and making speeches. I was a graduate school teacher, and taught classes of about twenty or thirty students.
After my book Fighting to Win (FTW) was successful and I became nationally known–and because of it–I quickly found myself speaking to audiences of thousands in cavernous auditoriums in America, Canada, and Europe. With that kind of responsibility I was very conscious of the obligation on me to satisfy through my words, skills, and personality those who had sometimes traveled far to hear me talk about my ideas.
The goal of your planning your comments and delivering them is to get the listener’s ATTENTION, to hold the listener’s attention, and induce interest in what you have to say. You must hold the listener in the highest regard whether it be a single listener or an audience of thousands. Whatever the size, you have to get the listeners’ attention right away because, as in writing a story or novel, the very beginning of your talk, whatever your art, will often determine who stays with you and who tunes out, never to return. To the listener the start of your talk is a preview or dress rehearsal of the whole talk. If it’s no good, the listener will assume the whole talk will be no good, so why bother listening?
The beginning must be lively and have verve (Verve, what a magnificent word.) Never take listeners’ interest for granted. You have to earn their interest through your skills and personality, including the aura your body, mind, and spirit communicate. You might want to start, as I do, with a brief, colorful, story that shows that your mind is sharp and you are down to earth, a regular person. Your job during the first few minutes is to convince your listeners that you have something interesting to say, that you are competent to develop your ideas, and that you should be listened to to the end.
My career made a leap up in quality and success when, riding home on a plane from a talk, I had an insight I want to share with you. That insight is that in contact with an audience you are not just a speaker, you are a PERFORMER, and to come across in the best possible way, you need some of the skills of an actor. That will make your presentations better. You must, like an actor, be at least slightly “larger than life,” more alive and animated than you may usually be. Gesture with your hands, arms, and face. Be energetic, have a sharp mind, be quick, alert, mindful and dynamic, and visibly happy to be there with those listeners who want to hear you. Energy is contagious. It is generated from you in waves or a steady stream out into the audience.
You must always be SINCERE and MODEST. Fakery and big egos will not do. Audiences can see right through a phony–and it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes. No tricks–just actual sincerity and modesty. Even if a speaker is not overly brilliant, polished, or a spellbinding wordsmith, if he or she is truly sincere, the listener will like the speaker, and will listen, and liking and listening are necessary if listeners are to be pleased with you and stay with you every second, every word, till you take a bow and thank them for their attention.
My second main insight was that you must appeal to listener’s FUNDAMENTAL INTERESTS such as health, wealth, family, home, and personal success. Once a publicity tour took me to St. Louis, Missouri to appear on a radio show hosted by one of the country’s leading radio personalities. He began by interviewing me for a while, and then turned it over to call-ins. I was there mainly to talk about the book and why the audience would like it and should buy it. The callers were interested in solving their problems such as unemployment which was rampant in the community. So I talked about how the book might help them handle that problem in a positive way.
I felt great sympathy for the callers, and felt that helping them in any way I could was the main thing and selling my book was a secondary thing. I think it was apparent in everything I said that I identified with them, having gone through tough periods in my life too, as everyone has, wishing them the best, trying very hard to help them. I became totally absorbed in their problems and tried to draw out anything in my mind and experiences that could be of aid to them. I happened to have written articles I had been asked to write about techniques for finding jobs. That fitted into the conversation well. The hour and a half went unbelievably fast, and when it ended I felt I had been of help to the callers.
As the host walked me to the car he said, “Most authors who come here are full of their own egos and don’t connect with my listeners who are important to me. They don’t care about them. But you did connect in a powerful way because you are a caring person and have a lot of valuable things to say. I’ll tell you this right now: if you ever have anything you want to talk to my listeners about just call and I’ll put you on immediately. Thank you, friend.”
The third major insight came easily to me because I always devote a lot of time and effort to being well-prepared whenever I write or speak. It is that PREPARATION for the talk and KNOWLEDGE of the topic are king. You must know your material backwards and forwards. You must love your material and feel a strong urge to share it. Ideally there should be no question you could possibly be asked by a listener on your material that you would not have an intelligent answer for.
With that kind of preparation comes an extremely important and irreplaceable result: CONFIDENCE and POISE. You will not experience stage fright or timidity if you are confident that you know and can present the material, perhaps like no one else. Fear will disappear.
The major ingredient of self-confidence and poise is PAST SUCCESS. If you’ve succeeded doing something in the past, you will likely believe you can succeed with it again: why not? The important thing is to make sure you succeed the first time so that subsequent success will occur. As you begin a speech, having fully prepared and being fully confident of your material and your speaking skills, you should have in your mind, as I always do, the sentence, “They’re going to love what I have to say. Let me at them.”
You will hold listeners’ interest by arousing their CURIOSITY. Keep them looking forward to what is coming next and to what your development of the talk is leading to. Always be specific and concrete; do not be abstract.
Use IMAGERY and COLORFUL PHRASES when you speak. The death of my sister at a young age was instrumental in my beginning to write seriously–her daily courage during her long illness inspired me–and I shared that with my listeners in my Fighting to Win speech, saying, “Goodness shined down on Sharon like light from a private sun.” That very personal image which was important to me connected with my listeners. Often after the talk people would come up to the podium and ask me to repeat that sentence because it had moved them.
Use many EXAMPLES. The easiest and quickest way to get people to listen, and the surest way to hold their attention is to use ILLUSTRATIONS. Talk about PEOPLE. People are interested in other people’s habits, peculiarities, and their stories in general.
