Category Archives: Writers

Should a Painter or Writer Plan the Work?

Let me tell you about a problem I had:  I started to write a prescriptive how-to book for serious creatives interested in becoming skilled craftsmen in their art. It was to be titled A Book for Creative Writers and Painters in Training. But wouldn’t you know it, right away I was in a container of pens, pencils, and highlighters in front of a computer keyboardfix. I was writing what should be an easy section on planning what you are about to write or paint. Now planning is something I know a lot about. For years I was a trainer for a consulting company I founded. I trained thousands of people to use the best techniques of planning so they might effectively plan whatever business or career project they had in mind.

But I couldn’t go on when I realized that it would have been hypocritical of me to tell writers or painters how best to plan an artistic work when I had an epiphany, a realization which was that I never–never–plan  a written work.  I then asked myself a question: “Why don’t you plan texts?” and found myself answering “Because I consider planning unnecessary at least for me and writers and painters like me, of whom I’ll bet there are an astounding number.” It’s not that non-planning is superior to planning or planning superior to non-planning. They just suit people who create differently.

The Habit of Planning

Even as children girls and boys who will become writers and painters when they grow up have been told and taught by teachers to plan the work before they begin to execute it.  They are taught that in grade school, and in graduate school professors or experienced visiting artists and writers stipulate that every work should have a plan. Planning becomes a habit that isn’t questioned because “everyone knows you have to have a plan before you begin. How else will you know how to proceed?”

When these now adults feel that urge that stirs a person to create a work they immediately tell their mind to start concocting a plan that will guide them in making the idea for the work or the painting’s main emotion into a tangible reality, as a finished landscape or a finished novel, for example.  A novelist submitting a book proposal to a publisher must include a plan that the publisher will scrutinize and refer to to judge the potential of the book.

Having made a plan that the creative has thoroughly thought out, the writer or painter can tell anyone who asks what they are trying to accomplish in the work because the plan’s goals and sub-goals and the book’s or painting’s features are precise. Some writer’s working plans are so detailed that they are hundreds of pages long, and some painters make abundant pre-painting sketches and work-ups.

Road extending to the distance with the word start at the beginningSome creatives meticulously plan and think the work to be produced through to the last detail. But some non-planner creatives begin to paint or write without a subject in mind, preferring to permit the work to grow organically and emerge. Some writers, like me, begin without any conscious concept of how to proceed other than, at best, a notion not at all well-developed of what the work should probably be about.

For example, it seemed to me that a “How-to-live” book containing the knowledge, spiritual insights, and wisdom of the Japanese samurai I had acquired could be helpful in many practical ways to people now living everyday lives if it were adapted and written properly. I wrote a brief six -page proposal, it was accepted, I wrote the book successfully without a plan, and from its revenues I bought a house.

Like the speaker in the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, non-planners “learn by going where [they] have to go.” They start not knowing yet what they will create, waiting for an inspiration to guide them.  Writers will write something and then react to what is written, and then without a plan a work begins to take shape little by little. They write a book this way. Non-planning painters work the same way–each brush stroke an experiment.

hand of a child painting vibrant colors Non-planning Virginia Woolf said that her idea for Mrs. Dalloway started without any conscious direction. She thought of making a plan but soon abandoned the idea. She said, “The Book grew day by day, by week, without any plan at all, except that which was dictated each morning in the act of writing.” Had someone asked her what exactly she was trying to accomplish other than to follow a woman throughout a day she would have replied, “I’m not sure.” The planner- writers are sure of where they are going. Their plan tells them.

Research

The research cited in David W. Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creation sheds light on the question this post asks: should a painter or writer plan a work? The answer is that not everyone profits from planning the work because given the methods of creativity of some artists and writers planning a text or a painting is superfluous.

Mona Lisa paintingThe more spontaneous process which non-planning creatives like greats Woolf and Mark Twain (possibly America’s greatest writer) and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci use to complete a work is contrary to the rational goal-setting, plan-making processes.  Following a plan inhibits certain creatives for whom a more spontaneous approach results in better work.

If a writer for whom planning the work is contrary to the way they think and create is forced to develop a plan, doing so will be difficult and stressful because doing so is unnatural to someone for whom planning a painting or a text is unimportant. Such people are dying to omit planning and to get to the keyboard or the easel and create the way they do best, relying on repeated inspirations to guide them to the right words and pigments as they experiment with this sentence or brush stroke, and that until they are satisfied that they have done the best they could, and the work finished.  With regard to a plan before starting the execution of the work they think: how can I possibly plan the death scene, for example, when I don’t know at the moment what my mood and state of mind will be when I reach that section a year from now?

Often in the act of executing the work the non-planning writer or painter realizes that the plan that seemed perfect as they imagined the work will simply and emphatically not do the job. I’ve had that experience with every book I’ve written. I ignored the plans and proceeded in what Galenson would call an “Experimentalist’s” manner. A plan sometimes has to be done because that’s what teachers and publishers want and “grade” you on, but no plan will ever satisfy a writer or painter whose methods of creating works make detailed plans unnecessary.

Planners and Non-planners

colorful abstract paintingGalenson describes two significantly different types of artists. The “everything must be planned” artists are called Conceptualizers: they must have a full-blown concept of the work they wish to create in all its detail before they begin writing or painting the work. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Herman Melville, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were Conceptual writers. Pablo Picasso was a Conceptual painter. Conceptualizers state their carefully- wrought goals for a particular work precisely before the work’s production. For their paintings conceptualizers like Georges Seurat (the best example of a painter who planned)–a very cerebral painter) make many detailed preparatory sketches that may be so detailed and finished that they are works of art in themselves. While painting, they closely follow a preconceived image they hold clearly in mind.

The other type of writer or painter Galenson calls” Experimentalists”–each new idea they set about to write is an experiment. Experimentalists such as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Twain, and Woolf, and painter Paul Cezanne have a totally different approach.  They allow the work–a novel’s plot, for example–to take shape as if it were growing organically on its own because they believe that creating should be a process of discovery.

