Category Archives: Work Production

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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Extraordinary Creative Outliers

I think all creative people are extraordinary. You’re extraordinary. I’m extraordinary too. We’ve been extraordinary all our lives and one day at the age of six or eleven or twenty-one or fifty-seven something remarkable happened and we discovered we were, and then a corner was turned.

But a separate breed of outlier creator is so extraordinary and so driven and capable of such incredible creative feats and leads such an extreme existence of sacrifice that we wonder what there is about them that inspires them so. What sustains them and equips them so perfectly to produce such exceptional work? Theirs isn’t the only path to creative achievements—most creators lead more moderate lives. But it’s a path extraordinary creative outliers often choose.

Creative outliers are so absorbed in facing challenges and solving creative problems that they have almost no interest in anything else. Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow—the premier American writer of the second half of the 20th century– said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” He was married five times.

Novelist Jane Smiley wrote, “Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, ‘God! This is fascinating.’” Ernest Hemingway lived in poverty early in his career and sometimes stole food and said a writer’s perceptions are sharper when he’s “belly-empty, hollow hungry,” that “hunger is good discipline and you can ballerina-534356_640_copy2learn from it.” Before taking the literary world by storm late-blooming novelist/essayist Henry Miller lived in poverty too. He once said, “I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive.” Emily Dickinson, the greatest American woman poet, author of 1,775 poems, said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry. Ballerinas—artistes of artistes–may practice until their muscles scream and their feet bleed.

We look at these creative outliers and we marvel and are impressed or appalled or shocked, and often ask ourselves “Could I live an unusual life like sunflower-395026_640that? Am I willing to sacrifice so much for my art and suffer so much and risk so much?  Is that possible for me? How much of my normal life am I willing to give up? If I sacrificed more could I be great too?” And ordinarily decide it isn’t possible at all and we’re not willing to sacrifice in that way, nor suffer, nor risk all that. We couldn’t because a life like theirs asks too much. We draw a line and dare not cross it.

All creative people are obsessed to some extent or another, from mildly to ferociously, so much so that when we obsessed-but-less-obsessed creators hear about these outlier creators we have no problems understanding them since they’re only different from us in degree.

What humans in their craft can accomplish extraordinary outlier creators are willing to push themselves upward toward.  They have a genius.  They’re self-absorbed. They’re determined. They’re completely taken by a way that’s too demanding for the ordinary run of women and men. But for a select few like these outliers their craft becomes a way of life, a journey, a goal, an inevitable struggle of someone rare who’s capable of achieving the impossible.

Creative outliers pour themselves heart and soul and muscle and blood into their work. They work and they work and they work repetitively, and think bird-226700_640about their art or their writing, acting, or dancing continually, and have a monumental amount of confidence. Any time they’re not working they’re making plans for improvement because they know no matter how good you are and what you’ve accomplished you can always be better.

The fundamental role of all creators without exception is to create—to produce works–and they do with a vengeance. Pablo Picasso produced 50,000 works—1,885 paintings ,1,228 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, thousands of prints, and tapestries and rugs.

There wasn’t a moment of his waking day all his career that Nobel Prize dramatist Eugene O’Neill wasn’t thinking about writing.  He produced 35 full-length plays and 17 one act plays and revolutionized American theater. Writing  long hours, English novelist Charles Dickens—the most popular writer in the world at the time– would sometimes put his head into a bucket of cold water, dry his hair with a towel, and then go on writing.

Creative outliers learn—often at an early age–that they will achieve more if they concentrate their efforts in one area. They are aware only of the work before them, and let nothing divert them from it. French novelist Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. He said too, “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates.”

French novelist/poet/dramatist Victor Hugo started his day by handing his clothes to his servant with strict orders to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of seven hours. Composer Igor Stravinsky and novelist Thomas Wolfe worked all their lives in a frenzy—Wolfe in a “wild ecstasy” at top speed, never hesitating for a word, as though he were taking dictation.

You can’t measure intensity and a person’s pure life force. But the energy pouring out of outliers like Vincent van Gogh would bowl you over. Van Gogh vincent-van-gogh-starry-night-1889worked  furiously at a fever pitch, gathering up the colors as though with a shovel, throwing them on canvas with rage, globs of paint covering the length of the paint brush, sticking to his fingers. Goethe called such super-charged outliers “demoniacs”–people with a super-abundance of vitality, “something that escapes analysis, reason, and comprehension.” Goethe was aware of this power in himself.