Let your PERSONALITY liven up your talk. Early in my career I was hired to give a number of presentations to an organization. After a few of them the director said to me, “The presentations are great. We couldn’t be happier. But there is one thing: people want to know about you. Who you are, what you believe in, are you married, do you have children, what are you like? Are you just a smart man, or are you human too?” You needn’t be a solemn sourpuss. When you prepare the talk weave in personal information that will create an I-and-Thou relationship with the listeners.
I was in a grocery store pushing my cart, on the way to the scale in the produce department to have my vegetables weighed. I could see that a woman to my left with her cart was going to reach the scale at the same time, so, feeling playful, I speeded up and got to the scale first, and said, “Beat you.” I thought possibly I had made the woman feel badly, and so I said, “You can go first,” and she said, “No, no, you go. It’s just so refreshing to find a person who has such a lively spirit.” Audiences too love some PLAYFULNESS and LIVELY SPIRITS in speakers, again showing you’re a blood and bone human being.
LOOK at the audience. You need to read the faces of the listeners to judge whether they are giving full attention. If you give your full attention to what you are saying and the dynamics of the audience, you will not have time to worry or be unsure of yourself. If the audience is bored or uninterested, their faces will let you know. You must always accept full responsibility for holding their attention. Only a naïve speaker thinks it is the responsibility of the audience to listen. The listener has no obligation to a speaker who cannot gain and hold its attention.
From your first word to the last be ENTHUSIASTIC, conveying “What I am telling you I think is important and valuable to you. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I’m excited to be here telling you about it. My hope is that when I am finished you will feel excited about it too.”
People are generally interested in life, action, energy, and movement. They want to be around exciting people, not dull people. Excited people excite them. That’s what charismatic people do. A speaker should never appear feeble or weak, or talk feebly and weakly, nor should he or she rant and shout or be melodramatic. The Greeks believed that enthusiasm is a gift from the gods. Wherever it comes from, speakers are often good or bad based on whether they possess it or do not possess it.
The effective speaker should have a steady a focus: the listener: “So long as you are mindful to say nothing unworthy of yourself, nothing untrue, nothing vulgar, you had better forget yourself altogether and think only of the audience, how to get them and how to hold them” (James Bryce). By focusing on your listeners, you will forget yourself, and no longer be unsure of yourself, but will have the confidence you need to be a superb, polished speaker.
“Nobody has a right to be unhappy, or to live in a way that makes them unhappy” (James Agee).
Glowing by Nadia Parsons
There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life readily available to us. Paths are as innumerable as stars, and everyone has more than one. If you think your paths are best, well then they’re best–for you, though even the person dearest to you might give you an argument. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. If you believe yours are best, no argument will convince you they aren’t. And if you believe someone else’s aren’t, no argument will convince you they are.
Some find that living what I call a “smart” life–a life rife with meaning and vitality and purpose involves acquiring wealth and luxury. Others–like me–have little interest in that at all. They can’t understand what the overly aggressive pursuit of wealth is all about and what makes pursuers of it tick. If you are a writer, artist, or actor, and I asked you about your attitude toward money I suspect you would be something like me.
Some people live to acquire power, and they run for political office or head a corporation. Others, like many artists, like to stay out of the limelight and are not interested in acquiring power, they prefer quiet, modest lives. Some other people like to win and are so competitive that they’ll bet you that their pat of butter will melt faster than yours or their elevator will beat yours to the top. But others find no meaning in competitiveness and couldn’t care less about butter pats or elevators.
Coating of Smog by Nadia Parsons
However they differ, all paths to meaning and living a smart life have this in common: for the people traveling them they have heart. Following paths that have heart brings you happiness. You don’t find meaning as if it’s lying around like a quarter on the sidewalk by a parking meter. You have to decide on the paths you’ll follow and hold them prominently in mind and commit yourself to them. That’s mature living.
These are ever-changing times. Everything is going faster. But here are paths that are leading people like you and me to meaningful creative lives.
You and I have had moments of experiencing something so incredibly beautiful it was indescribable. It was then that we were reminded of what we had forgotten in the whirl of our everyday lives: we are insignificant and half the time we don’t know what we’re doing, but there’s pure joy in just being alive. The flow of life in our veins, in the world, before our eyes–the dazzling sun settled in the sky like a yellow coin, flopping in the whitest snow when we were children, sky-writing on a summer day in a clear sky, clouds, friends waving as they come down the street, a poem, a painting, the smell of a barbeque, a yelping dog chasing a squirrel in the yard– precious life at its simplest. What is more to be treasured than the energy I feel in my muscles right now, this moment, and the ability to think any idea I wish this moment, and excited now, to follow it wherever it leads?
Devotion to a Purpose.
A life without purpose is a meaningless existence. For many people life is tedious and unrewarding. But when, perhaps suddenly, they discover the purposes that ignite their imagination, their lives acquire a vital meaning. They focus on their most important purpose and their lives change instantly.
Adventure, Thrills, Excitement, and New Experiences.
Divisions by Nadia Parsons
This is the path of men and women of action: explorers, mountain climbers, high wire trapeze artists, etc. Race car drivers are the happiest they will ever be when they’re banking into a curve at 180 miles an hour.
Fun and Laughter.
Play comes naturally to animals, including humans. Every mother knows that even babies have a sense of humor. Smiles are universal. In every culture on earth a smile means the same thing. Laughter is therapeutic. There are more than five thousand laughter yoga centers worldwide.