The extreme Conceptual painter “is one who makes extensive preparations in order to arrive at a precisely formulated desired image before beginning the execution of the final work.” In contrast extreme Experimentalists “make no decisions for a painting before beginning to create what will become the final work” except to have needed materials and a space to work, etc.

watercolor landscape with mountains in blues and purplesOnce Conceptualizers find the crucial problem they advance slowly with a plan, but Experimentalists move fast without a plan. Experimentalist’s goals are imprecise. They have ideas about what the work will be like when it is finished, but are unclear about everything else until the piece is written, the painting mounted on a wall. That imprecision is how Experimentalists like to work, but it creates problems. Not clear as to what they want the final work to look like, they have trouble finishing works.

Because they have trouble finishing a work many Experimentalists often return even after many years to finish works they earlier abandoned. They “hang on” to works rather than being done with them. They have difficulty deciding when the work should be presented to the public in the form of a painting that is for sale, or a book that is ready to be offered to a publisher. It is said that Experimentalists Michelangelo and Da Vinci never really finished a single work. Mark Twain was very slow in producing works and labored over his books’ endings. His endings are never satisfying.

One of Da Vinci’s greatest contributions was his rebellion against the rigid procedures of traditional artists’ training that emphasized the use of careful preparatory studies, advocating in its place methods that allowed artists the freedom to develop their own ideas as they worked.

Which Bloom Early and Which Bloom Late?

orange and yellow tulips with green stems and leavesConceptualizers tend to bloom early, often with a striking new style or innovation or great success at the start of their career. They mature quickly, starting very early, not gradually through years of trial and error as Experimentalist painters like Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet did, but rapidly.  A young Ernest Hemingway’s innovative writing style quickly revolutionized writing throughout the world.  At twenty-six he took over as “the big man” in American literature.

A problem for Conceptualizers is that they may be captive to their early success and develop fixed habits of thought and become too committed to a single way of approaching artistic problems.  They become stuck, Experimentalists experiment, writing works that are not all the same.  Another problem of Conceptualizers is that like F. Scott Fitzgerald, so mournful in his last auto-biographical short stories, many Conceptualizers spend their last years wondering where their talent has gone.

Experimenters tend to bloom late. As in the case of Impressionist Monet, their skills are not full blown at the beginning of their career as is often the case with Conceptualizers, but develop slowly over the course of a career spanning sometimes decades: they get better and better as time passes.

Is One Method Better than the Other?

It may be thought that non-planners are not as well-organized as planners and may produce disorganized works, but that not true. They organize as they go. Throughout history, both methods have produced superb works.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Artists, Creativity, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Experimentalists and Conceptualists, Planning Artworks, Writers

Finding Fulfillment in the Arts

Abstract watercolor in blues and greensPeople in every walk of life and in every hemisphere on earth–in cities, on deserts, in towns and villages–long to create something. My nine year old grandson is a talented artist and cellist studying architecture. His six year old sister takes dance and will begin taking piano lessons in the fall. Their forty two year old father was an excellent cellist in his youth and was inspired by the performance of a famous cellist to return to it last year. My wife, is a former cellist, and has taken up water colors and has returned to the piano. I write every day. I have for many years, and when I am not writing I am thinking about it and planning what I will write. We are representative people no different from millions of others with whom we share the globe because the current era is an Age of Heightened Creativity. Little children and women and men of all ages are bent on having creative experiences. They will not let their creative instincts be stifled.

I think it is worthwhile to look at what happens to creative people who have turned to art for fulfillment.

If You Are to Be an Artist, a Decisive Moment Occurs

A decisive moment occurs early in your life or later—an experience happens—and if you are to be an artist, you become aware that this art is the direction that fits you as no other direction will. You feel that it will lead to fulfillment that you probably would not enjoy were you to follow another route. You’ve had a crystalizing experience in a critical moment when you were first focused and organized toward an artistic purpose you knew was right for you and which you wished to pursue further, a sudden attachment to an artistic field that brought with it a motivation and a sense of knowing what you wanted to do in life.

Watercolor paints with brushIt became a permanent part of your entire being–an idea, a theme, or an image that became a guiding force in your life. You may not be conscious of it, but it starts you out in a creative direction, and gives you a sense of moving steadily in that direction, of heading straight toward something concrete and specific. Making a living in art is difficult and so most artists must find financial security other than in art. But whatever your occupation if you are to be an artist you will define yourself first as an artist, an accountant, HR manger, or English teacher second.

Nature Cooperates With Gifted People

In his Confessions Saint Augustine wrote, “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long course of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.” Artists may be guilty of being so totally absorbed in their work that they neglect their health and their families, but are rarely guilty of passing by themselves without wondering. They wonder insatiably about themselves, and explore themselves continually. They do not always understand how it happened that they are more gifted than others but are fascinated by what capabilities they discover in themselves that make their art possible.

Nature equips artists for the creative pursuit that most suits them, making available to them what often will be their most highly developed skill, their core capability, and with an aptitude for a particular art–for painting rather than writing, or acting and not dancing, for example.

Girl with headphones listeningNoted composers and performing artists in musical fields–so sensitive to sound and tone—possess what the Germans call Horlust–“hearing passion.” Writers–particularly poets and lyrical writers–have a word passion (they adore words), and painters adore colors and shapes, often from the cradle.

The Self-Absorbed Artist

Artists are absorbed in themselves and smitten by their craft for many practical reasons: first of all because the task of being creative is not like any other tasks.  Art comes from the mind of the one person you are, and your duty is to probe that mind’s depths and breadths every time you create. You must plumb from it words, or music, or colors that will be shaped into a finished work with your name on it that will be passed on to an audience who will think, “This is the creation of… (your name); no one else’s. I wonder what they’re like.”

The Inner World of Artists

In a poem poet Emily Dickinson said that the soul selects her own society and shuts the door. Often what is sacrificed and left outside the artist’s closed door is the world of ordinary life–of Wordsworth’s “getting and spending,”

Jean Paul Sartre said, ‘Rather than face the real and terrifying risks of becoming, many human beings prefer not to develop behind the structures, rules, and patterns that society gives them.” Those things may have little or no importance for creative people. Marcel Proust said, “Those who have created for themselves an enveloping inner life pay little heed to the importance of current events.”

Door opening to sceneWhat is inside the shut door is the artist’s rich inner life from which creative products pour–without stopping if the artists explore themselves more and more deeply. Transformation of what is inside the artist into what is outside is the overriding goal –to make a book, a painting, a song or a symphony — that is completely as the artist wishes and offering it out to be shared with an appreciative world.