Russian Anton Chekhov wrote 10,000 pages of short stories, and also produced great plays like The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, and was a practicing physician too. Noted architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed—because if he didn’t, he would die.

Extraordinary creative outliers are guided by an ambition, a notion so bold that it’s almost outlandish:  that you’re born with a certain aptitude and with direction, discipline, and sacrifice you can transform yourself into something magnificent. Their focus is maniacal—all day long every day. When they’re away from their work they long for it.

Nobel novelist Toni Morrison said, “But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I Toni Morrisondon’t go to cocktail parties. I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate.” Outlier novelist Philip Roth said, “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours.” American William Faulkner said jokingly, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

We live in a world where everyone is selling something. Everyone has an ulterior motive. They want to be a brand. But these outliers only want one goal: to reach the highest heights they can. That’s it. There’s nothing else.

You look at Picasso and Faulkner and say, “Oh, that’s why painting and writing were invented. As if the gods of the arts declared, ‘To show you others how it should be done we’re going to make a person to represent perfection’.”

They have bad days, difficulties, and setbacks, and still believe in themselves. Andre Gide said, “The great artist is one …for whom the obstacle is a springboard.”   They know that effort is more important than talent. And if you say to them, “You’re just so gifted” they’ll stop you and say, “No, I’m no more talented than anyone else, no more talented than you, but I work much harder” and tell you and me, “If you want to excel you’ll have to overcome the notion that it’s easy.”

They’re a psychologically phenomenal combination of purity of focus and energy-1101474_640purity of discipline and purity of energy. Their creative lives are both comfortable and disciplined.  Even when they’re miserable they’re happy. Age has little effect on their skills except to improve them. They’re never happier and more at ease than when under pressure. They have a sense of being destined for something that very few other people are fitted for. But they are and they know they are.

They have a supreme care about their craft, and they never forget their failures. Their craft is their sanctuary. They’re never better than when doing their craft.

Outlier playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “I am of the opinion that my life sparks-142486_640belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible…”

 

© 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, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, George Bernard Shaw, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Literature, Motivation, Outliers, Picasso, Poetry, Preparation, Self-Confidence, Self-Direction, Stamina, Success, The Writer's Path, Thomas Wolfe, Vincent van Gogh, Work Production, Writers

20 Tips on Writing Like a Nobel Prize Winner

Writer Flannery O’Connor thought that any idiot with some talent can be taught to write a competent story, and something on that order may be true of all the arts. But a quest all creators aiming beyond mere competence are engaged in—writers, artists, actors, architects, dancers– or should be engaged in is discovering and refining a style which expresses exactly their unique vision and their unique skills and their unique selves.

old-1130735_640When they settle on that style their work leaps up in quality and they are whole.  But until they find it–it may take years– they cannot possibly come into their own and fully bloom and realize their highest creative potential. Style is the constant form in the creator’s work, the never-changing elements or qualities and expression of the person—his or her manner of communicating what is communicated.

Finding THE style that suits you supremely well is no small matter. A distinctive style that’s your own is the first sign of artistic greatness. There are styles that are okay for you and more styles that are wrong for you. And one style that is best. And the best may not be the style you’re writing in currently.

Nobel Prize winning writer Toni Morrison wrote that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.”  And the most influential literary stylist on earth in the last 100 years was American Ernest Hemingway whose Nobel Prize citation reads, “For his mastery of the art of narrative…and for the influence he has exerted on contemporary style.” Hemingway’s techniques “have profoundly influenced generations of writers across all boundaries of nationality, gender, race, ideology, sexual orientation, class, religion, and artistic temperament” (Robert Paul Lamb). Critic Alfred Kazin:  Hemingway “gave a whole new dimension to English prose by making it almost as exact as poetry.” Joan Didion said about Hemingway’s style: “I mean they’re perfect sentences.”

ernest-hemingway-401493_640Probably no fiction writer before or since worked so hard for so long or prepared so thoroughly to create a personal manner of writing that was so perfectly suited to the writing he wanted to do. If you’re looking for a model of how a writer should develop skills you can do no better than hard-working Hemingway.

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and  we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves” (First paragraph of A Farewell to Arms).