Leading a Moral Life
“How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world” (Virginia Woolf.) Our goodness tells us what we ought to do. During the Great Depression my mother found a hundred dollars on the floor of a bus. That was a lot of money in those days; money was scarce in our family. Instead of spending it she placed a notice in the newspaper, despite the fact that she and my father were broke, unemployed, and had a family to support. Here was a good woman and good man. No one claimed the money so it now belonged to my folks.
People often think of hard work and long hours as unpleasant and damaging to one’s health. They consider it something to be avoided, whatever the achievements it might lead to. It’s often thought that people who are like that are “work addicted.” Well, that’s true, they very well might be addicted, but hard work in pursuit of your purposes, overcoming obstacles to them, is a positive addiction. People who train hard every day to run a marathon–for that achievement–are addicted, and it’s positive. We applaud them. Psychologist George Valliant studied the lives of leading achievers among graduates of the Harvard Business School. He found that they had unusually excellent health, and good marriages and happy lives, in spite of seventy hour work weeks.
Living Up to Your Duties and Responsibilities.
A duty is an obligation. It’s what we owe. Even the word “duty” sounds like a burden to some people. But if we love what we owe the duty to, it is no burden at all, and we welcome it.
“Responsibility” is derived from the Latin “re-spurdere,” which means, “to answer the challenge.” We bear responsibilities to ourselves, our husband or wife, our children, our parents, our lovers, our friends, the earth, and all humankind. When we live up to them, we answer the challenge to a responsible life.
Climate Shift 2 by Nadia Parsons
Some people will shirk responsibility and refuse to answer the challenge whenever they can. You see that in personal life and at work. In any group or organization, given a task to perform, if one member of the group doesn’t do his job, the best workers will generally assume the responsibility he is avoiding rather than not accomplishing the task. To complete the task is their duty. Many people living smartly and meaningfully relish taking personal responsibility rather than being the pawns of circumstances. They owe that duty to themselves and to those who depend on them.
Some duties you bear as lightly as a feather and live up to gladly. But duties are not always pleasant. You would rather stay home on a rainy night when you are bone tired rather than driving twelve miles to visit your friend in the hospital. But you do what your duty requires you to do, without regard to how pleasant or unpleasant it is, and you’re proud of yourself and happy you answered the challenge. To lead a life of duties fulfilled is worthy of you.
The need for security is a powerful human need, and people will do almost anything to satisfy it. It’s said, “Money can’t buy happiness.” But after having none of it for a long time and suffering, when you have it, it certainly does bring happiness. Some people have the need to acquire security, and when they do they’re at their best and leading a smart and happy life.
The Good Life
A life of ease, luxuries, good food, good drink, and good times brings meaning to the lives of many people. It has down through the long corridors of history. In the ancient Roman city of Timgat an inscription was found in the pavement which reads, “To hunt, to bathe, to gamble, to laugh, that is to live.”
The young believe they are generally immune to illness, just as they are not quite convinced that they’re mortal and will not live forever. Older people know they are mortal and everything about the body goes through periods of disrepair. That’s why you hear them say, “The most important thing is your health.” For some people, attaining and preserving good health through such things as diet, exercise, and fitness is prominent in their life path.
Some people value vacations, long weekends, or puttering around in nature. A famous little Zen poem reads: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing/ Spring comes/ And the grass grows by itself.” Wonderful nineteenth century American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Time is but the stream I go fishing in.”
A Spiritual Life.
Clarity by Nadia Parsons
It’s been said that the essence of modern life is that nothing is sacred. But for many people who are leading a smart, meaningful life that’s not true at all. Some people find happiness in material objects, but others find it by turning away from outward things. They seek happiness inwardly, in the spirit. Many find meaning in the belief that they belong to something cosmic, something beyond human existence. They believe that we all come from God trailing clouds of glory and are the beneficiaries of divine grace, and that one’s soul can be elevated toward God. Walt Whitman wrote: “I see something of God each hour of the/ Twenty four and each moment then/ In the faces of men and women/ In my own face in the glass.”
Some people are happiest and seem most alive when they’re miserable. You might be able to name people like that. But in some ridiculous way, they may have found something that suits them. Their unhappiness may be deceptive. Listen to your friend bitterly complain about a terrible job, nagging wife, troublesome children, interfering in-laws, the price of gas, a bad movie, problems with the boss, too-tight shoes, a medical report, crooked politicians, traffic, etc. In the middle of their complaints interrupt him and ask, “Are you happy?” They will stop talking, smile, and say, “Yah, I’m pretty happy.”
The Respect of Other People
We have a need for family, for friends, for company, to fit in and be a part of society, to belong. But at the same time we also have the contrary need–to be unique, to be different, to be noticed and singled out and respected for who we are alone, individually, for ourselves.
Life isn’t a courtroom. People needn’t prove their worth to anyone else. But they do need to find themselves acceptable, approve of themselves, be a person they can believe in, feel proud of being someone they can confidently reveal to the world and not hide. They can boldly declare, “This with my flaws, weaknesses, and strengths is who I am.” Those who pursue a path of self-respect, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, never lose sight of that goal. They strive never to do anything that is in any way unhealthy for them. Then they are in good company with themselves.