To Artists We Remember Best, Their Art Is All-engulfing.

If you are an artist you are the embodiment of your art. There can be no separating one from the other–art, artist–the work, the producer of the work.  You are a daughter or son, citizen of a country, lover, and teacher, true, but you’re also an artist and that artist’s identity may be your center of gravity.

Your art is always somewhere in your mind. It is being processed–being worked up into a properly embellished work–and it is impossible to extract your personality from the work. You cannot be hidden even if you wished to hide. Creative works are the products of the whole person: your intelligence and courage, talents, training, and commitments, your energy, and your memories.

Novelist Henry Miller said, “I don’t care who the artist is, if you study him deeply, sincerely, detachedly, you will find that he and his work are one.” Novelist Joseph Conrad said, “The writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in his works.” Pablo Picasso said, It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is…What interests me is the uneasiness of Cezanne, the real teaching of Cezanne, the torment of van Gogh, that is to say the drama of the man.” Artists may try to eliminate themselves from the work, but they can’t. Henry James said that the artist of a work “stands present on every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself.”

pink rose openingPoet W.H. Auden wrote, “Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: ‘Here is the verbal contraption. How does it work?’ The second is, in the broadest sense moral. What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One. What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?” William James said it is the amount of life in the act of creation which artists feel that makes you value their mind.

How Is Creative Excellence to Be Identified In a Person?

As a creative you’re specially endowed with (and may have been born with) not only “creative stuff” but with an assortment of personality qualities that equip you specifically for the writer’s, painter’s, actor’s, composer’s, architect, or dancer’s role. And it’s that identity that gives you the sense that you’re a person with a definite life task—to write, dance, paint, etc.–to create something that comes from your mind, your spirit, and your muscles.

What does a person need to be creative: an active, complex, and excitable mind, and a combination of such inner qualities as curiosity, obsessiveness, doggedness, and endurance.  Plus an openness to experience, and an abundance of physical strength and energy. And a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself” (Henry Miller).The most interesting thing in art is the artist’s personality. Artists need intensity: “Nothing is at last sacred but the intensity of your own mind” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

purple neon designArtists must be people of action because their main goal is production of works over which they think and sweat. Jean Paul Sartre said, “There is no reality except in action” and said, “Man is nothing else than his plans; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts.”

Artists must be feeling beings because whatever the art may be, the artists’ aim is to express emotions. “Every day I attach less and less importance to the intellect. Every day I realize more that it is only by other means that a writer can regain something of his impressions, reach, that is, a particle of himself, the only material of art” (Marcel Proust). When they are denied the expression of emotions they experience conflict and tension that must find an avenue of relief.

According to critic Malcolm Cowley “Genius is energy–mental energy first of all, but sometimes…physical, emotional, and sexual energy. Genius is vision, often involving the gift of finding patterns” (where others see a random collection of objects.) “Genius is a memory for essential details. Genius…is the capacity for brooding over a subject until it reveals its full potentialities…Genius is also a belief in oneself and the importance of one’s mission, without which the energy is dissipated in hesitations and inner conflicts.”

Besides genius, a creative person has to have talent: technical skills, self-critical ability, and notions about how to present their work so that it appeals. The only obligation that art can be held to is that it be interesting.  Who will be the judge of that? Composer Igor Stravinsky preferred the general public: “I am convinced that the spontaneous judgment of the public is always more authentic than the judgment of those who set themselves up to be judges of works of art.”

The Artist’s First Notable Work

The “years of silence” artists often experience is the period when they–even those who are highly gifted–have few tangible successes, or none at all. But that period is not wasted or unimportant. It is a crucial period of growth when the artist acquires knowledge and experience that through practice will culminate in the artist’s first notable work.

What follows then is the full flowering of the artist’s capabilities. Those capabilities become automatic. Then there usually is a rapid increase in the artist’s production of his or her best works that continues for years. There need not be a period of decline. Many artists produce popular works into old age.

Smiling child with art suppliesChildren and adults may drop out, but those who turn to art may well be playing the cello or dancing or painting, only getting better and enjoying their art perpetually–all their lives– with fond memories of what they accomplished and of the exciting people they met on the path they took.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Fulfillment in the Arts, Inner Skills, Life of Creators, Personal Destiny, The Nature of Artists, Writers

Why Do Writers, Painters, and Other Artists Bloom Late?

deep pink proteaAlthough talent in the arts most often shows itself early, because it takes so many years to develop their talent and become highly proficient in the arts, people who will become expert musicians, painters, performers, and writers can expect to be late bloomers. Artists who perform at a high level do not demonstrate remarkable talent in short order.  They are not usually in their twenties or thirties, but in their forties, fifties, and sixties. All spend many years developing the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that will eventually enable them to be recognized for their mastery. All arts involve learning form and the art’s devices, and the need for control, craft, revisions, and structure–time consuming efforts.  All begin by imitating existing techniques they have studied.

Harriet Doerr’s first novel was published when she was seventy three, and won the National Book Award.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelists Sherwood Anderson and Joseph Conrad were famous late bloomers. American short story specialist Raymond Carver was too. Painters Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Grandma Moses bloomed late, as did composer Camille Saint Saens. Gauguin worked for years in the French stock market before quitting and turning to art, and Polish Conrad who would become the quintessential stylist in English, didn’t speak or write a word in English till he was in his twenties.

Gold color rose bloomA survey of 47 outstanding instrumentalists found that their ability was first noticed on average at the age of four years and nine months. Then they began a very long and arduous period of development of their talent. Pianists work for about seventeen years from their first formal lessons to their first international recognition, involving many thousands of hours of intense practice. The fastest in one study was twelve years, and the slowest took twenty-five years. In other fields you may even be an early bloomer, but in the arts if your expertise is to be at a high level of mastery, unless you are a Dylan Thomas, a rarity who was at his peak at nineteen, you had best avoid discouragement and expect to bloom late.

Trouble Getting Started: Two Examples from The Arts

Late Bloomers have trouble getting started, but once they decide what to do with their lives, there is no stopping them. Sometimes the very tardiness of their entering into a field is a powerful motivator to make up for lost time, “catching up” with people of equal age who started years sooner and often surpassing their accomplishments. They think,  “I have no time to waste anymore.” They buckle down, focusing, achieving, feeling surges of vitality which if they are in the arts they turn into paintings, novels, plays, movies, buildings and museums, and so on.