Until you perfect your own style and are satisfied with it, you may wish to pick out from the style of Ernest Hemingway whatever might be useful to you. If you want to improve your writing by learning from the master—and what serious writer wouldn’t–here are 20 practical tips on writing like a Nobel Prize winner:

* To cause the most powerful emotional responses in the reader always understate, never overstate. Don’t lay it on thick. Write prose that’s always less emotional than the events seem to call for. No emotional excess. Reject sentimentality. Hemingway doesn’t state characters’ emotional responses at all except in the simplest way. He might say the character “felt lousy” or felt “bad.” The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint you should use in writing about it. And then the result will be emotionally powerful. Flannery O’ Connor said the fiction writer has to realize that he can’t create emotions with emotion. If you want the reader to feel pity, be somewhat cold. Write in a subdued, unemotional voice. Make your prose cool and dispassionate.

* Don’t make the reader aware of your style. When you’re reading Hemingway you’re reading an extraordinary style. But you’re unaware of it.

* Have an intense awareness of the world of the senses. No one renders the physical world with more vividness than Hemingway. His descriptions of mountains, hills, plains, and valleys are beautiful and unrivaled.

* Base your paragraphs on simple sequences—the Hemingway character does this, then does that, then does something else—gets up from the table, crosses the room, goes down the stairs, and  then steps outside where the sun is shining and the flowers are red and yellow.

* Avoid describing the mental state of characters. Show it in the action.

* Simplify in every way you can.  Willa Cather said, “The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification.” “To write simply is as difficult as to be good” (Somerset Maugham). Fiction these days has shifted more and more toward greater conciseness and simplicity.

* Be completely objective. The more objective you are the stronger will be the impression your writing will make on the reader. State the facts.

* Tell the truth.  “A writer’s job is to tell the truth…Do not describe scenes you have not witnessed yourself” (Hemingway). Write down what you see and feel in the simplest way you can. Anton Chekhov: “One must never lie. Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…there is absolutely no lying in art.” Hemingway’s works are generally autobiographical and stamped with authenticity.  He never wrote about anything he hadn’t first experienced himself.  He said, “I can only write from memory.” That creates trust in the reader.

* Show absolute sincerity. The particularly effective writer will develop a relationship with readers that goes beyond liking to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity the reader finds in the work. Hemingway is the sincerest of writers.

* Do no moralizing, no moral judgments—have no “messages.” Don’t preach.

* Eliminate long words or use them sparingly. But always use the mot just, the single best and most accurate word to convey exactly what you’re trying to say.  “I have never used a word without first considering if it is replaceable” (Hemingway). Put the right words in the right order to do the subject the most justice.

* When writing short stories make the stories simple—simple plots. The more elaborate the plot of a short story, the less effective as a work of art it tends to be. In many Hemingway stories very little happens.  In fact some of them aren’t even stories, but sketches that are only a few pages long. The same is true of Chekhov, and he and Hemingway, along with Guy de Maupassant, were the three greatest short story writers in the history of literature.

* Be brief, condensed, maximally concise. Not a single word should be unnecessary or superfluous.  A minimum number of words selected with care.

* Provide few details and make them precise and concrete. Too much detail exhausts the readers and takes their mind off the action—and that’s where it should always be.

* Stress clarity at all times.

* It’s not necessary to state everything. Rely on suggestion.  Leave some things for the reader to figure out.

* Write in a style that’s easy and flowing and has simple rhythms—a tremendously appealing sensual style.

* Keep sentences short and simple–a series of short declarative simple sentences, generally not complex or compound. No ornamental rhetoric. Write forceful and direct prose. There is hardly a single simile or metaphor in all the works of Hemingway. Dialogue sentences especially should be short.

* Severely limit adjectives and adverbs. Emphasize nouns and verbs. If Hemingway used adjectives they were inexact and common—“The trees were big and the foliage thick, but it was not gloomy.”  The colors were “bright.” “Hemingway certainly helped bury the notion…that the more you pile on the adjectives the closer you get to describing the thing” (Tom Stoppard).

* Cut exposition to an absolute minimum.  No explanations, discussion, analysis, and comments. Eliminate the frame. It’s not necessary. Jump right into the action.

stockholm-952497_640Having found your right style you’ll be equipped to achieve the writer’s objective “to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader” (Hemingway). Everything with brevity, economy, simplicity, intensity. It isn’t possible to overstate the influence of Hemingway on the way Americans speak or on how writers everywhere write fiction.

 

© 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 Artistic Perfection, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Literature, Motivation, Preparation, The Writer's Path, Work Production, Writers, Writing Style

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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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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Writing Routines and Rituals

The main goal of all creative people is to be productive: to produce works. Their work schedule and environment are artist workingdesigned to facilitate production because production is their reason for being. Everything—all your education and training, habits, dreams and hopes, and all your routines and rituals are aimed at that one central goal: getting good work out; being able to produce. If a writer or artist is being productive she’s happy. If she’s not, she’s unhappy.

I rise fully awake, my mind sharp, at 4:00 A.M. Then I turn on music and putter around in the kitchen. I’m purposely delaying starting to work so ideas will start germinating, straightening themselves out, and working themselves to my consciousness. Waking or sleeping, night or day, conscious or unconscious, writers’ and artists’ minds continue without stop to produce ideas relevant to their work.

I have a bowl of Cheerios and make my wife’s breakfast. In the winter I go out and shovel snow. (This is, after all, Chicago.) I may throw a snowball at my wife and I may load or empty the dishwasher and put in a load of laundry in the basement. I avoid knowing anything about the news, bills, problems, troubles, and other practical matters that are Cerealunrelated to my work. I kiss my wife good-bye as she goes off to work or wherever she’s going.

In my mid-twenties I was hired by a university think tank of psychologists and economists to rewrite for publication a book from a draft they had written. My main job was to translate all the pretentious academic mumbo-jumbo of their version into clear concepts and language the general reader would have no problem understanding. One day I was at the institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my feet up on a window sill, gazing out at ducks on a pond. I was paying no attention to the stacks of books, research periodicals, and reams of data surrounding me. The director of the institute poked his head in and said, nervously, “When are you going to get started, Dave? We’ve got to get the thing to the printer.” And I said, “I’ve already started. I’m working right now.” What I meant was that I was deep in what I call “Pre-Compositional Lilt.” It’s a very pleasant mental aimlessness—a lilting–that most creative people need to engage in before they tackle a project—a ritualistic, nebulous, uncertain, dream state.

In the article “Write Before Writing” Pulitzer Prize author Donald M. Murray is really talking about my lilt, and my lilt affects artists and writers as well as inventors and scientists—creators generally. He says that resistance to writing is not something to be avoided, but “is one of the great natural forces of nature. It may be called The Law of Delay: that writing which may be delayed, will be. Dawdling, going on errands, sharpening well-pointed pencils, rearranging the writing space, wandering to libraries and book stores, going for walks, and driving around serve a purpose.” Murray adds, “Teachers and writers too often consider resistance to writing evil when in fact it is necessary…There must be time for the seed of an idea to be nurtured in the mind.” Murray says writers who delay starting are trying not to think about what they are going to write so they can think subconsciously about it first. Most writers are strong believers in putting their subconscious to work.

I go upstairs to my work room and listen to You Tube for a few songs—always the same songs, same performers—while shuffling mindlessly through my piles of notes, and checking the ten-day weather forecast, and last night’s scores, also drinking a large mug of coffee that isn’t too strong. I try never to write for an hour after eating. I don’t want brain oxygen that I save for writing to be worried about digestion.

It’s commonplace for creative people to nap at least once during the day, sometimes more, and that’s highly cat-17772_640recommended by psychologists who study creative achievement. Who was more creative than Thomas Edison (1,093 patents)? And he alternated work and naps throughout the day. He napped under a table in his lab. I take a short nap on the living room couch. All the while everything else is going on I know my mind is busy toying with a problem I set for it the night before, or a minutes before, such as, “How will I organize the section on…” or “Should I cut the last paragraph as so-and-so suggests?” Ideally writers and artists work in the same place every day, a place that is exclusively for work.

I’m now in my element, fully confident, contented, primed and ready to write. Then I plunge into work and follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice and review what I wrote the day before, editing a little, expanding, embellishing a little—a word here, a phrase there–till I get a feel for the rhythms of written words, am able to fit myself into the narrative flow, and stimulate the right vocabulary. I’ve transitioned and am now in a goal-focused state. This is when—when the actual work begins—that you mustn’t allow the Law of Delay to be in effect any longer. What do you have when the Law of Delay becomes a habit? Writers who make a career of delay, whose promise will not be fulfilled, whose talent goes to waste, whose books go unwritten.

I take no phone calls during the day unless from a member of my immediate family, make only essential calls (as to my wife at noon), and generally skip lunch or have a small container of yogurt. If I’m being very productive—“making good progress” in my lingo–I can easily feel an excitement which can get out of control and make me lose focus and write sloppily. I try never to be so relaxed that my writing isn’t crisp, but aim for a degree of alert tension.

To “settle down” from an excited state I may take time out to whip up a salad for dinner later and tell myself, “No more coffee today.” And I may do deep abdominal relaxation breathing. Broadway composer Cole Porter had an alarm clock rigged to ring every fifty minutes when he was composing. Then he took a ten minute break. William Faulkner wrote rapidly at top speed as fast as he could type for a half hour or so and then would relax for perhaps another half hour, talking or reading, and return again and type at the same breakneck speed, sometimes picking up in mid-sentence and continuing without any hesitation. I may work the entire day without a break except the bathroom.

I try never, never to do any writing after 4:00 p.m., and certainly don’t do any after six, unless a deadline tells me I have clock-611619_640to, for if I did, words, ideas, and plans would fly through my mind like missiles and I would not—would not, absolutely would not—would not be able to sleep that night. Tell me, is it possible to be a writer without also being an insomniac?

Between four and five is “reading time,” which is essential—a hunger. The kind of reading depends on the reason for my reading: non-fiction research reading involves close concentration and taking extensive notes. For best results I must sit at the dining room table (in a particular place at the table) with notebooks and black ink Pilot G-2 07 pens. Fiction reading can be done in an easy chair or on the couch while a baseball or hockey game is played on the television screen. I read fiction more for its style than its content.

Then my wife appears and asks, “How was your day? Were you productive?”

 

© 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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Artists Aim for Perfection

Artists develop notions of something greater than competence, greater than excellence, and become intoxicated with Laurence Olivierperfection of their craft, perfection of their technique, and perfection of their repertoire of skills culminating in what they hope will one day be the perfect story, perfect poem, perfect painting, or perfect performance. Once in his career Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of the 20th century, gave what he knew and everyone knew who was present that night was a perfect performance of Hamlet. “My God,” he wondered, “How did I do it and how will I ever be able to do it again?”

All artists want to “get better” and to “get it right.” They devote their entire careers to getting better and getting it right. The development of expertise is the artist’s most crucial task. If there is one thing that all successful creative people have in common it’s that they all work hard developing their skills, the foundation of their success.

To strive to improve one’s performance continually and to more and more often get it right, requires qualities that are not common. One is self-confidence; another is an objectivity about one’s artistic and sometimes personal shortcomings and limitations—a capacity for stern, dispassionate self-criticism. If an artist shows  you his work and you don’t notice the flaws in it that are so apparent to him, he will doubt your critical judgment and may not ask you again. Tell a ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly. “

The most difficult task for artists is to find and put into their work the right voice, the presence of the artist in the work. E.L Doctorow said, “I wait until I find a narrative voice. Then I listen to that and start writing.” John Updike wrote, “I notice that as I write it comes out as a sort of Updike prose. I sit down in such different moods, wearing such different clothes, and out this comes—like a kind of handwriting. It’s always mine, and there’s no way I can seem to get around it. Isn’t it funny you have only one voice?”

cream-rose-272946_640Artists may have to spend many years finding what their proper subject matter and voice may be. When they do find it, everything suddenly comes out into the clear light of day: “Now I know how to say what I’ve been trying to say.” At times—sometimes in mid-career—they discover that what they have been doing has been all wrong. The work doesn’t express them. When halfway through her life painter Mary Cassatt discovered her true subject—mothers with their children—and the right style, she destroyed all but a few of her previous works, signifying a new beginning. In mid-career painter Georgia O’Keefe decided her art was too influenced by other people and set out in a new direction.

Every art is physically and mentally exhausting. When they finish a day’s work, artists feel they have lifted a thousand pounds. They have a compulsion to work. The reason artists, like experts in all other fields, most often cite for their enormous energy, commitment, and focus necessary to excel is their motivation to concentrate on the task and put out effort to improve their performance.

Non-artists cannot be motivated or even forced to work at an artistic task to the extent that a person with an intense interest does willingly. There has probably never been a great artist who didn’t have a strong sense of single-mindedness and an ability to persevere, overcome difficulties, and concentrate on reaching his goals while resisting distractions. An interesting question is, “Why do some people but not others possess those qualities, and why do virtually all creative people?”

The artist’s main goal is production. When they have not worked at their craft for 48 hours, or 24 hours, or one hour, they get uneasy. When they are away from their work without a brush in their hand or something to write with or dancing slippers on their feet they are completely out of their element.

You cannot distinguish between true artists and their work. They are exactly what they do. A composer is his music, a writer his language. Every molecule in their body is the molecule of an artist. A director is one who directs; an actor acts. That’s what they do and that’s all there is to it. Their work is on their mind almost every waking moment.

mountain-299009_640Artists grow accustomed to loneliness. Even as children they spent much of their time alone. The common notion that artists are different and have different points of view, habits, personalities, and preoccupations than the majority of humankind is correct. There is often a distance, a gap, between them and their neighbors, even other members of their family, even their lovers and spouses who are not involved themselves in art.

They must incorporate the other person in their work or find a way of coping with that distance, or those sharing their lives must find a way. That may not be possible. Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” Bellow was married five times.

The artist, realizing that she’s looking at the world from a vantage point that’s not available to everyone, can say, “I am different. I see things differently. I value different things.” Everyone else wants to be rich. The artist wants fulfillment.

If they are truly artists, they are especially equipped and seem to have been born with not only magical “creative stuff” but with tenacity, strength, powerful will, and patience. In the achievements of successful artists you always see gifts coupled with extraordinary application, the former meaningless without the latter. A man I know was curious and attended an art show to ask a famous sculptor if he had advice for his son John, a sculptor who was just beginning. The sculptor said, “Yes I do have advice. It’s very simple. You tell John to pick up his mallet and his chisel and make chips.” A poet who lived several hundred years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high Gods have placed sweat.” Artists are great believers in sweat and making chips.

georgia-okeefe-396957_640Who sets the standard for perfection that all artists measure themselves against? The work of everyone is compared with the virtuoso. Miles Davis in jazz. Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin. A novel by Faulkner.

French philosopher-playwright Jean Paul Sartre wrote that man exists first and only afterwards defines himself. He is what “he will have planned to be; he is what he conceives himself to be.” Artists may not talk much about being artists, preferring if they are any good, working to talking about working. But they conceive themselves to be artists. They have planned to be artists. They are creative in the grandest sense of creating themselves from scratch.

Henry David Thoreau, as great a clear-thinking artist as there ever was, wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” The Japanese say, “Irrigators guide water, fletchers straighten arrows, and as for wise people, they shape themselves.” Artists are shaping themselves from their first exposure to their art.

A cat becomes all the cat it will ever be without having to think about it. All that’s necessary is to be born a cat. But people who aspire to be artists have considerably more work to do than cats. The highest development of an artist’s capabilities to aim for and reach perfection is worth giving up almost everything for.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Take Charge of Your Creative Life

What would you say is most significant about the writers and artists I’m going to describe?

How are you like them?

How are you different?

What might you do if you wished to be more self-directed?

“I could…”

For the last few days before starting work I’ve been inspiring myself looking at my write-ups of artists and writers I’m Cezanne-image(1)especially drawn to—Nobel Prize playwright Eugene O’Neill, novelists Henry Miller and Raymond Chandler, and painters Paul Cezanne, Mary Cassatt, and Jackson Pollock–and have decided that they have in common not only their accomplishments and prodigious skills and the uniqueness of their personalities, but that they were all self-directed—guided by themselves, no one else.  At one time or another you’ve observed first hand, heard about, or read about self-directed writers and artists too. Textbooks, anthologies, magazines, literary journals, galleries, museums, shows, and newspapers are filled with their names. They strike out on their own, taking full responsibility for themselves, their work, their careers, and their fate.

They all possess that rarest of qualities I admire so much and most people nowadays seem to have lost—intensity, single-mindedness, a “seriousness of intent” about their work. Their art means everything. There is not a minute of their waking day when their minds are not is some way or another on their work. They are vital: alive and electric. They give off sparks. They mean business. They go about their work undeterred, unknown or famous, poor or rich, unhappy or happy, in a bad mood or good mood. The commitment of their less memorable and less serious, less intense peers peters out, but that of a real writer and real artist goes on and on.

the-song-of-first-swallow-paul-pulszartti

The Song of First Swallow by Paul Pulszartti

Nothing can compete with, nothing can replace, their joy during the act of creating– the self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-expression that satisfies their deepest needs. They so saturate themselves with their work that to paint or write—or sculpt, act, or dance– becomes as much a need as sleep. A painter perceives the world in which she finds herself in lines and planes, a dramatist thinks in dialogues and scenes. A novelist divides his life into episodes.

Production is their never-ceasing main goal–to get the work out. Their existence is centered on, focused on, and organized around that work, and their ability to produce it is staggering. Shakespeare wrote an average of two plays a year–thirty six–many of the greatest examples of literature in the world’s history. And was also a poet, an actor, a family man, and a producer who had to attend to the practical concerns of mounting the plays’ performance. Due to bad health (a nerve problem that made it impossible to hold a pencil) and wandering the world in search of a place to work—France, Switzerland, America—Eugene O’Neill lost twelve years mid-career, but still wrote 49 plays. Belgian Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms—yet all of high quality.

Their standards lead to setting high goals and high goals lead to high success. Once unknown, they become known. It may take time. Raymond Chandler didn’t start writing until his forties and published his first novel at 53, becoming an “overnight” success. Success may not be easy: Henry Miller lived the life of a homeless beggar on the streets of Paris, penniless, yet considering himself the happiest man on earth, into his late forties before his genius was recognized. Early mary-cassatt-89730_640(1)in his career, before becoming rich and the talk of the art world, Jackson Pollock was poor and couldn’t afford brushes, so he’d steal them. Mary Cassatt, the greatest woman painter of the nineteenth century, didn’t become able to buy a chateau until two things happened in mid-career: she became an Impressionist and she found her subject: mothers with their children.

They produce continually better work and expand their abilities. Over an extended period writers and artists with a minimum of natural talent who apply themselves can acquire a great talent. Writing and art teachers are generally in agreement that it’s not the best, most talented students whose names they hear about in later years. The students with the most talent but the weakest work ethic who dazzled the class, disappear into oblivion, while the hard workers often go on to excel. Poet John Berryman thought that talent was no more than 20% of a successful poet’s personality, and the same is probably true of every creative field. Every minute spent painting or writing increases your talent. High performing self-directed people in all the arts and every other field wherever on the globe they’re to be found are universally alike: over and over again they are people who believe in trying to excel, in doing one’s best, in working very hard and not wasting time. Van Gogh in particular was an artist who couldn’t waste time, starting late but producing in just over a decade 2,100 works before his death at 38.

The word “easy” never enters their mind because what’s easy isn’t worth bothering with. If they don’t meet their high standard they are dissatisfied. Then what they do is not what everyone does. They work harder than before and don’t stop until they’re satisfied that they’ve done their best. If to be superb a poem must be revised 200 times, they revise it 200 times.

If they’re self-directed they set their own work schedules, work alone, and persist over a long period of time that the majority of people cannot match. They direct their achievements by setting challenging long-range and short-range aims to develop themselves and increase their knowledge and skills, and by applying a variety of five, six, ten, fifteen pragmatic strategies, techniques, and rituals to reach those goals.

Eugene O'NeillThey’re original; they invent and innovate. Cezanne and Pollock both revolutionized painting. O’Neill single-handedly created serious American theatre.

They believe in themselves and their capabilities, and are committed to meeting the challenges of the creator’s life, which is not an easy one. They are willing to take risks and sacrifice other goals and other activities. Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung thought that the creator’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts because two forces are at war in him—on the one hand the normal human longing for happiness, satisfaction, and security, and on the other hand “a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire.”

The confidence in their abilities of self-directed people can’t be broken, and more than anything else is the most powerful source of their drive. So much of achieving goals and realizing your long-held creative hopes is a result of knowing exactly what they are, wanting badly to achieve them, and believing that you can. The more self-assured a writer and artist is, the stronger his commitment to high achievements. All great writers, artists, actors, and dancers were and are self-assured where their work is concerned.

Writers and artists—actors and performers–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 find a way to show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed. Among the personal qualities that cause self-direction and motivation that is strong enough to sustain success through the inevitable trials, valleys, disappointments, setbacks, and self-doubts are not luxuries but necessities for any writer or artist who is in any way serious about his craft: passion, obsessiveness, will. new-york-115629_640Very little is known about why some artists and writers give up before reaching their peak while the steady commitment of others to their goals and their doggedness in achieving them borders on the super-human.

They are self-aware and monitor and continually evaluate their performance, keeping track of their productivity, their working time, and their career progress. They strive to keep regular working hours, and organize their life and their environment to accommodate their commitment to their creative existence. Their names and their works are often topics of conversation. They’re published. Their works are shown. They win prizes. When they die, they’re remembered.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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