Loving and Being Loved
“Love is patient and kind…. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (First Corinthians 13) “Love seeks only one thing. The good of the one loved” (Thomas Merton). We are intended to be loved and to love, and not to be lonely and unloved. We are not isolated islands in a sea of humanity. If we love, we will be loved. D.H. Lawrence wrote: “Those who go searching for love/ Only make manifest their own lovelessness/ Only the loving find love/ And they never have to search for it.” To have a day as I have and you have when everything turns against you, to arrive home, to be greeted by someone you love and who loves you, to see a smile, to hear laugher somewhere in the house, to be kissed: that is life at its fullest.
Sacrifice and Service.
Transitioning to Night by Nadia Parsons
Leading a life without concern for others becomes increasingly unsatisfying. We are capable of pettiness, jealousy, and selfishness, but we are also capable of unselfishness, compassion, helpfulness, kindness, and sympathy. “Man achieves fullness of being in…care for others. He expands his existence by bearing his fellow man’s burden….The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve” (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Some people find great happiness devoting themselves to the wellbeing of others, and ask nothing in return. There are countless examples of such quiet self-sacrifice in everyday life. Someone set out this morning to help the needy, and someone else to comfort the sick, or to visit the home-bound, or to raise money for a charity. They make the other person’s problems their own. Helping to solve them, they are making the most of their lives.
There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life. What are you doing here on this earth with this life you’ve been granted gratis? Does it have meaning? How will you be remembered? What paths are you following?
The beautiful and powerful paintings featured in this post are by artist Nadia Parsons, the Sky Painter, whose path is to capture fleeting moments of change in the sky. “As we observe the sky,” the artist says, “we can become acutely aware of how small we are in contrast to the vast scale of the universe. We also have an opportunity to appreciate our importance as it coexists with fears of our own insignificance.” (Nadia Parsons, https://www.skypainterstudios.com/about/ )
In those happy days when I was starting out and writing books during the night while my wife and children slept, I was a business consultant during the day. One client was an anal-type organization–lots of rules, very little freedom, dictatorial–and many disgruntled employees. You might have worked in an organization like that. You may be working in one now.
One rule was that no one from one unit was to visit another unit during working hours. They were serious. Wherever you went you heard people saying, “Don’t get caught out of your unit.”
Your creator’s self-concept–self-image, self-estimate–is your internal, private opinion of the kind of creator you are and of the actions you are or are not capable of performing as a creator. It directly controls how successful you are in your creative endeavors and how full and satisfying your creative life will be. Like that nutty rule, your creator’s self-concept says, “Whatever you do, don’t get caught out of your self-concept.”
Your behavior has absolute trust in your creator’s self-concept and believes it and obeys it. You may have decided after five years writing that you’re a pretty average poet, so you work only hard enough to write average poems, never expecting to do any better. Your self-concept is perfectly content with mediocrity although you may have the potential for greatness. It is continually telling you to stay inside its definition of the kind of person you are: “You’re a decent painter but let’s face it, you’ll will never be much more than that.”
Many people I’ve met and you’ve met tell themselves they’re not creative. They realize that creativity could make them happier, but they claim they just don’t have it. Many people think, “Oh, a painter is creative, or a novelist or an architect. But I’m not a bit creative.” Yet researchers have demonstrated that the self-concept is so powerful and yet so malleable and so easy to change that the moment–the moment–people start thinking “I am creative” instead of “I’m not creative,” creativity increases. They can write and paint and perform dramatic roles passably well. Now they have a creator’s self-concept.
Disappointments lead some creators to think, “I can’t produce really superb art work. . .sell my stories to magazines…make a lot of money…place my paintings in the best galleries…get in a good show… compete with young creators…” and so on.
Many creators have such narrow self-concepts they’re living in a unit that’s only a fraction of the size of their true creative ability. They possess the capacity to accomplish high creative goals but they don’t realize they do. Other creators have wide and expansive self-concepts. Their actions are bolder. They are self-confident. They expect to excel and often do.
What’s holding narrow self-concept creators back? Don’t look at me. I’m not holding them back. You’re not holding them back. They are holding themselves back. Some creators—maybe you know a few of them—have self-concepts so narrow and confining that they have made themselves incapable of doing anything significant. Often they don’t even try.
Many of you reading this are fiction writers. But we are all fiction writers. ALL SELF-CONCEPTS ARE FICTIONS; THEY ARE ALL MADE UP. They are not real in the way a flower pot is real or a desk is. They are merely ways you have chosen to view yourself. From this insight it’s a short, leaping step to the next: “Hey, since I made up this damned self-concept and I’m not happy with it, and it’s holding me back, all I have to do to increase my possibilities and free up my creator’s mind and personality is to create another one and act accordingly,” or “Do I need a self-concept at all?” If your self-concept is right for you—if you’re happy with it—by all means keep it. But if it’s bringing you creative disappointment after disappointment and discouragement and you’re dissatisfied with it, you’d better, I think: (1) change it, or (2) operate without it.
I want to tell you two stories:
Story One: “The Storekeeper and the Thief”
In Japan in the nineteenth century, storekeepers were considered lily-livered weaklings. One storekeeper became sick and tired of this reputation. To prove that it was totally false he took lessons at a martial arts dojo. He devoted himself religiously and after some years he became an expert. After closing his shop late one night, the storekeeper and his wife started home down the dark streets carrying the day’s receipts. They had just turned the corner when a man holding a knife stepped out of the shadows and ordered the storekeeper to hand over his money.
At first he refused, but when the thief charged him, growling, “You miserable merchant, I’ll cut you to pieces,” the storekeeper lost his courage, fell to his knees, and began to tremble with fear. Suddenly his wife cried out, “You’re not a storekeeper, you’re a master of the martial arts.”
The storekeeper turned his head and looked at his wife. “Yes,” he said, “I am.” He stood, a warrior now, totally fearless, completely calm. He let out a powerful katzu, “battle shout,” and leaped at the thief. He defeated him easily.
Story Two: “The Teaman and the Ronin”
In feudal Japan, a servant, a poor practitioner of chado, the Way of tea, unwittingly insulted a ronin, a masterless samurai. Outraged, the ronin challenged the servant to a duel. “I’m not a warrior,” the teaman said, “and I’m very sorry if I offended you. I certainly didn’t mean to. Please accept my apology. ”But the ronin would have none of it. “We meet at dawn tomorrow,” he said, and as was customary, he handed the terrified teaman a sword. “Go practice,” said the ronin.
The servant ran to the home of a famous sword master and told him the terrible thing that had happened. “A unique situation,” the sword master said. “For you will surely die. The thing I might be able to help you with is isagi-yoku, the art of dying well.”
While they talked, the teaman prepared and poured tea. The masterful way he did it caught the eye of the sword master. He slapped his knee and said, “Forget what I just told you. Put yourself into the state of mind you were in as you prepared the tea and you can win this fight.” The teaman was shocked. The sword the ronin had given him was the first he had ever held. “What state of mind?”
“Were you thinking ‘I’m a teaman?’ ” asked the master.
“No. I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“That’s it!” The sword master laughed. “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head, ready to cut your opponent down. Don’t think you’re a teaman or that you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”
The next morning the ronin appeared on the field and the teaman immediately raised his sword overhead, his eyes on the ronin, his ears waiting for the battle cry. For long moments the ronin stared at the raised sword, and the determination in his opponent’s eyes. Finally the ronin said, “I cannot beat you.” He bowed and left the field.
The problem of these two men should seem familiar. Their predicament is one we all encounter every day. Our opponents aren’t usually thieves and they certainly aren’t wandering samurai ronin, but that’s not important. Those weren’t the main opponents anyway. The primary battle, the main event, was going on inside the storekeeper and the teaman. To win on the outside, each had to deal with a faulty, inadequate, self-defeating self-concept.
Option One: “I’m a Warrior, Not a Storekeeper.” Changing Your Self-Concept
Many creators are overlooking their creative abilities. They persist in thinking they’re storekeepers when if they just thought differently about themselves they would see what warriors they have the potential to be. Listen to the things you say about yourself and think about yourself that begin with “I am,” “I’m not,” and “I can’t.” They are your self-concept in action. And they directly control what is possible for you.
Robin tells herself, “I’ve been working on the thing I call ‘My Novel’ for years and can’t seem to finish it. It’s embarrassing. I have no will power.” And because of it she has real problems getting the damn thing off to a publisher. Ariel tells herself she’s not intelligent enough to write a Hollywood screen play. She doesn’t realize that intelligence is not fixed and final in a person, but can increase with use and with it her concept of herself as an intelligent woman.
Creators are what they are because they keep telling themselves they are. If they stop telling themselves they are, they change. If creators say to you, “I just can’t talk in front of large groups,” or “I’m not the sales type,” or “I’m not a really clever person,” and then ask you if there is anything they can do about it, you might suggest that they never, never say that again. Then suggest they counter every “I’m not” or “I just can’t” with a firm “I am” or “I can.”
Saying it isn’t enough. What is in your head doesn’t count for anything unless you translate it into action, “body knowledge.” It’s not enough to think, “Hey, I’m not just a storekeeper, I’m really a warrior after all.” To defeat the thief you have to fight, and you can because:
All behavior is nothing more than an act, a performance. Acting is easy. Everyone can act. We are all performers. As soon as a public speaker realizes that she is not a lecturer but an actor, her presentations get good. To BE confident, ACT confidently.
Find a model, someone who does well what you would like to do. Watch how she does it, then do it the same way yourself. Or borrow from a number of models.
Option Two: Operating Without a Self-Concept
The sword master advised the teaman, “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head. Don’t think that you’re a teaman or you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”
In sales training sessions I gave I often used a simple role-playing exercise that’s designed to demonstrate the teaman alternative. The teaman alternative is not replacing your old, limiting self-concept with a new and improved one. It’s not thinking you’re a cowardly storekeeper or a poor teaman, but it’s not thinking you’re a warrior either. It’s not holding any self-concept in mind, but just taking action, doing something.
After everyone in the training group had played the part of a sales person making a presentation to a potential customer, I asked them to list the things that they did well during the role-play and the things they would like to improve upon. Then we discussed the “like-to-improve-upons.” Sam said he was no good at thinking on his feet. He went blank. A real salesman, Sam said, is able to handle himself smoothly.
Gerri said her problem was talking too fast. Her words came shooting out so fast she often said the wrong thing. She got flustered. She blew sales.
One by one, they all had to tell me about their “improve-upons.” Midway through every description of a problem I stopped the speaker and said something like “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I’ll tell you what: show me how you would like to be able to do it.” Then I just sat back and watched the amazing thing that almost always happened. Virtually every time, they were all able to do what they said they had trouble doing or could not do at all. Now they were acting.
Sam, for example, actually did think on his feet, and responded smoothly and quickly to the prospect’s objections. Gerri actually became a more composed, together, non-flustered and relaxed saleswoman. Shy people who wished to act more boldly and self- confidently actually did. Those who wished to improve their body language did so. And tough, defensive people who “always” argued and who wanted to be more friendly and warm succeed in acting that way.
I had prompted each of the role-players to act directly without letting their self-concept affect their performance at all. They were doing before their self-concepts had time to inform them, “You just got through saying you couldn’t do that, so it doesn’t make any sense for this guy to ask you to.”
What the role-players learned is precisely what the sword master taught the teaman: You can do what even you believed you couldn’t if you forget about your self-concept totally.
Seeing how easy and effortless it was to forget about a previous self-concept and just act, just be, just perform was exciting for everyone. It was an unforgettable life learning experience.
Do whatever you’re doing creatively without any thought about your “I ams,” “I can’ts” and “I’m nots,” or any concern about “what bad thing will happen if I fail” or “what great thing will happen if I succeed.” You’ll be unhappy whenever your internal opinion of yourself makes you concerned with yourself instead of the creative action at hand.
The creative action at hand–the story or the painting to be crafted, the role to be played, the dance to be danced–they are all that matters, they are the main thing. Forget about everything else. Watch what happens. Watch your creative life change.
Parts of this post appeared in different form in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work And Life
In college I had a brilliant professor of creative writing–he was dazzling. After class one day I said to him, “You know everything about literature and writing. Your analysis of works is something to behold, and you’re able to tell students how specifically to improve their work. But as far as I can tell you’ve never produced any creative writing yourself. Have you?
“Because I have no talent.”
He didn’t have the talent his students did have, but his students didn’t have the knowledge he had, and that’s what we were there to acquire so we would have both talent and knowledge.
A painter will not automatically improve her performance by painting more. A writer’s performance won’t improve simply by further writing. To ratchet up their performance they will have to make changes designed specifically to develop it to a higher level. One major change is to acquire more knowledge.
In the arts and every other pursuit knowledge isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything. Most often the reason a creator isn’t yet accomplished isn’t because he’s unintelligent or not gifted but because he isn’t knowledgeable enough. You need a big data base to be an accomplished creator.
Knowledge translates into new techniques and skills. New techniques and skills translate into new creative accomplishments–roles for the actor, publications for the writer, commissions for the painter and composer, greater satisfaction with your craftsmanship, and so on.
Particularly important in the acquisition of knowledge about your art is the instruction you receive. It may come from yourself if you are a self-taught autodidact who acquires knowledge by reading and studying the author’s ideas as many creators do, and instruction from direct in-person exposure to expert, skilled teachers. Most creators are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly. They are teachable.
Everyone who has reached the highest level of excellence in their chosen field will be found to have spent much of their lives immersed in that field pushing themselves to improve their performance, and have amassed tremendous knowledge of it. Experts have a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand. Most experts consider about 50,000 different chunks to be the foundation of their expertise. When you are learning, you are adding chunks. It is no secret to you when you are talking with masters of a domain. Knowledge seems to come out of their every pore.
If you are interested in reaching your upper limits of performance and the most effective training in reaching them, you should study experts in your field–read about them, listen to the stories about them. They have probably spent their entire creative life maximizing their performance. Lengthy, on-going, never-ending training is nearly always the reason for superior performance. All the known routes to high performance require extended training. There are no shortcuts.
Research on what enabled many people to reach high expertise reveals that very often elite performers attach themselves to teachers who give them quality feedback, and with their help engage in specifically-designed training tasks. Training tasks force the creators to solve specific problems and stretch their performance, break bad habits, acquire new skills, and often experience career-changing insights.
Often creators we’ve heard most about received a more ancient style of education rather than modern large classes and many teachers. They received at least some one-on-one personalized education, spending time with a teacher with a good reputation known for their work with students on an individual basis, engaging in give and take dialogue and questioning.
When a student in an art studies with a role model, a master, sparks fly. The two of them immerse themselves in the world of their art. Together, they analyze the piece of work, the skills that went into producing it, and the additional skills that will be needed if the student is to go further. The student learns the importance of concentration and sheer effort, and the need to overcome self-doubt. The student is gaining independence and confidence, and learning to solve problems on her own. Then in time, she may become a master in her art.
Troubled and immensely talented American short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER was called “The American Chekhov.” A turning point in his life was being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by author John Gardner and being 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.”
American MARY CASSATT’S emergence midway in her painting career was the result of a sequence of happy events: living in Paris, mingling with the French Impressionists, especially mentor/teacher Edgar Degas, becoming an Impressionist herself, and finding her subject–her voice: mothers with their children. Degas was a generally unpleasant, abrasive, hard to deal with man who most other painters couldn’t stomach. But he was a good teacher, the right teacher for Cassatt.
Ernest Hemingway had a most astounding capacity for absorbing information as soon as he was exposed to it and applying it immediately. He was greedy for knowledge and went to everyone for help—and they gave it freely–Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and others. He studied, read, and wrote, sometimes eighteen hours a day.
Expert performers and their teachers identify specific goals for improvement, particularly crucial aspects of performance. The person who is trying to improve his mastery must concentrate full attention on getting rid of shortcomings, focusing on where in his performance there’s the most room for improvement. Not any old teacher will do; a bad teacher is worse than no teacher. The teacher must be effective and must know how to support and excite the student to go on learning. What could be more unendurable that a dull teacher?
The most important quality that leads a creator to success is his motivation. A good teacher stokes the creator’s motivation through positive reinforcement and encouragement.
If a writer is weak on imagery she must write out a hundred, two hundred, three hundred effective images in practice. If she’s already a master of imagery she needn’t practice making images as much and can concentrate on what she’s not strong on.
Admitting shortcomings is hard for some people, but not hard at all for others. It wasn’t hard for Vincent van Gogh. His brother Theo asked if he should stop criticizing Vincent’s work in his letters. Vincent replied: “Continue writing me about my work. Do not fear to hurt me…I will take such criticism as proofs of sympathy worth a thousand times more than flattery.”
Generally speaking, writers, painters, ballet dancers, actors, and composers are quite probably the toughest-on-themselves, most self-critical creatures on this globe. Only the poorer and most naive of them are seduced by undeserved praise. If there are flaws in their work, they almost always recognize them before anyone else. Tell a prima ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will shake her head and say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly.” And if the criticism of their work is unfair and not justified, they recognize that too.
The whole reason for being of the creator is to produce fully realized, polished works that as closely as possible approximate the ideal of “The best I can do at this time. In a year I should have more knowledge and should be able to do better if I keep working and learning, and in five years, better still. But right now this is the best I am capable of.”
Until you can say that, the work isn’t finished and needs more attention. That attitude should be yours as long as you paint, as long as you write, as long as you dance, as long as you act, as long as you compose.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but my blog posts are not like the blog posts of other people. Obviously, though, some of you notice the difference. You send me blog comments and tweets indicating that you do. I want to thank you because it’s gratifying to know that one’s ideas are of value to the people you’re trying to reach.
For example, when it started getting out that I was talking about ideas that were different, I was happy to receive an email from novelist Josephine Rose letting me know she thought I was on the right track: “David, it’s great that you focus on the practical aspects of being a writer. If I had read you 10 years ago I think I would have said, ‘Nah, it’s all about talent. Either you can write or you can’t.’ Now I know this is an error…Thank you for these wonderful reminders.”
I write about creators’ need for confidence because confidence may be the most important factor of all to the creator. Confidence touches every aspect of the creator’s being—whether you think about your prospects positively or in a self-defeating way, how strongly you motivate yourself, whether you will persist in the face of adversity and setbacks, your susceptibility to discouragement, and the changes you will be able to make in your life.
Believe in yourself. The higher your faith in yourself, the higher you’ll set your creative goals and the stronger your commitment to achieving them will be. You’ll feel serene, for now you can make full, free use of all your talents.
Failure can actually increase your confidence. If you experience only easy successes, you come to expect quick and easy results, and your sense of confidence is easily undermined if you fail. Setbacks and failures serve a useful purpose by teaching that success usually requires confident effort sustained over time.
Once you become convinced that you have what it takes to succeed you quickly rebound from failures. By sticking it out through tough times, you come out on the far side of failures with even greater confidence. If you’re not failing some of the time one thing is true: you’re not aiming high enough.
I write about human qualities that distinguish one creative person from another such as strength (suggesting that it’s worth a creator starting every work day by asking, “Am I strong today? Will I be strong?”) And I write about courage, persistence, tenacity, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, discipline, good writing moods and bad writing moods, and ideal writing moods.
And the creator’s experience of ecstasy, and the need for stamina, which I call “the creative person’s inner power.” And self-resilience, enthusiasm, self-motivation, energy and your capacity for work, sacrificing for the sake of your craft, boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, resilience, maintaining at all times the highest hope of succeeding, and other spiritual dimensions of your personality.
My interest in the inner dimensions of creative people springs from the work I did on my international best-selling print book (now an ebook), Fighting To Win:Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life, which is now considered a classic. In that book I said that a frightening 70% of the blocks–obstacles–impediments to fulfillment that a person encounters are inside them. Something is wrong and needs mending in their minds and spirits.
All people need to be inspired to overcome obstacles and shown strategies for accomplishing that. That’s what I set myself to accomplishing in Fighting to Win.
The main inner blocks people anywhere on earth and especially people trying hard to do creative work are encountering right now as they set out to work today are these:
Being Afraid to Take Risks
Thinking Too Much of What Could Go Wrong
You will see that you’re no stranger to blocks.
So a person’s inner territory has been my main concern for more than thirty years–in fact probably much longer than that.
Rarely will you find me writing anything about how to write or paint or act or dance because that’s not my main interest. I will not tell a painter how to paint because I don’t know enough about that. But even if I did I probably wouldn’t talk about good technique or good use of color, or composition, or perspective except to say I recognize them when I see them. I’m a great lover of art. And I’m grateful to many accomplished artists who have allowed me to include their work in my posts. I will talk about what makes great artists tick and why they’re so special. And I will say that creators who do great work are great in themselves.
I know enough about writing to apply careful technique to my own writing and to have taught serious writers and found great pleasure in that and discovered I have a lot to say. I’ve written about extraordinary writers—the most extraordinary ever to write.
But you won’t hear from me these days anything about developing characters, scenes, conflicts, and episodes, or how to write dialogue, or generate a mood, or structure a plot, or anything dealing with technique and mechanics.
There are two reasons for that. First, technical skills aren’t my main interest. My main interest is the psychology of creative people and how to teach them and support and inspire them to reach tangible success and personal fulfillment.
Also, there are already thousands of books, magazines, web sites, classes, and blogs for learning technique and mechanics. People have been writing books giving advice on how to write better for 2,000 years. The fact that information is so easily accessible is one reason why so many creators are autodidacts and have taught themselves their craft.
In contrast, almost nothing has been written about what I write about and what the book I’m finishing up after 3½ years of researching and writing is about. I’m convinced that inside, in your mind, in your gut, in your spirit, in your highest and dearest aspirations will be found the magical difference between adequate creators and great ones.
Creators who have technical skills, but lack these spiritual inner qualities and the ability to overcome internal obstacles will not go as far as they could. Or may not go far at all. Or they may give up and quit long before they would have reached their peak performance. Isn’t it sad to think of the thousands of gifted writers, painters, and performers who will quit this year, telling a spouse or a friend, “I’ve had enough”?
Who you are—what you are made of, what you know, what constitutes you, what you stand for and dream of—cannot be separated from your strange, puzzling creative self.
When I was a little boy about eight or nine, I was playing in front of the TV in our Chicago apartment when an old black and white English movie came on. I knew nothing about acting, though I had once played a tree in a skit. But there was one actor on the screen who I could see was remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something special right there on the screen.
What he was doing, how he was acting, the impression he was making made me feel a sensation which I now know was awe. I realized I was watching an extraordinary accomplishment I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed at the man and said, “Who is that, Mom?” She was a movie buff, so she knew. She said, “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of any art.
As I grew older I began to notice examples of supreme mastery all around me: athletes, singers (In my family were many fine singers), pianists, violinists, and auto mechanics. And then, when I went into business and became a management consultant, executives, workers in offices, factories, and plants. And then when I became a professional speaker, spell-binding orators with supreme mastery who could inform you and teach you and move you in a way other speakers didn’t dare dream of.
About the people who perform best, whether actors, dancers, accountants, physicians, executives, sales people, mothers and fathers, chefs, carpenters, athletes, novelists, poets, and playwrights, etc., there’s an ease, an effortlessness. They stand out. You notice them. You don’t forget them. They just do what they do so well and naturally, so charismatically, beautifully, confidently, and with what seems so little effort, that if you stand back and watch them, you have to marvel. You have no choice but to think, “What I am now watching is almost unreal. It is almost super-human.” They do it better and have more ability than just about anyone else you’ve ever seen—better than other actors, painters, or writers, etc.
It’s called yugen in Japanese. Yugen is the “highest principle” in Japanese art—in any country’s art, I think—and the most difficult term in Japanese aesthetics to define. It’s the creation of grace and beauty–the mark of great ability of men and women who have reached highest attainment in their art, their craft, their occupation. There is “Grace of music,” “Grace of performance,” and “Grace of the dance.” There is the grace of any of the arts.
Yugen is “the something behind the gesture” of a great craftsman. It’s described poetically as the emotion you feel watching a bird slowly crossing the moon at night, or the ease with which a flower grows, or one of my favorite sensations which you might have experienced, that of wandering on and on in a deep forest with no fear and no worry and no thought of turning back.
No element of the yugen performance is wasted or done without purpose, and it’s something to behold. You can think right now of people you’ve seen, of people you might know, possibly you yourself, and be able to say something like, “If ever a person possessed yugen mastery it was Ms. Cartwright, my fourth grade teacher,” or Jessica Lange in Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey IntoNight, or yourself, thinking, “When I directed that play,” “When I wrote that novel” “When I danced Swan Lake,” “I had it.”
Everyone is—you are, I am, my wife is, my children and grandchildren are—potentially a yugen person. Aren’t we all more extraordinary than we realize?
If you ask yugen people, they won’t be able to explain exactly what it is they do that makes them different from others in their field because after long periods of practice and development they now do it intuitively, and what is done intuitively cannot completely be communicated to another person rationally. Oh, they have an idea, but can’t quite put their finger on what makes them able to leap up consistently in performance.
Olivier once finished a stage performance which he knew was perfect. Everyone in the company knew it was perfect and when he came off stage they asked, “Larry, how did you do that?” He replied, “I wish I knew so I could do it again.”
If you have that special touch in the work you do, you would be hard put to tell someone who comes to you to be trained exactly what you put into your performance. You say, “I do the best I can.” You’re not being modest. Just honest.
What’s known for sure is that mastery doesn’t happen overnight but is the result of long practice and absorption in the craft. Every person who reaches high achievement in a field will have spent much of his time trying to get better, and better still, and will have reached highest ability via a long process of learning and application while pushing himself upward to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness.
When you’re coming into your own artistically you are discovering in all its detail your most creative self of all the selves you might have been. Sometimes a person who one day will become a writer, artist, actor, or dancer doesn’t know himself what he might do. But he feels instinctively that he’s good for something and has some reason for existing. He has a hunch that there is something important in him that’s worth pursuing further. He finds that something in art. He makes himself into a writer, for example–an expert in expressing himself via written language.
Coming into your own, you are developing your skills and yourself to their peak. You are increasing the depth and breadth of your knowledge of your chosen field. You are developing deep-felt, deeply-woven identity that everyone recognizes as the real you. You are on a creator’s Life Path. Just imagine the fulfillments the Path will lead you to.
Mastery is revealed in everything the person does, down to the smallest detail. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp said she could decide if a dancer was right for her company even by the way he came through the door of the studio and put down his bag. The opening scenes of a really skillfully-written play or the first leap of the dancer tell you right away if this artist has yugen. If so, settle back, you’re in store for something marvelous.