Category Archives: Inspiring Young People

Preparation and Creative Success

A young recent college graduate found out I was an experienced often-published writer and came over and asked me if we could get together to talk about writing. And so we went to a restaurant and talked for an hour and a half.

writing-828911_640She wants to be a poet. She’s started reading poetry but isn’t trained in it. She’s a fledgling poet, a poet in the making. She showed me samples of her work and I liked it and could see what she’s trying to get at. I encouraged her. As we were finishing up she mentioned magazines and poetry journals she was going to send her poems to. They included the New Yorker and Poetry and other of the most prestigious publications in the country.

I went home thinking, “I hope she doesn’t get too disappointed if her poems are rejected. They probably will be. She doesn’t yet realize how competitive publishing is. She’s thinking only of the gift she senses in herself. But there are whole armies of other gifted people everywhere in the world. There’s no premium on giftedness among creative people. They’re all gifted.”

And I thought, “There are a million poets nowadays, just as there are two million novelists and three million artists, some of them extremely well-trained in their craft and who have long experience. And every poet, novelist, and artist would like to be extraordinarily successful.” But why would I of all people discourage her? She’ll find out for herself. Then we’ll see what she’s made of. Will she still be writing and still be as enthusiastic in five years? Ten years? Fifteen?

Then I received an email from a graduate student in Texas who’d heard me speak. He wanted to know if I could refer him to an agent and publisher he could contact after he started writing. He hadn’t started writing yet.

I replied in my email, “I think the most important task for you now is to focus on writing, writing, and more writing. And reading good writers who are writing the kinds of things you want to write—write and study how to write. Learn bestsellers-67048_640and learn more. Read because people you read about are people who’ve spent their entire lives reading. Develop your abilities. Getting an agent, getting a publisher are separate activities from writing and should be kept separate. After you’ve gotten good at writing, then it’s time to start thinking about getting your work published. First get good.”

What I was saying was that success–particularly in the arts–is difficult, and that preparation is the key. And is the key to success in everything. And that if you lack the skill to reach a goal you will not reach it. You will not reach the goal pen-27043_640until you have the necessary skill. There has to be a perfect match between goals on the one hand and skills on the other.

The main reason most artists and writers fail is because they haven’t developed the skills they should have developed, but neglected to. The need is to develop an expertise not in every skill but in especially the key skills a person in that field must excel in if they are to be as successful as they could be. If you don’t have the skills, if you’re to succeed you’ll have to acquire them. If, for example, a fiction writer isn’t strong in the skill of characterization she’ll have problems because characterization is an essential skill. Many say more essential than every other writer’s skill. So a writer better focus on developing that skill.

You can take a flyer and try—nothing ventured nothing gained. And if you fail, you fail, so what? But something unfortunate often happens to artists and writers (and actors, etc.) with high hopes who, because they’re unprepared, fail and fail again, and again, and again. They may never succeed and never know why they don’t. Their beginner’s confidence, once so strong, now flies out the window. They become deeply discouraged and may quit, and that’s it. Their career, once so hopeful, is over.

Their dreams of being creative all the time and living the life of a writer, painter, or actor, or dancer dissolve. Why? Because they’d been so hungry to succeed fast they’d neglected their preparation. And preparation is what they should have been doing—slowly, patiently learning, learning more, overcoming their weaknesses, and building up their strengths.

I can’t possibly tell you how many promising writers and artists—talented, impressive people–I’ve known who failed pencil-1203980_640and gave up and never reached their peak. All professional writers and artists have encountered more than a dozen more talented writers and artists than themselves who no longer write or paint at all. Who knows what they might have accomplished? How much better it would have been for them if instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough” they’d thought, “I’m not YET good enough, but one day I will be if I commit myself to getting good, very good.”

A theme of mine is that it’s always best to face reality, however harsh and however much at times we want to hide from it. Face reality head-on and don’t lead a life of illusions. Never hide. And a reality that a creator has to face head-on and not hide from is that it takes a long time—usually many years–and a lot of patience and an almost unbelievable amount of work to become what I call a REAL painter, or REAL writer, or REAL actor, or REAL dancer who has what Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway called “seriousness.” And there are no exceptions.

According to the research on the development of expertise in any field thousands of hours of application have to be put in if your aim is to excel or even be competent. No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without that much work on the part of the creator, however much natural ability he or she possesses. Some degree of that mysterious stuff called talent is necessary. But it’s far from everything. Talented people are a dime a dozen. The poet Hesiod who lived hundreds of years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high gods have placed sweat.” Sweat becomes part of the real creator’s everyday life.

The expert makes the performance look easy and we’re seduced: “I can do that.” But we have to look past the ease of the expert and realize creating is fun, it’s a gas, it’s fulfilling, and nothing else in your life compares with it. But succeeding at it at a high level is exceedingly tough. But many people have acquired a TV-ratings kind of mentality. It’s either quick results or cancellation.

It’s the same in the arts. A couple of tries without reaching success and it’s ratings time: “Who needs this? It’s harder to succeed than I thought. I’ll go into something else.” Then if you quit, nothing will be gained and many perfectly good years will have been wasted. But when we look at creative people who’ve “made it” we invariably find beings who have (1) persevered through setbacks (2) been devoted to developing to a high level the specific skills that made their high performance possible, and (3) had a thirst that can’t possibly be quenched to get better and better still.

So it’s wise to ask yourself as you work, “Am I really ready? Am I sufficiently prepared?” Lay your ego aside. If your answer is an honest “No, I can see I’m not,” go back, be patient, and focus harder on preparation.

Feel your expertise growing, your unique creative voice becoming clearer, your skills being refined before your eyes. For backdrop-772520_640a while don’t concern yourself at all with appearing on The New York Times best-seller list or any best-seller list. The hunger to see your name on these lists is the bane of writers. Don’t worry about having your work shown in the fanciest galleries.

When you’re prepared and your skills are strong enough that well may happen. But not until. But whatever you do, don’t quit till you’ve seen how high the skills you’ve so conscientiously developed will take you.

Sometimes I see the young poet on the street and I ask her, “Are you working?” And she smiles and says she is.

 

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Inspiring Young People, Motivation, Preparation, Publishing, Self-Confidence, Success, The Writer's Path, Work Production, Writers

Advice to Young Writers

I was asked by an administrator of a middle school in my county (grades seven and eight) if I would speak at their Career Day. Adults from about 50 careers from soldiering to farming would speak that day about their careers for twenty minutes each to five classes of students thirteen and fourteen years old. I would be the writer. I was told by a very sincere and enthusiastic woman that it would be fun and rewarding. My first thought, as would be the first classroom-510228_640thought of any conscientious writer, was, “It would mean giving up an entire day of writing,” so I said I’d have to think it over. My wife is a writing teacher/tutor of some reputation, so she said what I knew she would: “You should really do it, you know,” and of course I knew I should—it’s important to nurture the young—I know that. (I have two adult sons who write and I nurtured them, didn’t I?)–and if your wife’s tone says, “How can you not think of doing it; what kind of man are you?”–the issue is more or less settled. So I did research and wrote notes (sacrificing another half day), and rehearsed my talk (another two hours), and a few weeks later appeared at Career Day.

I opened by asking if they knew what the author of a book means by royalties, and they knew. I talked about “The opportunities available for a person who wants to make a living writing” and gave them figures on writer’s incomes and the demand for writers, telling them that opportunities are good and that there are writers who own private jets and others who have a hard time making a living, and that the quality of the actual writing sometimes (but not always) has an inverse relationship to the income—writers of trash who own the jets and authors of masterpieces who have the tough times. (At the same time Nobel Prize novelist William Faulkner’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, while every atrociously written (but exciting) thing Mickey Spillane wrote about his rugged gumshoe Mike Hammer topped the best seller lists). But that statistically, on average, professional writers, including freelancers, can make a decent living. They didn’t have much faith in statistics and wanted to know how much dough I made.

Even the students who were not especially interested in becoming writers were kind of curious because the life of a writer is romantic to most people, including the young. When I was a boy planning on being a writer, I thought all male novelists—the only kind of writer I thought at the time a man should be—wore cool green corduroy sport coats with leather patches on the elbows, were automatically remarkably handsome, and beautiful women with long legs and dangling earrings that glittered thought them uncommonly sensual, and couldn’t help themselves, and fell in love with them right and left. Popular novelist of the fifties John O’Hara wrote, “How nice, people say, to be a writer and be your own boss, work when you please and don’t have to punch a time clock, knock off whenever you feel like it, and go to Sun Valley or Hobe Sound or Placid or Bermuda” and later said, “I’m afraid that one illusion is responsible for more brief writing careers than any other single factor.” But I told them Flaubert, who sweated and moaned over every word and comma, said “It is a delicious thing to write.”

hand-299675_640(1)They found it appealing that if you write at home, as many writers do, you have tremendous freedom, can break for lunch whenever you want,( but, I cautioned, need equally tremendous discipline so as not to slough off and miss deadlines and get editors furious with you), and can work in your underwear if you’re in an underwear sort of mood. And if you’re a man, since you’re not planning to see anyone, you don’t have to shave every day if you’re not inclined to, which the average nine-to-five man would give an arm and a leg not to have to do.

They asked was I famous, and that gave me a chance to tell my famous story. Someone in a Canada was trying to get hold of me and didn’t have my phone number, but knew I lived in Chicago, a city of three and a half million. So they called Chicago Directory Assistance and asked for the number of David J. Rogers. Now there are scores of David J, Rogers in Chicago. Rogers is the seventeenth most common name in the U.S. But without a moment’s hesitation the operator said casually, “You must mean the author” and put them right through to me. The Canadian said to me, “Wow, you must really be famous” and I thought, “Somewhere here in this city is at least one operator who read my book.”

Then we got into:

What the life of a professional writer is like; what a professional writer is like

What a professional writer does

The skills and abilities a writer needs

How a writer prepares for a writing career

I told them that “all writers take pride in their writing and are always trying to get better. It’s important to them to improve and that happens the more you write and the more you study how to write. Making it a point to improve your writing all the time is important. Ask yourself today, “Am I improving,” and tomorrow and the next day ask, “Am I improving?” You are learning how to write here and will in high school and college, if you choose to go there. There are many books and magazines and web sites about how to get better. Just try to get better and better and learn as much as you can about writing. Many famous writers were more or less self-made and pretty much self-taught. Good writers are reading and learning all the time because who knows what they might have to write about? Writers are craftsman. Words and language are their tools—the sounds of language, the rhythms of language, the meanings. Words are at the center of a writer’s existence. Writers have the strongest appreciation of words, the largest vocabularies, and a highly sensitive ear for speech. Build up your vocabulary every day. not to impress people—who cares about that–but because the more words you know, the more you can express, and a goal of a good writer is to be able to express anything he/she has ever experienced or can imagine.”

When I was in business I hired only English majors not business majors because English majors can express themselves and they can also think clearly. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t write clearly. To me, clarity is the most important thing. And I believe it is to the reader too.”

“Also, you’d better like working alone in solitude at least a few hours every day. If you like working with other people go into sales or acting.”

The day ended. I was exhausted. I thought, “How do teachers do it?”

A Writer’s Cork Board of Inspiration

A girl named Hannah in one of the classes whose ambition was to be a writer sent me some quotes by writers about Girl writingwriting (she could tell I loved writer’s quotes), and I sent her a letter thanking her. She wrote me another letter thanking me for what I had said in my letter. I had merely asked her what kind of writer she would be: “Will you be writing novels?” She wrote: “I really enjoyed writing those quotes and I’m glad you like them. It’s really inspiring to hear them and think how true they are. The quotes, along with the letter I have received from you are going on my cork board of inspiration. I’ll have it in front of my desk to motivate me and spark my imagination.”

What had happened I could see was that I had taken her seriously–possibly in a way no one else had yet–and given her a vote of confidence. I just assumed that what she wanted to have happen would in fact happen: sure as I’d followed the writer’s path, one day she would follow it—and in fact was already following it. I was acknowledging that, and that acknowledgement in that one sentence of my letter—“Will you be writing novels?”—would be on her cork board of inspiration and would be there for her to see and gain encouragement from every day. How glorious that made me feel.

Who knows what treasures one day Hannah will write?

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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