Green and purple flowersNovelist Raymond Chandler was fired from his high-paying executive job (chairman of five corporations at the same time) and found himself without an income. Luckily, he had a talent and became a writer, but not producing a first short story until the age of forty-four and his first novel at fifty-four. That book–The Big Sleep–was a success and spawned quickly many other works–many novels, short stories, essays, articles, and screen plays. Vincent van Gogh, a troubled soul, spent most of his life searching unsuccessfully for a field to work in,  trying this and that, believing that there was an appropriate occupation for everyone, including himself. He turned to a life of serious painting at thirty-three. In the brief five years remaining in his life his energy, which was almost superhuman and beyond belief, was ignited, and he produced three thousand works.

The Life Pattern of Late Bloomers

Pink lotus on purple backgroundWhen the majority of their friends and associates are settled in a career and life style, late bloomers are not. Late bloomers may eventually reach the height of their achievements and fulfillment which I call “their true destiny,” but later in life. Their lives fill us with optimism. They demonstrate that whatever your condition at present, whatever your age, a fulfilled life, even one you may not have  remotely anticipated, may await you.

To bloom is to reach your true destiny, to live intelligently, not stupidly, to come into your own, to find fulfillment. The discovery of your true destiny can come early in life, or in the middle, or late. It’s the bell curve: of those who bloom: a minority bloom early, the great majority bloom in their middle years, and a minority bloom in their sixties, seventies, or later. But some people never bloom because they don’t set their minds to.

The Sense of Constructing Yourself As You Go Along

Pink lotus on dark green backgroundIf you’re a late bloomer, you’ve made false starts. You haven’t peaked yet, haven’t reached your destiny yet, but you may be determined to bloom one day. Late bloomers are more willing than most to persevere and if need be to fail but try again and again until they reach a life they desire. If you are a late bloomer, more than most people you have the sense that you’re constructing yourself as you go along, even rejecting what other people may call golden opportunities if those opportunities don’t appear to lead you in the direction you desire most.

For example, I had published books before with good presses, starting in my mid-twenties, but my first important book with a major publisher (Doubleday) was published when I was forty-two. The next best seller was published three years later. Before I knew it I was making speeches about them to audiences of thousands in auditoriums across North America and in Europe. I have a flair for public speaking and present myself well, and was approached by an agent Red-orange poppy with little blue flowers and green grasswith the goal in mind for me to have a national television talk show. It was an excellent opportunity and would have paid extremely well. But my wife and I talked it over and I decided that what I wanted to do with my life above all else was simply to sit at a computer in my upstairs work room while my four children played noisily downstairs and my wife came up once in a while to say hello, and produce artful paragraphs that reflected my years of hard work and training.  To me that was blooming. I turned the opportunity down.  Late bloomers often make similar very difficult decisions while they are constructing themselves.

Late Blooming Is Problem-Solving

When people try to solve problems, the solutions arrived at toward the end of the solution-generating period are the best. The most effective problem-solvers tend not to accept as the solution the first or the first flurry of solutions that come to mind. Their thinking is, “This is a good-looking solution all right, but there may be better ones,” and they continue to work on solving the problem. They hold out for a better answer. This is called “deferred judgment” and requires that you live in ambiguity, possibly for a long time. But people in the arts have a higher tolerance for ambiguity than the great majority of people. It’s not far -fetched to view late bloomers as people who defer judgment for a period of time–even many years–living  patiently in ambiguity until finding a solution to the problem of living their life and reaching what is, for them, a more highly fulfilling existence that makes full use of their talents. If your life is not fulfilling, you know it. No one need tell you.

The Importance of Missions, Callings, and Occupations

Pink and purple anemoneMost people–possibly all–who find fulfillment later in life find it in a mission, calling, or vocation. You cannot be dissatisfied when you’re doing the work for which you feel you were brought into the world, a thought that consoled Raymond Carver through his alcoholic’s torturous life. Psychologist Charlotte Buhler was concerned with people finding fulfillment in a “task” as artists find in their art. She wrote, “We find our most complete fulfillment if we can be ourselves and do what we like to do while dedicating ourselves to a task we believe in. In this we transcend ourselves, but simultaneously we satisfy ourselves.”  George Bernard Shaw said, “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

 

Getting More Education and Training Is a Route Many Late Bloomers Follow

Late bloomers need more time to get settled. My son was a high-powered advertising salesman making a lot of money. He began to dread his work. He was unhappy because he felt he wasn’t doing anything meaningful. He wanted to work in a helping profession. He had been hit by a car and sustained serious injuries and underwent a long, painful recovery.  His friend was killed in that accident and my son was deeply affected. He felt a powerful need to apply himself to serving an important goal that went beyond his own self-interests. In his late thirties he went back to school and acquired a Master’s degree in social work. He now provides therapy to people who survive traumas as did he.

Red chrysanthemumsGoing back to school as a transition to another field is a strategy late bloomers find appealing, in essence ending one career and starting another.

Some Goals and Interests the Late Bloomer Just Does Not Forget

Or, you may set out again in pursuit of goals that were dear to you in the past and you’ve neglected, possibly for a long time. Especially determined people are more likely than most to find success by changing their lives in mid-stream, pursuing abandoned purposes and projects, resuming activities and interests that they have laid aside, sometimes many years earlier, but never stopped thinking about. Herbert guided tours through the North Woods before stopping to assess what he wanted. After asking himself hard questions about where his life was going he returned to his earlier interest in medicine. He went back to school and became an MD. Wally Amos was an unsuccessful Hollywood talent agent who found that he had always enjoyed most baking cookies. So later in life he opened the first store in what would grow into the Famous Amos Chocolate Chip business.

It Is Never Too Late To Become the Person You Are Supposed To Be

No matter your age or position in life– a seventy-three year old grandmother of ten, a middle-aged druggist, or a young clerk, housewife, or college student– you can always become the person you have the wherewithal to be. Because you haven’t bloomed yet doesn’t mean you won’t.  Your heights of satisfaction and accomplishments may be ahead of you. When you bloom isn’t the important thing. Blooming at all is.

Orange DahliaHave you bloomed?  If you haven’t what are you going to do about that? People who aren’t leading satisfactory lives haven’t bloomed at all, and many are trying to, but many   have never started trying, and just as many have given up. Better to start if you haven’t already, whatever your age or condition in life. You can always forget the past and start out again, making no excuses for starting out late.  Experiment, follow your instincts, and assess yourself and your feelings about your life. Are you going right or are you going wrong?

You can either search for fulfillment or flee from it. You can’t trade it for someone else’s fulfillment because theirs seems easier or more profitable or praiseworthy. Yours is yours. It stands in need of you. You are asked to fit yourself to it. It is given just as it is, just as the yellow sun and blue sky are given just as they are.

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

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

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What Makes a Writer a Writer

Components of a Certain Kind Make a Writer a Writer

A Monte Python skit tells the story of an accountant who was dissatisfied with accounting because he felt it was so boring. He went to a service that analyzed an individual’s personality and capabilities and advised the person on the occupation that would best suit them. The tests revealed that he was a very boring person, which made him perfect for the accountant’s job. The skit gets a laugh, but also illustrates the fact that certain personal characteristics do equip people to perform well in a pursuit.

A number of components come into alignment to result in the direction of a person’s life and career. The components making a social worker are different from the components that work together to make a diplomat or a baker. Why do you happen to be a writer and not an acrobat or botanist? You didn’t become the writer you are willy-nilly. There are reasons. Why were Picasso and Monet painters and not novelists?

Pink lotus on green backgroundBuddhism sets up qualities a life must have if the person is to find fulfillment. One quality is “Right Livelihood:” to be most fulfilled the person must be in the occupation that most suits them and is most beneficial to them. My wife and I have four children. Each is very different than the others but is perfect for their occupation. The analytical one who loves mathematics is the director of revenue for a city. The organized one manages a number of people. The one who wants to help people is a therapist. The most sociable one is a real estate agent helping people find the home they will be most happy in.

You’re a writer because you have components of a certain type—an unusual type—of many personal qualities, interests, motivations, values, attitudes, abilities, experiences, and other elements equipping you specifically for the writer’s life, which I needn’t tell you is anything but an ordinary, typical, or easy life.

Jigsaw puzzle piecesAll necessary components have to be present if you are to excel at the writer’s craft. If just one component is missing, you no longer have an ideal writer. If you are to succeed in an art there must be a fit between the talent you possess and the talent necessary to participate with distinction in the art.

The existence of serious writers is atypical. Most people do not live a serious writer’s life. They do not keep artist’s work hours.  They are not absorbed in words, paragraphs, style, and sentences. They are not concerned with publishers’ deadlines. They do not worry about the rhythms of sentences, their music. Their training is different.  Their friends are different, as are their ambitions and dreams. They are not so self absorbed as writers are. Writers’ lives are like other writers’ lives.

Ernest Hemingway—quite probably the most innovative stylist of all–had all the components. William Faulkner had them all.  Shakespeare had them all, and Marcel Proust, Eugene O’Neill, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad and James Joyce and centuries before them Sophocles and Euripides. No component was missing.  Stephen King, Joan Didion, and John Grisham have them. People who win Nobel Prizes have them. Do you have them?

Louise Nevelson said: “My theory is 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.”

Needed Writers’ Skills

Tree and grass near a pondWriters and other artists should be able to recall many thousands of detailed memories that form a basis of their writings–a gift to recall sensations and experiences from many years earlier and to reconstruct them in their original freshness and vividness.

A seventy-five year old writer may describe the expression on her mother’s face at her fourth birthday party. And if a photograph of that face that day were held up it would be identical to the skilled writer’s written description.

If you don’t have the writer’s components and wish to excel as a writer you’ll have to acquire them–if you can. For example, having a rich imagination, being comfortable working in solitude, and being inquisitive are qualities that writers should possess. (If writers cannot be productive working alone for long periods they will have problems.)

But not everyone who wishes to be a writer is able to easily acquire all the components. For example, to be considered a good writer, a writer must possess a range of identifiable technical capabilities such as the ability to create an effective dramatic scene.

silhouette of writer working at a typewriterGood writers can do that, but not all writers can, even some writers who work very hard trying to learn how to. Think of any writer’s skill–some people will master it easily, some only with great difficulty, and some will never master it. Whatever they do, some writers’ scenes are not effective.

They become known as novelists or short story writers who though perhaps superlative in other respects, write scenes that are flat. Some writers are masters of the sentence. Their sentences seem to pop out of the text and startle you with their beauty. Thomas Wolfe could not handle the plots of his novels but wrote wonderful episodes.

Or the writer’s descriptions of characters and landscapes are always poor because they have no facility for creating images, metaphors, and similes although a good writer should have an “eye” and know how to write vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to readers’ senses. Some writers must struggle to create a single image while others–painters in words–are able to pull five good ones out of the air at will. They are asked, “How are you able to do so easily what is so difficult for me?” It is a gift.

Hands of woman writing in a parkA writer should have an insatiable passion to write and the skill of persistence. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of fifty-eight novels for a reason. She has good writing practices, and finds no reason why one who professes to be a writer shouldn’t be writing all the time. She says, “When writing goes painfully, when it’s hideously difficult, and one feels real despair (ah, the despair, silly as it is, is real!)–then naturally one ought to continue with the work; it would be cowardly to retreat. But when writing goes smoothly–why then one certainly should keep on working, since it would be stupid to stop. Consequently one is always writing or should be writing.”

© 2021 David J. Rogers

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

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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A Style Is About All There Is to Art

Style is everywhere in art and everywhere in everyday life. There would be no art without style. Picasso’s Guernica has a style, and Pride and Prejudice does too, and the building you are in has a style. Whenever you speak or send a text or dress or brush your hair, you have a style. You’re reading a style right now. It is mine, and just as, whether you know it or not, you have spent probably Interior livingroom with stylethousands of hours developing yours (so that I’d recognize anywhere that it is yours), I have consciously spent many hours developing mine.

A core reason you are attracted to one painter over others or one writer over others, or why you like Sinatra, or Chopin or Debussy or The Simpsons is their style.  Speaking of style, short story specialist Irishman Frank O’ Connor said, “One sees that the way a thing is made controls and is inseparable from the whole meaning of it.” In the same vein but more emphatically American Nobel Prize writer Toni Morrison said, “Getting a style is about all there is to writing.”

The total effect of what a writer says will depend to a considerable extent on how the writer says it. Style is the manner of saying what is said.  Some styles are appealing, but many are unappealing. The writer should always want to write with an appealing style. It needn’t be beautiful, but it should be appealing.

Painting of field by Claude Monet

Claude Monet

The writer’s style expresses his or her temperament and his or hers alone, and reveals verbal abilities, methods of writing, enthusiasms, and even self-doubts. By analyzing a writing style you can analyze the writer. Painters leave their print everywhere in their paintings. Style is the whole artist that is made recognizable in the work. You can see from a work that a Cezanne temperament is not a Monet temperament.

There are good styles and bad styles. .  People do not generally like weird, eccentric styles. When artists discover the style that best expresses them (which may take years to happen) they experience a breakthrough and feel a new sense of power and confidence over their work.

A sign for writers that they are on the right track is the emergence in the work at hand of their characteristic style.  When they see their style taking shape in the work, they feel secure. I’ve always felt that when I get the first paragraph under control (in my style), the piece is basically written.

Simplicity

Artists who are interested in styles today are almost automatically interested in SIMPLICITY, claiming that works of art should not be unnecessarily complicated. Speaking of simplicity, writer Willa Cather said that the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification.

portrait of Anton Checkhov

Anton Checkhov

Anton Chekhov is considered the master of the short story–the greatest, the best to learn from. He wrote to his brother, also a writer, “A strange thing has happened to me: I have developed a mania for brevity–everything strikes me as too long.” He practiced “maximal conciseness.” His phrases are simple, such as, “The sun set,” “It got dark,” and “It started to rain.”  Novelist Somerset Maugham thought that writing simply was more difficult than it might seem. He said: To write simply is as difficult as to be good.”

Chekhov believed that not only should a short story’s style be simple, but the plot should be simple too. He said, “The more elaborate the plot of a given story is, the less effective it tends to be as a work of art.” In many of his stories precious little happens.   He said, “You should take something ordinary, something from everyday life without a plot or ending.” He said a story should have a man and a woman, and a little action. Some of his most admired stories are mood-pieces in which plot is barely present.

Frank Lloyd Wright building

Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designer of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was interested in simplicity not only in architecture, but in all arts. He believed that there could be but one best way for the artist to express anything, and that the way could include only what was absolutely necessary to express the essential meaning of the thing. That requires stringent simplification. By eliminating the inessentials, the artist arrives at the nature of the object—its pure form. But the artist must know when to stop simplifying. Wright said, “Less would ruin the work as surely as would ‘more.’”  So, simplify but don’t go too far.

Accessibility and Artworks

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Artists who are interested in style and interested in simplicity are also interested in ACCESSIBILITY of their works. In any of the arts, the artist has to decide–as do you–if it is important to appeal to an audience, to be understood by an audience. Should the work be accessible? How accessible? Leo Tolstoy, whose novels are sometime considered the greatest ever written, said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.” Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz thought what many people think: that so-called great works are too pompous, too stiff, and are not accessible. Ford Maddox Ford was all for accessibility and said, “You must have your eyes forever on your Reader. That alone constitutes Technique”

William Faulkner felt differently. He said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on mine or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.” (And he won a Nobel Prize.) But his work is accessible only with difficulty–long, convoluted sentences and rhetorical style. But Francois Mauriac disagreed with Faulkner and said, “An author who assures you that he writes for himself alone and that he does not care whether he is heard or not is a boaster and is deceiving himself or you.”  (And he won a Nobel Prize too.) Delacroix wanted accessibility. He said. “A picture is but the bridge between the soul of the artist and that of the spectator.”  How accessible will your work be?

The Author’s Intensity and the Production of Literature

The artist’s INTENSITY is reflected in style.  Some artists’ style is laid back, but others’ style is red hot. Raymond Chandler turned hard-boiled detective writing into critically-accepted literature and had a lot to say about the writer’s craft.  He wrote: “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be perfection over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over a ball.” Painter George Innes said, “The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge…but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impression of a personal vital force that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation.”

Advice Regarding Emotions, Plot, and Understatement

Van Gogh self portrait

Van Gogh

A style conveys EMOTIONS. Chekhov wrote, “The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must show in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need to lay it on thick.” Other Chekhov quotes: “Avoid describing the mental state of your protagonist.” “Avoid describing emotional states…one should make these apparent from action.“ “To get strong emotions from the reader, try to be somewhat colder.” Thinking the same thing as Russian Chekhov, Frenchman Gustave Flaubert said, “The less one (the writer) feels a thing, the more likely one is to express it as it really is.”

The two other greatest writers of short stories–Guy de Maupassant and Ernest Hemingway–also advocated emotional understatement. Hemingway wrote “Dispassionate prose,” prose always less emotional than the events seem to demand. Understatement elicits strong emotional responses from the reader.

Emotional states in writing are amplified by brevity.  American writer Flannery O’ Connor said that the fiction writer has to realize that compassion or emotions cannot be created with emotion. The style itself must be emotion-free.

Artists Can’t Help It: They Repeat Themselves

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a highly successful writer by the age of twenty-four. He said, “Mostly, we authors repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before”

Claude Monet painted the same subject over and over. As an Impressionist he was interested in conveying the effect of light on objects, and would often  set his clock to be at  the place where the subject was at intervals so he could catch the light at noon, say, and ten minutes later and ten minutes after that. He might paint seven or ten paintings of the very same thing in different light.

All Artists Need Taste

Picasso painting

Picasso

Obvious in a work of art is the artist’s aesthetic judgment, which  he/she develops over time and experience.  “At the higher levels of creativity it is probable that few besides the creators themselves are able to assess a new creation, and it is necessary that they should learn to adopt an objective critical attitude toward their own work…(the creators’ self-criticism) must be based on  sound insight and aesthetic appreciation–what one would call ‘taste” (R. Ochse).

Some Writers Are in the Wrong Art

“Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or person, as if he were painting what he is saying because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors” (Pablo Picasso). A good example is Joseph Conrad in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness.

Miscellaneous Insights About Writing

 “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent” (Pat Conroy).

Flannery O’Connor said, “A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should the action be less complete. Nothing essential to the main experience can be left out of a short story.”

“Since Stephen Crane’s time [late nineteenth century] all serious writers have concentrated on the effort of rendering individual scenes more vividly” (Caroline Gordon).

“A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them” (Anthony Trollope.)

“It has been through Flaubert that the novel has at last caught up with poetry” (Allen Tate).

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first” (William Faulkner).

“Only when the moral beliefs of the reader tally exactly with those on which a story is based will the reader have the whole of the emotion which it is potentially able to produce in him” (Montgomery Belgion).

A personal style that makes you comfortable and confident helps you accomplish whatever you wish to accomplish in your art. An artist’s style evolves over a lifetime of work. What it was when you were twenty-five is not the same as it is now when you are fifty. This post and the ideas and experiences here of many important artists may help you strengthen and perfect your own style.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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

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The Misery of Writer’s Block and Possible Antidotes

This post has three parts:

Part 1 is an introduction which explains that a sizeable number of amateur and professional writers say they are blocked, but other writers say there is no such thing as writer’s block.  Part 2 is a description of what happens to writers snagged by a dreadful writer’s block. Part 3 describes possible antidotes, or ways out of writer’s block that are suggested by accomplished writers.

A writer’s main concern is production of text. That production ebbs and flows. Some days for most writers the words pour out in torrents. You’re in overdrive and every word is perfect. Other days they wouldn’t come out were you to use blasting powder, but that is not writers block, but a temporary pause. When the pause is prolonged beyond the writer’s comfort zone or doesn’t end, that’s writers block.

Part 1: Introduction

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, said, “The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students give me four pages a day, every day. Cat resting next to a computer screenThat’s 3 or 400 thousand words a year.” Novelist Thomas Wolfe produced many millions of words and wrote, “The point is solely and simply to get a piece of work done at the rate of 1,000 or 1,500 words a day. If you do that—then brood, grieve, mourn, curse God, everyone and everything all you please. But get the work done.”

And  writer/writing teacher John Gardner said, “Theoretically there is no reason one should get it (writer’s block) if one understands that writing, after all, is only writing, neither something one ought to feel deeply guilty about nor something one ought to be inordinately proud of.” His approach to combating writers block would be: “Write but don’t get emotionally involved.”

But those optimistic words are disturbing if you’re someone who claims to be a writer and find yourself unable to write even a quarter of an hour or produce even 50 or 25 “good” words because you’re in the grip of an impasse, a writer’s block you dread thinking may continue for days, weeks, months, or years as has been known to happen to even perfectly competent writers.

It’s easy for never-blocked writers to brag to the blocked writers, as they often do, “There’s no such thing as what you’re talking about. I’ve never been blocked.” But blocks are reported by so many writers, artists, inventors, and scientists, that blocks must exist. And it’s easy for the never-blocked writer to say, “Quit griping and snap out of it” just as it’s easy to say to a depressed person, “Cheer up.”

But a depressed person doesn’t want to feel miserable and writers facing a creative impasse are trying their best to get back to work, but just can’t. What are they to do short of resigning themselves to being unable to work or ending their career?

Part 2: Writers Block Can Be Dreadful

There are writers on every continent on earth who, whatever their native language and rules of composition, will not be able to write creatively today and have not been able to write for months or crumpled papers on a desk and also making up the head of a person typingyears. They worry and doubt themselves. They are discouraged and anxious. The act of writing does not excite or enchant them as it usually does. They have suffered agonies and are growing hopeless because of the dreadful misery called writers block that has taken hold of their mind, imagination,  and spirit and will not let go.

To a person who considers himself or herself a writer and hopes to make a living out of the substance of their life, who has an urge to do good work, whose foremost virtue is persistence, whose very being and every ambition is to be a professional literary person for whom written expression is the light and reason of their existence, those few words–“I can’t write”– which may seem ludicrous and pretentious to anyone who is not a writer, are tragic.

When you’re engaged in creative work and have announced to the world that is what you’re doing and eyes are upon you and judging your merit, you’re up against it. You’re a pregnant woman and you’ve gotten yourself in a fix and now it’s time to deliver. No one can do what has to be done for you. There’s no going back and no possible compromise and no way out but straight through.

Your strength, courage, and endurance must come out of yourself. You try to work because work is a writer’s religion. Work gives a man or woman a chance to find their authentic voice, their authentic self, their place in society that is separate from anyone else’s and which no one looking at them can begin to imagine.

Your work room is full of the utensils a writer needs: a computer and references books and such. You’re trained to write, not in sporadic flashes of casual inspiration, but consistently, with exhausting concentration. But you can’t write a word. You fight, sweat, nearly kill yourself and perhaps do kill yourself trying to accomplish something, but you can’t. You aren’t to blame; it’s not your fault. There is simply nothing you can do, nothing great, nothing small, nothing at all. You’re knotted up. Your faith in yourself is battered and then disappears and is replaced by a dejected resignation.

You live in terror and dread of the absence of words, of needing them so desperately but no longer having access to them as you once had, of groping without effect for a good sentence, a decent paragraph, a finished text. You wait to get unknotted, but nothing happens.

Every aspect of your life suffers if this goes on long enough: your professional life, your personal life and social life and; then lastly, your love life.

Part 3: Some Possible Antidotes: What Professional Writers Have To Say

Professional writers have theories about the causes of blocks. The blocked writer may be too impatient: “I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely it just won’t come. Certain Hands typing at a keyboardsubjects just need time, as I’ve learned over and over again” (Joyce Carol Oates). This opinion says that there are “half hour” writing problems— problems that need a half hour to be solved—and “six month” writing problems that won’t be solved in less than half a year. These writers believe that you can’t solve the problem until it has reached its allotted time.

The never-ending repetition of regular writing (going over a text seventy or eighty times, for example) may cause a block because you’ve become saturated with the piece or with the routine of writing itself. Your mind is bored sick and tells you, “I am damned tired of this” and refuses to write.  I’ve had that happen many times.  Get away from the work and come back to it rejuvenated.

Poet and essayist William Stafford believed that “writing block” was caused by having standards that are too high for your abilities. The answer, he said, is to lower your standards until they are no longer too high. He adds, “It’s easy to write. You shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.” It’s well-known that it is senseless to pursue goals that you lack the abilities to reach. Lower your sights until you develop the abilities. Work on something else.

The writer may be blocked because he or she has nothing worth writing about: “I question the assumption behind writer’s block, which is that one should be writing all the time, that at any given time there is something worthwhile to be made into a poem” (Louise Gluck).The solution if this were the reason for the block would be to find something worth saying. Then the block would disappear.

Historian Barbara Tuchman thought that blocks are caused by organizational difficulties; that the material was “resistant” or that she didn’t adequately understand it, and it needed rethinking, additional research, and a new approach.

Annie Dillard, author of The Writing Life agrees with Tuchman: “When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things:

Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split in the middle—or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse and you do not know about it yet.” Try an entirely different plan.

I have found too after decades of serious writing that when I am about to make a mistake a subliminal alarm goes off and my mind and motivation to continue on that course shut down and will not let me continue until I go in another, more fruitful direction.

One of my blogs describes a technique for overcoming writers block that makes use of the person’s mental imagery that may be useful. A second post describes an atypical block.

Curiously, two opposite strategies each may be effective antidotes to writer’s block. Man on a pier jumping for joy One is to simply persist. Sit down at the computer every day and hack away without any self-judgment. Don’t worry or get anxious or depressed. Do this until your block cures itself. Another way is to completely cut off your involvement with writing. Don’t allow yourself to think about it. Forbid yourself from sitting down and writing at the computer or by hand. Don’t talk about writing. Do that for a specified period of time you set for yourself–ten days or two weeks. At the end of that period you may feel so deprived that you will develop a new enthusiasm and energy that may help you get on track again.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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Advice and Other Odds and Ends on the Literary Life

Writers have a great deal to say about the literary life which may be of interest to aspiring writers reading this post and to veteran writers too.

 

Make a Bundle of Money–At Least Try (Why Not?)

Many agents and publishers told a friend of mine that his manuscript was unpublishable. He had faith in himself and didn’t believe them. He persevered. It was published. It sold 25 million copies Stack of hundred dollar billsand he suddenly was rich. On the other hand, when Ernest Hemingway was young and poor in Paris and unable to support his family with his stories he would catch pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens when the gendarme on duty went into a café during his break, and then take them home and cook them. Some writers, like painters such as Pablo Picasso, love being rich. Picasso said he wanted to work without material worries “like a pauper,” “but with a lot of money.”

Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Novelist Anthony Trollope said that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort. But poet Kenneth Rexroth said, “I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” Jules Renard said: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Irvin S. Cobb wrote: “If writers were good businessmen they’d have too much sense to be writers.”  “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business” (John Steinbeck).

Blaise Pascal said that anything that is written just to please the author is worthless. William Faulkner (was usually out of money): He said “I began to think of books in terms of possible money. I took a little novel and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks”–the financially successful Sanctuary.

Interfering with an author’s desire to be solvent if not rich is the difficulty of getting books published: commenting on the difficulties of getting his play Auntie Mame on the stage, Patrick Dennis said, “It circulated for five years through the halls of fifteen publishes and finally ended with Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep into the alphabet.”

A consolation is that your book may be too good to be popular. It’s silly to think that most successful writer is necessarily the best writer: “A best-seller is the gilded tomb of mediocre talent” (Logan Smith.)

 

When At a Party of Artistic People, Talk Like a Genius

Two dogs looking like they are having a conversationWhat do geniuses talk about? Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso attended the same Parisian party in May, 1922. Proust complained about his indigestion and Joyce about his headache. Picasso admired the women and Stravinsky snubbed them all.

 

Make Sure You’re Writing Has “Zing”

An agent told a writer-client that his books weren’t selling because there wasn’t enough sex in them. The writer said, “Are you kidding,” and opened his book and showed him the scene on the first page: the countess races out into the street naked with the hero also naked and in a state of arousal chasing her.

“Yes, yes” said the agent, “but look how far down the page.”

 

Take Criticism of Your Work and Yourself with Grace

Charles Lamb’s first play was hissed off the stage by the audience. Lamb was in the audience and hissed too because he didn’t want to be recognized.

White swan on smooth blue waterOne of the problems superb writers face is that they–and no one else–are the best judge of their work and yet they must endure sometimes ignorant, amateurish editors and critics. 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?”

What is a critic’s function? Screenwriter Wilson Mizener said that a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant.

The French critic Saint-Beave was challenged to a duel by an angry author and given the choice of weapons. “I choose spelling.” he said, “You’re dead.”

Writers want to be treated courteously, understandingly, and considerately, and why shouldn’t they be? But a literary critic burned Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and sent him the ashes. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s work are often compared, but she didn’t like his writing at all. She said Ulysses was “The work of a queasy underclassman scratching his pimples.”

 

Be Truthful and Accurate

English novelist Arnold Bennett bragged that his description of one of his character’s death couldn’t be topped for its accuracy because he had taken infinite pains over it, basing it on his father’s death. Bennet said that all the time his father was dying “I was at the bedside making copious notes.”

 

Be Prepared for Mishaps and Misjudgments (No one’s perfect)

Ernest Hemingway lost and never recovered a trunk full original manuscripts of his short stories he forgot on a train. John Steinbeck’s dog chewed up half of the first daft of Of Mice and Men. Cat with eyes wide openSherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick with a hors d’ oeuvre at a cocktail party.  Katherine Mansfield married a singing teacher eleven years older than herself and abandoned him the morning after their wedding night. George Bernard Shaw said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.”

 

You Must Focus on Writing Above All Else (Are you a writer or aren’t you?)

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for her living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art” (Playwright George Bernard Shaw.) “Everything goes by the book, honor, pride, decency–to get the book written.  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” (William Faulkner). At ten in the morning a writer friend of Shelley left him standing by the mantle in his study as he read. When the friend returned at 6:00 p.m. Shelley was standing in the same place reading and hadn’t moved an inch the entire day.

 

You Might Have to Work at Odd Jobs Before Hitting It Big

Novelist /teacher John Gardner said almost all full-time jobs are hard on writing. Henry Miller dug graves for a living. Vachel Lindsay traded poems for bread. Erich Maris Remarque sold tombstones. Novelist William Burroughs was an exterminator. Poet Carl Sandburg was a janitor. William Faulkner was a bootlegger and postmaster of a university post office. Raymond Carver worked in a morgue. George Bernard Shaw said, “You must never suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living.”

 

Like Athletes, You Must Warm Up Before You Get Started

While writing The Red and the Black, Stendah,l in order to acquire the right tone, read two or three pages of the Civil Code every morning. