Category Archives: Personal Stories

Art and Memory

“A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened “(Albert Camus).

I

I’m now well, but for years I wasn’t. I lay in bed day and night in an upstairs room in a silent house alone but for my son’s cat Monty beside me to my left cat-114629_640and my dog Jack to my right: my beloved companions. I watched no TV, listened to no radio, read no newspapers, and heard no music.

From that bed I could see out the bedroom windows the crowns of a grove of tall, flourishing trees.  I watched on the trees the seasons change, the leaves brilliant, blinding green in spring, crimson and gold in autumn, brittle and curled when they came to rest on my window sill. Some winters there was more snow there on the branches of those trees than other winters.

Unable to write anymore or to read the books I loved or live a physical life. I decided I would not waste time wondering why what had happened to me had winter-1153669_640happened.  I would have to stay alert and live a life of the mind, and I set a project for myself. I would reconstruct my life to date through my memory. From that bed I would flee into solitude and journey backwards in time.

We set the dead aside as though we have no need of them. But I wanted to pluck out of the long ago the people who had populated my world when I was growing up. I had lived among them and knew their gestures. I had heard them speak so many times, and wondered greatly about them. But I didn’t know who they really were, didn’t know what their days and nights had been like. I realized that if I wanted to be with them, though most had died, I would have to discover them in myself where they all still lived.

I was growing older. My children were gone now—my daughters Stephanie and Alice and my sons Evan and Eli. Their laughter no longer brightened the house. I didn’t know what would become of me. But I wanted to see things as they were before forgetfulness mounted and memories faded and were lost or my life ended and the memories I had assembled ended with me.

I longed to walk through the house where I had grown up and to look out on the street and see the wealth of familiar things that were before me every day days-and-nights-pic_copyin my youth, no sights as dear to me as what I saw from the kingdom of my porch. I wanted to hold my father’s hand again and look into his kind eyes. I wanted to revel in everything–the hum of voices, the smells of night air, those early-evening hawks floating above my house and tucking their wings in to their bodies and diving like falling kites, the taste of my mother’s dinner in my mouth, the sight of her trying on a new hat, and of my younger sister Sharon—my pal–who died so young as a little girl coming up the stairs in her favorite beige coat with a fur collar as I remembered her.

I decided I would try to remember accurately and when I was able to write again, if ever, I wouldn’t lie about what I had discovered because in writing or painting—or acting–one should never lie.  Russian Anton Chekhov said, “Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood.”

And so hour after hour, again and again in my search for truth I burrowed back into myself and evoked the days and nights of my childhood. I notebook-86792_640remembered as well as I could what I had experienced myself and what had been told to me. When there in that room  I came upon something that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t explain, or didn’t remember clearly, or couldn’t possibly know, I relied on my imagination.

My father’s brother died tragically and violently, and my great uncle was a war hero under enemy fire–a rescuer of wounded men–and too, died tragically. I thought about them so many times—of the stories of them I’d been told–and decided that what I’d been told must be incomplete. So I inferred what their real stories were that I hadn’t been told. I concluded that my uncle, that troubled and most charming man we all loved, must have let himself be murdered.

Loneliness, solitude, and isolation are at the core of a creator’s life as they are of a sick person’s life. I learned to adjust to them because I had no choice. I became an expert on despair and pain during that period—despair that is beyond despair, pain beyond pain.

II

At first my remembering was over in a few minutes and was very general and unclear. Memories were there in my mind and then slipped away. I might be distracted by a sound: a storm wind blowing wildly through my trees, or a siren. But then I slowed down and focused intently and remembered in finer and finer detail.  At first I might remember being six and feeling again that tingle of anticipation—of joy– I always felt in my boy’s strong body–my arms, handsmy legs, my fingers–and climbing flights of thickly carpeted stairs with my family—my father in front of me, my brother John behind–and entering an apartment. Then I would remember a hallway; then in a glass case that was taller than a man my Aunt Sarah’s menagerie of little colored glass animals, a rearing white unicorn, a red deer. Then the smell of turkey. It was a holiday. We were all happy.

Detail is the secret of remembering, I discovered–details and details of details, a multiplicity of details, as it is the secret of all the arts when they are done beautifully, a preciseness of vision. That was an important revelation. “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender).

III

My life, like yours, has been carried away by passing days. But time doesn’t disappear absolutely, gone forever, but remains inside—every image and horizon-768759_640impression once experienced is waiting patiently to be retrieved—“those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash…which seem to be of no consequence…which live in our minds and hearts forever” (American novelist Thomas Wolfe).

Over and over, hour after hour, day after day I was moving in closer, backing up and rethinking until I was satisfied and could say, “Yes, yes, that is how it was when I was a boy. I’ve gotten it right.” I did that carefully. I had all the time in the world because I didn’t know if I’d ever be well and wasn’t in a hurry.  I didn’t know if I’d have what it takes to transform memories into meaningful images and words, into art. But I was growing more confident now that one day I would.

Night would be falling before I heard footsteps on the stairs and a door opened and I could answer the question I’d waited so eagerly for all day: “Hello, dear, what did you remember today?”

Time passed and I was well again. Then I left that room.

 

© 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 Integrity, Artists, Growing Up Stories, Memory, Personal Stories, Writers

Joys Of A Workaholic Writer Wasting Time

I’ve been trumpeting to anyone within ear shot that workaholic artistic people frog-1339897_640with their powerful and constant and sometimes obsessive need to work at their craft so they might improve and be more successful are the hardest working and most productive individuals on this planet.

That’s all true, but today my plan is to not produce a thing.

Today I will explore the joys of wasting time.

When I was a business consultant giving presentations to executives I’d say “Ladies and gentlemen I have utmost respect for your capacity for work, and I know you think you’re a hard worker. But you should spend a day with a ballerina. Then you’ll see what it means to work hard.” I’d ask, “For example, how many of you feel so strongly about reaching excellence that you’d practice till your poor muscles screamed and your feet bled?”

But I’m going to waste time all day. I’ll just see what happens.

A number of studies comparing novices with experts in most fields support the idea 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. That’s just common sense, isn’t it?

But common sense or not, that’s not true of artistic work. In fact, the opposite is true. Expert artists of all sorts—you very well may be one–work harder, not less hard than non-experts.  So:

THE BETTER SCULPTOR, PAINTER, NOVELIST, ACTOR, OR POET WORKS HARDER.

But I’ve taken this Wednesday in August off and I’m not thinking of anything like that because rarity of rarities I don’t feel a bit like working and have frog-914522_640decided to play hooky. I’m playing over again and again Simply Red singing the exciting “Fairground” and I feel terrific.  I’m writing this and don’t have the faintest idea where I’m going with it, and that feels great. I feel free, as if I’m in a forest as the Zen people say sitting quietly under a tree, doing nothing, while the roses grow by themselves.

At the moment it’s 2:10 p.m. In a few hours my wife Diana will be coming home and we’ll go out to eat. But first I want to finish this, wherever it’s taking me.

My “Let’s accomplish absolutely nothing today” rebellious mood began this morning when I woke up in yesterday’s street clothes on the couch at five according to the TV I’d left on all night. I just lay there and thought of my goals for the day, the way I start every day—take a look at the long email an editor sent and write a response thanking him, and continue finishing up my book I’ve designed for those whom I call “Stage Three Creators” who are not Stage One or Stage Two creators.

(If you’re curious, according to me:

Stage I creators don’t know the first thing about their craft, but don’t know they don’t know

Stage II creators realize they don’t know the first thing about their craft. So they try to learn as much as they can about their craft

Stage III creators realize there’s a lot more to know about their craft than anyone told them)

But I could tell my goal-setting mind and my I’m-all-set-to- work-let’s-get-the-show-on-the-road mind weren’t synchronized today. So my normal write-read-study daily schedule was tossed out the window and I thought, “For today at least, good riddance.  I think I’ll just putter around the house without feeling guilty.”

I can’t be away from written words for more than a few hours. So I went downstairs to my bookcases and tried to find something that would make me

booksfeel I’d gotten something out of the day even if I didn’t write a word. I passed up Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway’s Death in The Afternoon, which I’d never read, and Flannery O’Connor whom I’ve never read, and John Cheever’s collected stories and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, and so forth.

And there packed in among all my so-many books I saw that little paperback my father had bought me that early autumn afternoon he’d taken my older brother John and me for a commercial boat ride on Lake Michigan when I was eight or nine, I think—The Great Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ten brilliant tales by the best-loved storyteller of all time, the book says. Dad had taken us to a book store in Chicago’s downtown (which we Chicagoans call The Loop) before the boat ride and told us completely by surprise that we could each pick out any book we wanted and he would give it to us. We weren’t rich. What a luxury for me to have my own book.

It was the first book I’d ever owned, that I’d taken my time going through the store and picked out myself. I can remember as though it is happening now looking over the racks for the right book—will it be this one or that one? I looked at the book’s price this morning—35 cents—and at the copyright date—so long ago. The pages are brown and the paper is brittle. The cover is bent but not torn. Through the years I’ve taken good care of it. Wherever I’ve moved, whatever heaven or hell I was going through, it’s come along. How could I possibly be without it?

What pleasure it gives me to see that little book again and to hold it in my hands. It meant so much to me that day. During the boat ride (the boat was named The Blue Dog) I remember that I could hardly take my eyes off the book though it was a lovely day, the sunlight reflected so brightly off the towering buildings along Chicago’s luscious skyline, the surface of the lake blue-gray and green. But it was my book, the first book that I alone had picked out and now could read as many times as I wanted and could keep.

It’s back to work tomorrow for me, but now I’m thinking I don’t know if my father giving me that book was in any way instrumental in setting me off in the direction of a writer’s life. But here I am thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably a writer. And I’ve never since childhood wanted to be anything but.

Writer's Block

 

© 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 Artists, Goals and Purposes, Personal Stories, Wasting Time, Work Production, Workaholic, Writers

Serendipity in a Creator’s Life

My journey on the life path of the writer (you may be on a creator’s life path too)–studying writers and the writer’s life, and writing and reading a great Road with the-sun-470317_640deal of my time, setting writing as a high priority in my life; thinking of it all the time; sacrificing for it—was shaped by serendipitous experiences which are probably not very different from yours.

In the third grade when I was seven, the teacher, Miss Gross, stood at the front of the room and read to the class my theme–I’d described playing football. I’d said when I was tackled “I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Miss Gross said to the class. “David has used poetic language. He’s written what’s called a simile.” That single little event—her saying that and showing admiration for those few words,  and making me feel that it was somehow worth commenting on—immediately sparked something in me, let something  break free in me.

David youngRunning home down the street after school feeling wonderful and liberated—when I was young I was almost always running–I decided I would become a writer if there were such people and make similes as often as I wanted all the rest of my life. Miss Gross then encouraged me and worked with me and nurtured me. She arranged for my stories and poems to be published in newspapers and magazines. She asked me to apply myself and work hard at the writer’s craft. I was awarded first prize in a regional essay contest.

What if there hadn’t been a generous, giving Miss Gross in my life? What if she hadn’t been that kind of extraordinary teacher who holds students in highest regard and inspires them to aim high? What if she hadn’t cared enough to help me?

At about the age of nine I happened to be playing in front of the TV instead of playing tag outside with my brother and sisters when an old black and white English movie came on.  I knew nothing about acting, but there was one actor Laurence Olivieron the screen who I could see was doing something remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something 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 some exceptional thing I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed to him and asked my mother who that was. She was a movie buff. She knew. “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of an art.

I decided that I wanted one day to be able to affect people the way his performance had affected me—he had made me gasp. And I thought the best way to do that was to write things so beautiful that people would gasp too. A major event for me in college involved another teacher, Dr. Hunt, a well-known visiting professor of creative writing who one day read to the class a piece I’d written. (The assignment was to describe a person by describing a piece of clothing they were wearing, and I wrote “My Father’s Corduroy Jacket,” the best writing I’d done to date.)  When she finished reading, she said, “A teacher waits her entire career for a student who can write like this.”  She had me visit her in her office and helped get my work in a prestigious literary journal. So there was my second encouraging Miss Gross who happened to be on the faculty for one semester—the same semester it fit my schedule to take her class.

To create beauty—to write beautiful poems and stories—I decided depended on how moving the subject was and also the beauty it was expressed with, and Writing near a treeI placed a great deal of emphasis on the imagery in the writing.  In college I’d read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” and was greatly impressed with its beautiful language. I never forgot Hopkins and years later (before Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble) I had the urge to read a book studying his imagery so that it might affect my imagery. Wherever I traveled—and I did extensively, big cities, small towns–I visited new and used bookstores and in every bookstore I browsed for such a book, but never found it.

Once I was to give a speech in Rock Island, Illinois. It’s a small city in the western part of the state that I had never visited before. I discovered that the hotel I was to stay in had just been built and had opened its doors only a few trash-25081_640days before. It had hosted a conference for fire fighters. The attendees had left just the day before. The event at which I was to speak came next. I arrived at midnight and was given the only available room. I laid my bags on the bed, and then noticed something in the trash basket. Apparently it had been left by one of the firefighters and the maid had overlooked it when she cleaned the room.  There it was: a full-length book on the imagery of Gerard Manley Hopkins—another serendipitous event, the only available room, a fire fighter who liked Hopkins too, and a maid who’d forgotten about a trash basket.

Years later I’d been writing and researching fifteen or sixteen hours a day for many months to meet a book deadline, neglecting my wife, neglecting my children, concerned only with putting enough words on a page to satisfy me—words, words, words, words, words–an abstract existence. Everything, every experience that would go into the book had to be translated into language.

That night I’d had it; I couldn’t work another minute, stoic though I am; could not pull from my agonized brain another word. I quietly so as not to wake anyone left my home at about 3:00 a.m. and walked the Chicago streets trying to decide if I wanted to continue leading a grueling, neglectful life like that or follow a more conventional life, committing myself to “a regular 9-5 job.” It was a cool, pleasant night—very dark—with a soft, filmy mist in the air. Should I continue a writer’s difficult life?  Should I just finish this book and give it all up?

Then I noticed ahead of me something on the sidewalk precisely in the middle of a pool of bright white light cast by a street lamp, as though it had somehow Spotlightbeen known that I would find my way to that little street, and that object—whatever it was–had been placed there as though in a spotlight very carefully for me and me alone to see. I went to it and bent down and picked it up. It was a book—of all things a book–not a glove someone had dropped, or a scarf, but a new, thick hard-cover book. You see: I could not get away from the written word. I took this as a serendipitous sign that like it or not a writer’s life—imperfect, isolated, and much too demanding–was my identity and that it was futile for me to think writing would ever not be at the center of my existence.

It was a waste of time to imagine that I could ever get away from a life that had been shaped by Miss Gross, Laurence Olivier, Dr. Hunt, a literary fire fighter and forgetful maid, and the lesson of that book left for me in the pool of white light late at night on a Chicago street.

I’m sure you’ve had similar serendipitous experiences steering you straight to the craft you love and will always love–your writing, painting, acting, dancing, singing. And if you have the time I’d love to hear about them.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Becoming an Artist, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, Personal Destiny, Personal Stories, Self-Direction, Serendipity, The Writer's Path, Writers

Awakened to a Waiting Destiny

Throughout all my grade school and high school years the only things I could think of that distinguished me in any way at all from my classmates was my David youngability to write a decent composition and to run faster than all but  one other boy my age in the city of Chicago. I realized those abilities weren’t in the grand scope of life all that earth-shaking. In most other areas I was about average or a little above or a little below. I was shyer than most and much less inclined to study than most. My report cards usually said, “Needs to apply himself.”

Yet I remember that one day in the fourth grade as I was standing in line the thought came to me forcefully and abruptly that something quite possibly extraordinary was up ahead for me in my life. I was stunned. After all, I wasn’t much to speak of. So why was I being singled out like that?  But BOOM, there it was, a secret promise life was making to me–a pact was being made, a deal struck, a bargain arranged between an eight year old and the life he would later lead, a waiting destiny. I knew I should keep the experience to myself and not divulge it to any living person lest they think I was crazy, or a braggart, or most reprehensible of all, that I’d gotten too big for my britches.

I managed to keep this strange experience to myself for more than thirty years, never telling a soul, but never forgetting it. By accident it popped out of my mouth one night while I was speaking to a large audience. I’d been excited. I’d been in a groove. My spoken words had gotten ahead of my thoughts. As soon as it registered on me that I’d just divulged my secret experience I felt embarrassed. I was a professional, but I’d gotten off the topic and I wasn’t supposed to do that. Who was I to think that what had happened to me would be of interest to 6,000 strangers? I wasn’t that important.

But all around the auditorium—to my left, to my right, in front of me–I could see people smiling and nodding. Some had tears in their eyes. While describing people-545549_640my hidden childhood revelation I’d been describing theirs too! The cat they too had been holding in secret was finally out of the bag, and they were relieved to find they weren’t alone. We talked into the night, men and women, some young, some older, some confident, some timid telling their story as I’d told mine, often for the first time.  We were good friends now.  We had a lot in common. What a night.

Since that day I’ve often described my premonition to audiences large and small to see if anything similar had ever happened to any of them. So many people confess to having had that same sudden and overwhelming sensation of being selected for something specific that’s going to happen and will benefit them and perhaps many other people too in important ways. I’ve always suspected that for every person in the audiences who has the courage to raise a hand and admit to having had the identical experience, there are others who have reservations about appearing too big for their britches or divulging such secrets.

So what I realize now is that at some point in many lives there’s an experience foreshadowing a destiny that’s waiting and calling for us. We’d been selected highway-498304_640for a particularly exceptional undertaking and are being told about it—given hints and notifications that life is holding fruition in reserve, and that something worthwhile and wonderful in the swift flow of time is in store for us. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a fantasy or an empty dream, not mystical, not otherworldly, but a fact as real and as solid as any other fact. A hard and fast promise of what at last we really will become.

However modest and self-effacing you are I think you have the feeling that you are special and that you’re supposed to enjoy a life that’s also special. You know with no doubts whatsoever that you’re intended to lead a life that has meaning and to do significant things. You realize that you must hold steady to that goal, undeviating, even if you haven’t achieved it yet and don’t know exactly what it is, or when it will appear, even if from time to time you’re afraid you’ll never achieve it.  When this awareness of a waiting destiny strikes you it’s an intimation of things that surely will come.

Even as a boy I knew that.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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Filed under Expectations, Goals and Purposes, Personal Destiny, Personal Stories

Models for Peak Creative Performance

An important way to reach peak creative performance, the ultimate goal of all creators, or peak performance in riveting or cooking or anything else is by observing models—highly skilled people in the field whose work you admire, for example. For me the model for my writing without doubt is Ernest Hemingway’s writing, as it’s been for many thousands of others. He’s been called the most influential writer across the world with the most influential style in the last hundred years. I’ve read and mulled over his novel The Sun Also Rises and the short story “Indian Camp” (his best story) probably twenty times. And read many biographies and scrutinized studies of his writing.

I’ve a fondness for Hemingway’s writing that goes back to my childhood. He was born and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where my parents and their families also lived and where I spent many hours over the years. He was on the school newspaper at Oak Park High. My great uncle was on the paper too and was his best friend. Hemingway once said my uncle was a better writer. I asked my uncle if he was, and he blushed and said, “I don’t know. Ernie was damned good.” When I was in high school I told my friends one day Scribner’s, Hemingway’s publisher, would publish a book by me. I wrote a book that a number of publishers bid on. I picked Scribner’s.

Diana Voyajolu (2)

Sunset Fantasy by Diana Voyajolu

In the past I’ve written about artists’ and writers’ preoccupation with style and technique—a characteristic of most of them. I look at pieces I write and if you were curious and asked I could tell you, “See the minimal use of adjectives and adverbs. I learned that from Hemingway.” “Everything understated, nothing exaggerated, a calm style—that’s Hemingway.” And the attention to detail and my need to tell the truth. (Hemingway’s “A writer must always tell the truth.”) The simple sentences. Language pared down. A serviceable vocabulary. Never showing off. And my emphasis on high productivity. (Hemingway’s “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t.”)

When you observe a model with high standards like perfectionist Hemingway, you’re more inclined to adopt high standards yourself. It’s contagious. Modeling yourself after a successful writer or artist (pianist, ballet dancer, architect, etc.) enhances your self-confidence, which increases your persistence, which positively affects your achievements. It makes it more likely that the skills they possess will be skills you come to possess and you’ll be surer of yourself. You can see how important models can be, how related to a creator’s success they can be.

Most of what you and I have learned we’ve learned from models– observing them, reading about them, or hearing about them from parents, teachers, or peers. We copy and emulate them. When you feel you can perform a skill you’ll be more motivated to succeed, and an important way to internalize a skill and your approach to writing—the strategies you’ll use–is by observing how models performed tasks you’re interested in and comparing yourself to those models. Making changes, improving, learning.

When you learn how a writer, or painter, or actor succeeded in a difficult situation, you’re more likely to believe you can do the same. Often classes or workshops in the arts are taught by more experienced artists who discuss how they solve problems students are facing. Effective models reveal the strategies they use, provide detail, answer your questions, and clarify issues.

Who would you most like to be influenced by?

Who have you been most influenced by (Who’s your Hemingway?)

Who inspires you most? Whose work do you admire?

Who would you most like to be like?

What qualities do they (did they) have that you would like to have too?

Observing what’s called a mastery model is observing someone who has mastered the skill you’re interested in acquiring, like Hemingway for me, and someone for you. Mastery models demonstrate a high level of both skill and confidence: “I’m good at this. It used to be hard for me, but now it’s easy.” Notice how persistent the model is or was as he or she solves problems. That’ll affect your persistence.

By “observing” a model I don’t necessarily mean sitting in the same room and watching, though a lot can be learned that way. You can “observe” by reading or hearing about how a writer or artist solved a problem you’re facing or learned a skill.

ernest-hemingway-401493_640Mastery models in your life should discuss ways in which their confidence in themselves helped them to achieve their desired goals, and their errors and failures they had before eventually performing at a mastery level, and the work they put in to reach success. Ideally, the mastery model will be a warm, enthusiastic, and encouraging person who is trying to help someone else learn new behaviors after possible years doing things in a different, less productive way.

Observing a peer model is different. It’s watching someone who is at about the same skill level as you and who doesn’t perform the skill as expertly as the mastery model. He has difficulties and makes mistakes and has to correct them while you compare yourself with the model and learn from those difficulties and mistakes. Someone in your artists’ or writers’ group, for example.

“Think aloud” strategies involve the model describing thoughts and thought processes aloud while performing a task you’re interested in: “The reason I did that is because I think you should start everything with a strong, simple declarative sentence.” Ask the model about particular problems: “How did you handle that? What did you do first; then what did you do? What were you thinking? What decisions were you making?”

To get best results tell the model you’re asking for help:

“Say whatever’s on your mind. Don’t hold back hunches, guesses, images, and wild ideas.”

“Speak as continuously as possible.”

“Don’t worry about complete sentences and being eloquent.”

“Just say what you’re thinking and don’t think for a while and then describe your thoughts.” (D.N. Perkins, The Mind’s Best Work, p 33)

Using models will pay dividends. Simply put: people who study models perform better than “no-model” people.

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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Stamina: The Creative Person’s Hidden Power

Middle distance runners are deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind. I ran fastest at three in the afternoon when the temperature was 88 degrees and my mind was clear. Creative people are also deep and analytical, contemplative, aware of the slightest changes in their body and mind.

I was in training for my event, the 800 meters. That workout I decided I’d run as many laps around the quarter mile athletics-229808_640(1)track as I could at three-quarters speed. After a few laps the pain I was so familiar with began gradually to set in. And the difficulty breathing. Then with each lap the pain in my legs, my arms, my chest—my entire body–became more severe, breathing even more difficult. And I thought about quitting. How easy that would be. Just step off the track and the pain would cease and I wouldn’t have to go through this anymore. I thought, “No one is making me run but myself.” The thought of stopping was very powerful and I had to fight it.

But I didn’t stop, I didn’t slow down. I increased my speed (I would show this pain) and the pain was much worse. I thought, “How long can a person endure this?” Then I thought, “I am a middle distance runner. Middle distance runners can bear pain.”

But then, after I had pushed myself as hard as I could and suffered that pain longer than I thought possible but continued to run, I passed into a new and miraculous state of being. One moment I was in agony; the next I wasn’t. I had entered a place, a garden, where pain couldn’t exist. All pain and exhaustion were lifted out of my body and I could breathe easily again. The running suddenly was smooth, effortless, and strong, my form perfect.

runner-728219_640That afternoon, one of my teammates after another quit his training and left for home. But I ran lap after lap far into the night. I had the feeling I could run forever.

That experience has become a metaphor for me. I go back to it in my mind time and again. It inspires me and I am a hard worker and have stamina.

Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow said, “For the artist work is the main thing and always comes first.” 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.” Some writers and artists produce 10, 15, 25 times more work than others and those most productive usually rise higher in their field and find a greater sense of accomplishment. The more work you produce the higher quality your work will tend to be because the more you do something, the better you get.

There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of prolonged, intense working spurts, for in a study of writers, writers who achieve the most are those who wrote:

…THE MOST INTENSELY

…FOR THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME

…OVER THE LONGEST TIME SPAN

High achieving writers and artists, like athletes in training, exert more energy from the start of a project and work steadily without long interruptions for a much longer period than the majority of writers and artists–for days, months, lyrics-710329_640years if necessary, often producing staggering amounts of work. What enables them—what enables you– to operate continually at a higher level of stamina?

It’s excitement or necessity or both, excitement over the production of a work or the necessity of overcoming obstacles to produce it—and the habit they’ve developed of working through tiredness. Creative people will push themselves to an extreme day after day and overcome impediments when they are on fire with the excitement of creating.

But many artists and writers produce very little because they stop working at the first sign of fatigue. They’re in the habit of quitting when tired. Better to ratchet up and exert more effort then, not less. Then you acquire the ability to not tire easily, a creator’s and athlete’s major skill in itself, and your work production rises, and with it, its quality.

If you quit at the first sign of tiredness, you develop the habit you don’t want of tiring quickly and giving up. Every time you reach the point when you seem to have no energy left, yet push yourself a little further, you train yourself to draw from deeper into your energy reserves at will. If you push yourself on then—painting another hour, finishing the chapter–the tiredness gets worse, but only up to a point. Then it reaches a peak and fades away as my running pain faded. You know that from our own experience. Then you’re fired up by a sense that you can go on creating much longer than you’ve realized. Fatigue is replaced by an explosive surge.

Focus on your goal of finishing this work on your easel, on your computer screen. Let your urge to reach high levels of excellence in your craft consume you. The result will be a new freedom, new stamina, and new creative power.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Two Success Stories for Creative People

Why are so many writers and artists so scared? This morning I started reading the Weekly Digests of some of the blogs I subscribe to and decided this post I’m about to laptop-820274_640write needed to be written–and fast– because so many writers and artists seem to be living in fear and intimidation, and they needn’t. There is no reason that the processes that come after the exhilarating execution of the work—dealing with “gatekeepers”– agents and publishers, clients and galleries—need be dreadful.

The gist of many of the posts written by the more experienced writers in particular to less experienced writers is: “Here’s how to get your book published. I will be your wise guide.” I will not give you any advice like that today, but only tell you about my experiences and that of a friend in breaking into “big time” publishing. My experiences were quite different from what you find described in many intimidating blogs. I hope my experiences make you confident and sure of yourself, less fearful, and less intimidated. And bolder.

I’ll be talking about writing professionally in this post because writing professionally is what I’ve been doing—and thinking about– for the last few decades. But I’m sure there are painters, sculptors, actors, dancers—artists generally—who could tell the same story of how breaking into their field wasn’t as awful as they were told it would be, and in fact found it painless, exciting fun.

I had an idea for what I thought could be a really successful nonfiction book, just as you think your idea would make a successful book. Nothing like my book had ever been written before and it had potential, so I was confident that I had something. But I knew nothing about publishing. Oh, of course I’d heard the horror stories about the tremendous odds against getting any book published. Everybody on earth knows that—especially a first book, odds of five thousand to one and so forth.

But my exact thinking went like this: “Thousands of books are being published every year and I’m betting I’m more books-535352_640skilled than most authors of them (after all, in college a famous creative writing teacher had said teachers like her wait their “entire career for someone who can write like you.” And hadn’t I had a story published in a prestigious literary journal while just a student?) So why shouldn’t my book be published?”

Then I learned that you had to write a persuasive book proposal and get an agent who would contact editors on your behalf. I had written many, many proposals in business and so I wrote a six page double-spaced book proposal—a short proposal, not a long one, a plain, simple one, not a complex, elaborate, fancy one: short and I hoped, sweet.

I hadn’t written a sample of my writing other than the proposal itself and a cover letter that talked about my unique qualifications to write the book or a refined table of contents because I hadn’t completely fleshed out the book in my mind. (In fact, I wouldn’t know what I was really trying to write until I had been working on the book for 1300 hours. Then it hit me!) I just had this good idea for what I thought would be an exciting, profitable book someone would want to publish.

Now I needed an agent to send the proposal to. I looked at a directory of agents and sent the proposal to the first name on the agent’s list. Then if he didn’t pan out I would send the proposal to the second name on the list and work my way down. I wasn’t experienced enough to know then that some writers send their proposals out in batches to twenty or thirty agents at a time. I would send off my stuff to one agent at a time and wait to see what happened. I had no idea then that the agent I sent my little proposal to was one of the most highly regarded agents in the literary world—serendipity at work. (A reminder that a good amount of luck is involved in a writer’s life and you don’t want just any agent working for you, but a good one with a reputation above reproach whose tastes and judgment of talent editors respect very highly.)

Within three days he called me on the phone to tell me he would like to handle the book—he thought it was incredibly timely and he liked the way I wrote. And he liked short, sweet proposals. So now I had an agent. He pitched the book right away (a man of action; my kind of guy) to an editor he thought could very well be interested. And in a week and a half I had a publisher who was eager to put out the book—a top quality publisher. The advance I received was a good one, much better than I’d expected. I wrote the book in twelve grueling months as I was contracted for (be sure to establish a reputation for never exceeding a deadline) and then months passed while the book was being edited and published.

The pub date came and the book was given a promotional budget but not a big one—I was “unproven.” I appeared on a newspapers-33946_640few radio and TV shows, and then two important things happened: a freelance journalist fell in love with the book—Fighting to Win— and wrote a superb and flattering full page, multi-column piece on it in The Washington Post that drew a lot of attention, and the publisher’s sales rep in Chicago fell in love with it too and promoted it with book stores in Chicago’s large, good book-buying market and with the publisher’s other sales people working in other cities and marketing staff decision-makers. And the book became a best seller in Chicago and Washington. Then in San Francisco and Las Angeles and other cities.

Other syndicated journalists liked the book and started writing about it—articles appeared everywhere. It began popping up on college reading lists, and now there were foreign editions that were doing very well. There was a buzz about the book and I was sent off to other major cities for more interviews on bigger shows. I got to enjoying publicizing the book so much that I decided I would rather promote books than write them. In fact, the publisher asked me jokingly if I would go on shows and promote other of their books too.

I had a hit that went through ten printings. With each new printing the book’s cover price rose one dollar, so my royalties were climbing. Now I was no longer unproven and had a track record, and my proposal for my next book consisted of a total of four sentences spoken over coffee to the publisher. The advance for it was substantial. When that book was published the publisher said they would like another book from me. I asked what they wanted me to write about and they said, “Whatever you want.”

I know a man who wrote a book he thought had the potential to be published and be popular. His expectations high, he contacted a great number of agents and no one was interested in handling his book, telling him that in their judgment unfortunately it would be impossible for it to find a public. The agents’ tastes ran in other directions and based on their professional experiences over many years with many books they felt that this one just didn’t have that—that whatever it takes for people to want to buy a book.

He didn’t give up after he had exhausted his long list of agents, but contacted publisher after publisher himself, writing them, sending his manuscript, calling them up, making appointments, pitching the book on the phone and in their Being courageousoffices, expecting all the time that eventually he would succeed. He met nothing but failure—no one thought anything of the book—but he still believed in it and in himself. He still expected the book to be published and be successful. He had faith that one day he would see it in book store display windows.

Then an editor of a small specialty publisher he had contacted called him to come down and talk. When my friend entered the office his manuscript was spread out on the editor’s desk and the editor was bent over it, reading. The editor looked up and said, “Oh, good, you’re here” and with a smile on his face added, “I think your book will be the number one best seller in the country.”

That book became a publishing phenomenon—a cultural phenomenon–and sold an astonishing 25,000,000 copies in paperback alone. It became America’s—and the world’s–number one best seller. Within two months the author was famous and pretty soon he was rich. The book was When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the author was Harold Kushner.

Writers and artists who harbor deep and prolonged doubts about their capabilities are easily set back by obstacles and failures. But when confident self-directed  writers and artists encounter daunting obstacles, disappointments, and failures, they show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed.

So I’m saying what all my blogs say—be supremely confident, be non-attached and fearless. Don’t be scared. Persevere. Be indefatigable. Be committed to your work every moment of the day. Never let discouragement and negativity penetrate to your depths. No matter what happens, good fortune, bad fortune, keep your spirit light as a feather. Develop your skills to the highest possible level and become what I admire most—not just a writer, but a REAL writer; not just an artist, but a REAL artist.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Programming Success in Writing and Art

Theresa

I was in a Target store café where my wife had parked me so I wouldn’t get in her way while she shopped, and the pen-994464_640woman who waited on me said, “I see you come in here and write at one of our tables. Are you a writer?” I said I was and she said, “I thought so.” She then said, “I’ve got a book in me, but I just can’t find the time to write it.” She said, “Do you ever have that problem?” And I said, “No I don’t because writing is second nature to me, but it wasn’t always.” She said, “Oh, what do you think I should do?”

Her name is Theresa, and she is an exuberant woman who bristles with energy and has dark curious eyes that are always moving. There is a sweetness about her, a kind of goodwill, innocence, openness, and charm. Her body is thin and strong, her gestures lively. She is one of those brave people who are not afraid of saying, “I need help. Will you help me?” I like her.

I want Theresa to be a writer who’s confident and strong and not to doubt herself. I want that because in writing, as in any other field, the constant, never-tiring, never-ending desire to succeed and the confidence that you will—if not now, eventually–along with skill, is the most important indicator of future success. If you have confidence and faith in yourself, you’ll reach higher levels of achievement than other writers, painters, dancers, and actors of equal ability who lack them. Confidence precedes success.

I said to her. “Do you like sentences?” and she said she did, so I knew she had something.

Programmed Activities Force Out Un-Programmed Activities

I ran into a man in a Costco dining area where my wife had parked me who also had a book in him and asked me the laptop-820274_640same thing. I’ve run into writers and artists who tell me they wish they could get themselves to work more regularly. I’ve run into so many people who tell me things like that that I can almost give my remedy in my sleep, my saying, “The main goal of all creative people is to be productive—to produce works–and if they want to produce a continuous flow of works what they need to know is that programmed activities force out un-programmed activities.” That’s the principle they need to repeat to themselves and take to heart: “Programmed activities force out un-programmed activities.” Something extremely good happens to you when that insight lodges itself in your brain. Some writers and artists are 10, 15, 25 times more productive than others. The entire existence of some creative people is organized completely around their work, and their ability to produce it is staggering.

Two and A Half Million Artists

It appears to me the “I have a book I really should write but somehow don’t seem able to get myself to write it” syndrome is a widespread major writers’ problem. Or, “One day I swear I’ll become a painter.” Your aunt is dying to write a novel and your butcher wants to paint landscapes. Ask people on a crowded city bus how many would like to be a writer or painter and 30 % will thrust their hand in the air.

Paul Pulszartti 3 (4)

Painting by Paul Pulszartti

There are 2,500, 000 people in the U.S who consider themselves some sort of artist. And probably another 3,000,000 who’d like to be one. I’d bet that not many of those who would like to be are doing a single thing to make that happen. And many of those doing nothing statistically have to be more talented and potentially more successful than many writers who write for hours every day and painters who paint every day. There may be two or three Jackson Pollocks or Ernest Hemingways in Idaho or Maine who can’t get started.

It isn’t enough to say you’ll go running to improve your health. If you’re really serious you’ll intelligently plan and program your running. You’ll decide how often you’ll run, when you will, where you will, with whom you will, and how far you will. Then you’ll run according to your plan, and your health will improve.

If you’re serious about achieving greater artistic success, you’ll program that too. You’ll say, “I am a person bursting with unrealized potential,” and then you will intelligently develop an improvement plan and plan step 1, then step 2, and then 3, and so on—the steps being rungs of a creative ladder leading you to high skill, success, and satisfaction. Then you’ll stick to your plan and work hard as all real creative people do, and if everything goes according to the plan—and there’s no reason it shouldn’t–you’ll become more skilled, more successful, and more content.

Learning How To Excel and Plateauing

Another problem is learning how to excel. How many writers or artists would ever say, “My goal is to be mediocre” but yet are satisfied to be mediocre. Your climb to excellence has to be attended to. After looking for a long time into what runner-942109_640brings creative success I’ve come to the conclusion that to excel as a writer or artist or to excel in any occupation of any kind and have a long and fulfilling career, you must be pursuing intelligently a small number of certain types of goals. And each goal must be ambitious and each must be concrete because most artists and writers aim much too low and their goals are vague, and vague goals are useless.

Another major problem you see everywhere is plateauing—never getting better but staying at the same skill level and not having increasingly greater success, which you would think would not happen if you’re really learning. So possibly you’re not learning and don’t know any more about how to write or paint and how to motivate yourself and have self-confidence than you did five years ago. You’re working extremely hard, but you’re not progressing. You might be making the same mistakes over and over. You’ve stopped growing.

Something must be done—you need new inputs, new information, new insights, and new work habits. So you must become an athlete of the arts, a champion of writing or painting, and train yourself to run faster and jump higher.

The way to master a creator’s skills is to learn how to do them supremely well and practice them ten times, a hundred times, a thousand, getting constructive feedback along the way, making corrections, and experiencing a series of successes as your performance improves. Most often the reason a writer or artist is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet of her craft.

Not Screwing Around Anymore

Theresa and the Costco man tell me they want very badly to be as excellent writers as they can be, and I believe them. Chances are you and I have never met and haven’t had a chance to talk, and it would be nice if someday we do. But I’m assuming that you’ve reached a state of being when you can say, “I want very much to be the most highly skilled, successful, and satisfied writer or artist I can be. That’s what I think about and that’s why I’m reading this blog. I’m not screwing around anymore.”

Theresa’s Programmed Activity

But many writers and artists—even those who claim that work is tremendously important to them–are lucky if they slice out an hour a day, or thirty minutes, one-forty-eighth of a day, to work on their craft. Creating isn’t all you do. You goal-976853_640have other important roles and responsibilities you must find ways of incorporating into your work schedule as depicted in this comment from writer Lois Duncan:

“Now I keep a typewriter with a sheet of paper in it on the end of the kitchen table. When I have a five-minute lull and the children are playing quietly I sit down and knock out a paragraph. I have learned that I can write, if necessary, with a TV blaring on one side of me and a child banging a toy piano on the other. I have even typed out a story with a colicky baby draped across my lap. It is not ideal—but it is possible.”

Expert writers and artists almost always structure their work time and environment carefully. I told Theresa that she had to commit to me that she would write thirty minutes every day without exception except for real emergencies—could she do that? Yes, she said, she could. I asked her the time she would write: “First thing before I go to work. I’ll get up a half hour early, shower, get dressed, and then I’ll sit down and write for a half hour.”

I thought of author Hope Dahle Jordan who said, “My personal, elementary rule sounds ludicrous even to me. Nevertheless, I am deadly serious when I insist it is the only one I conscientiously adhere to: I don’t dress for the day until two pages (500 words) are written, and acceptable to me. That is the only way I get a book finished. For as long as I stay in my blue bathrobe I stay at my typewriter.” Harry Crews said, “ I get up in the morning, that’s one of the hard parts, drag myself over to the old typewriter and sit down—that’s even harder—and then tell the Lord, ‘I ain’t greedy Lord, give me the next 500 words.’”

I told her that like artists, writers must guard again a two-pronged problem: avoiding work and quitting too soon.

I told Theresa not to be jealous of writers who have the luxury of being able to write as often as they want and as many minutes or hours as they want. I told her that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive writers or artists or that they’re writing-828911_640productive at all. It just means that the amount of time most writers and artists would give an arm and a leg to have is available to them. But I assured her that she would find that a focused half-hour’s work with a concrete goal clearly in mind is the equivalent of three unfocused hours.

I told Theresa that later on we can talk about how in addition to spending time writing she can increase her writing skills in other ways. In the future we will set goals to increase her abilities. And I told her one day we will talk about the Inner Skills of writers and artists, such as the need for courage, and that she should be completely indifferent to everything but the quality of her work.

I told her, “If you want to be read widely, read widely. Reading good writing with the intention of learning specific lessons from it is the best way to learn to write well. Good artists learn by going to museums, taking out a sketch pad, and copying masterpieces. To be able to say, ‘I learned that from so-and-so and borrowed that from what’s-her-name.’” Theresa should also learn about the way of life of a writer, which is different from a social worker’s way of life or a businessman’s or even a painter’s.

Then I said I wanted Theresa to jot down in a log a few quick sentences about each day’s writing: how it went, what journal-155431_640problems she had and how she solved them, and most important, what she’s learning about writing and about herself. What comes easily for her; what is hard? Writers and artists who set ambitious goals and keep records of their performance are considerably more effective than writers and artists who don’t.

I asked Theresa to have a very specific goal in mind whenever she sits down to work: what is she aiming to accomplish in the next half hour, the way a painter says, “By the time I finish today I will have finished the upper right corner of the canvas.” I told her that now that she’ll be getting up a half hour early she should go to bed a half hour earlier because when you’re tired you’re not ambitious and your writing or art goals won’t be ambitious either.

Talent and Many Truths to Tell

I feel that Theresa has a talent for writing because it has been said by those who study the development of high expertise that if you have an intense interest in a creative field, that is almost always a sure sign that you have a talent for it. I have faith in Theresa. When I think about her, I think about writer Louise Nevelson’s theory that “when we come on this earth, many of us are ready-made. Some of us—most of us—have genes that are ready for certain performances. Nature gives you these gifts…There’s nobody that’s common. I think that in every human being there is greatness.”

I tell her not be afraid to be bold and that truth is everything in art, and that when readers open her books one day they will ask themselves, “Am I going to find the truth in here?”

I don’t think she will become a writer who doesn’t write or who will give up before she succeeds. I have a sense that she may have the makings of a REAL writer and that writing may become an essential part of her identity. I hope she soon sees that a writer’s life is wonderful and worth sacrificing for: “I did not choose this vocation, and if I had any say in the matter, I would not have chosen it…Yet for this vocation I was and am willing to live and die, and I consider very few other things of the slightest importance” (Katherine Anne Porter). I tell her that nothing can compare with, nothing can replace the joy during the act of creating. American poet Robert Frost said that once a man has known the pleasure of making a metaphor he is unfit for ordinary work.

sunrise-580379_640At the crack of dawn almost every day Theresa is writing. Writing is becoming second nature to her. Her book is taking shape day by day. My wife is shopping over there and I’m at a table in Theresa’s store now and I’m thinking that if I’m right about Theresa soon the creator’s hunger to produce will take over and she will start writing during her breaks and lunch hours too.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Feedback and Help for Creative Success

Without doubt, performance feedback and creative success go hand in hand. Useful feedback can help you evolve and reach high levels of satisfaction and achievement. But where are you to find the quality of feedback and help you need? Deprived of it, some artists and writers quit before they reach their peak. They bid their beloved craft adieu.

Something, for example, has gone out of publishing. Something is missing. No longer can you find the publisher’s textual editors who once existed who would work tirelessly with you, the author, suffer with you, and use their specialized skills to help you create the best you’re capable of. Creators are rare and exceptional human beings who are able to work alone in seclusion long hours without recognition, without praise, sacrificing, overcoming hardships without flinching, always returning with high energy to the work which they have a talent for. For a writer or artist who by necessity spends so much time alone, the insights of a close collaborator who cares as much about your work as you do can be a godsend.

hands-545394_640In a novel I wrote an episode in which a New York publisher’s editor came out here to the Midwest to spend a week in a cabin at a lake working intensely with a promising writer. I wrote this episode knowing very well that an actual editor would say, “Well, such a thing is simply not conceivable.” But I thought how wonderful if it were. I enjoyed writing that episode more than any other.

Maxwell Perkins was the most acclaimed book editor of the twentieth century and thus far in the twenty-first. During the 1920s and 30s his Scribner’s writers included the greatest and most gifted working with one editor in the history of American publishing. They included, in addition to his protégé Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ring Lardner. Wolfe’s association with Perkins is the most celebrated author/editor relationship in American literature.

The day before Christmas, 1929 Wolfe wrote to Perkins: “One year ago I had little hope for my work, and I did not know you…. You are now mixed with my book in such a way that I can never separate the two of you. I can no longer think clearly of the time I wrote it, but rather of the time when you first talked to me about it, and when you worked upon it….You have done what I had ceased to believe that one person could do for another–you have created liberty and hope for me.” Wolfe wrote a note to Perkins: “In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend.” Wolfe described Perkins as “a man of immense and patient wisdom and gentle but unyielding fortitude.”

Wolfe was immensely talented, but his main problems were his uncontrollable, obsessive verbosity and a chronic inability to cut that resulted in unedited manuscripts of fantastic lengths, three or four times longer than a publishable book could possibly be. Those problems in turn were caused by Wolfe’s difficulty making any kind of independent decisions. He didn’t know where or what to cut. He would stare for hours at the manuscript before eliminating a few sentences when his agreement with Perkins was that he would strike out tens of thousands–a hundred thousand—words. He would start by rereading the manuscript section by section, trying to find things that were unnecessary and could be omitted. But he was totally blind to them. He never in his entire career had a concept of a publishable book.

I am certainly no Thomas Wolfe, but my wife Diana is my Maxwell Perkins. She has been a highly-regarded writing teacher, tutor, and mentor for years, and I doubt her judgment and skill can be surpassed. She edits all my work, and over the years I’ve been prolific—well over a million words–and she’s been busy. I—we—have had published best-selling nonfiction, as well as fiction and poetry, many magazine and newspaper articles, and this blog.

But she is far more than a conventional editor, and in this post I’m holding her up as an ideal, one the likes of which every writer and artist should find, hold onto, and treasure. I heard a psychiatrist say, “Everyone could benefit from a therapist.” And every writer and artist could benefit from knowledgeable, frank criticism—sympathetic criticism of course, not thoughtless and cruel criticism. When tough, street-smart novelist Henry Miller found himself being abused by editor after editor he submitted work to, he snarled, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off saying such things to me?” If you are to survive in the arts, as in life, you must never be intimidated by anyone. I think the greats were all bold, all brave.

Diana and I have developed a harmonious division of labor. I create. She evaluates. I respect her talents and she respects mine. They are different talents, but are aimed at the same object: the quality of the work. I’m aware that she will be my first and most demanding audience. I’m always eager to hear what she has to say because her opinions will help me improve. And isn’t to improve, transforming a gift into an achievement, what every creative person wants most?

ernest-hemingway-401493_640The most important criticism a seasoned writer or artist receives is self-criticism. The standards of good writing, painting, or dancing, etc., are now a part of the writer or artist’s makeup. Yet, a creative person of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly also from someone else whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that? Am I receptive to constructive criticism? Am I confident enough for it? Can I be dispassionate about it? Can I be non-attached?”

We all wish to be lavished with praise for every work we produce. John Irving said that “Good job” is the only feedback a writer wants. But it’s much more beneficial to have a wife or friend or coach, editor, teacher, writer’s or artist’s group, etc. who’ll point out flaws and shortcomings before the work reaches agents, publishers, newspaper reviewers, and the final judge—the audience.

Some writers and artists and people in every other profession would prefer to not know how well or poorly they’re doing. Others very much want to know if knowledgeable people they trust think they’re doing okay, and possibly more importantly, if they’re doing poorly, and if they are, in what areas they might improve. They welcome feedback and actively seek it, feedback that is (1) timely, (2) specific, (3) well-meaning, and (4) helpful.

Ernest Hemingway, for example, didn’t become the most innovative literary stylist of the last 100 years without incorporating into his work the advice of his newspaper editors, and fellow writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald who were generous enough to share their expertise with him

Diana advises me, consults with me, inspires me, encourages me, and criticizes every facet of my work—objectively I believe, and always fairly. She is not easy on me, but pushes me. Well, not “pushes.” Pushing isn’t in her nature. But from her commitment I feel myself gaining energy. She is to me what a real editor should be, though I know how trying writers can be. (I once called my publisher’s editor and she sounded demoralized. So I said, “What’s wrong, Kathy?” She said, “Oh, I just had an hour-long argument with one of my authors about a comma.”)

vincent-van-gogh-self-portrait-1887Many creative people benefit from close personal support and encouragement from one other person such as a lover, husband or wife, sibling, or close friend: Frederick Chopin/George Sand, Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner, Jean Paul Sartre/Simone De Beauvoir, Henry Miller/Anais Nin, Vincent van Gogh/Theo van Gogh, Virginia Woolf/Leonard Woolf, Salvador Dali/Gala, and George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin.

It may not be the oddest phenomenon, but it is something of a phenomenon that as soon as a creator is in his judgment finished with a work, he immediately loses interest in it. He wants to go on to something else. A study found that professional writers couldn’t remember what they had just written. But amateurs could remember very clearly exactly what they had written. And writers, like artists, are often working on 3, 5, or 10 projects simultaneously, moving restlessly from one to another as the mood strikes. While at times I’ve forgotten about whole projects I’ve got going, Diana somehow remembers. She will say, “Whatever happened to…?”

I might work on a piece for a long time, turning down invitations to go to movies, visit friends, or take vacations. Poet John Milton said some people—like me–“scorn delights to live laborious lives.” But when I can say, “That’s it,” well, that’s it. It’s all done. Something shuts off. All responsibility for it disappears. My mind elsewhere now, I might say flippantly, “Well you take care of it from here. Just mop it up.” And Diana will say, “Oh, no, you’re the writer, not me. I won’t make a change without your approval. So let’s get going. Why in the fourth sentence do you say…?”

Diana doesn’t usually suggest subjects I should write about. I develop my own ideas. But once she gave me a subject and it will give you an idea of how we work. I’d never really written anything significant about the death of my sister Sharon who was very dear to me. Diana said I should. I wrote what I thought was a good piece and gave it to her. She didn’t like it. I said, “It’s perfectly fine. I’m done with it. I’m not doing anything more.” Her words in reply were “It is not up to your standards.” I liked the implication that I had high standards, and in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t satisfied with it either. I redid it seven or eight times. It became “Days End.” When it was done, a critic said, “This is not just writing. This is literature.” If it is, it wouldn’t have been without Diana so persuasively prodding me.

I’ve learned more of what they call “classical restraint” from Diana. That that style appeals to her is not coincidental. It suits her. She is dignified and calm—classically restrained. Her favorite word in the English language is equanimity—composure, level-headedness. A writer’s most effective writing mood is important, and every writer has to find his/her own, just as painters and sculptors, etc., must find their most productive working mood.

Diana is able to find in my writing what I may not see. I asked her to go over some fiction of mine. As she read she stopped abruptly and said, “Hmmm, this passage right here is a poem.” She said, “Just read it. These lines here. It’s a really nice poem just as it is.” I put it verbatim in poem form without changing a word and it was published and won a contest. I hadn’t noticed my poem among the prose.

I’m currently writing a book that I believe has something original to say to writers who wish to achieve their writing goals, including becoming a higher quality writer and being successful in other ways too. I don’t let Diana or anyone else read anything I’m working on until in my judgment it’s pretty much done. I never tell anyone exactly what I’m doing. But she knows something about the book and the other day let slip the comment, “You should really make it applicable not just to writers, but to artists and actors, and so on.”

I’ve tried, but for the life of me I cannot get that sentence out of my mind. I wonder, “Should I do what she suggests? It would take more time, more work. It wouldn’t be easy, it would be tough. There are a hundred reason why I shouldn’t do it.”

But damned if I don’t have a hunch that once again she’s right.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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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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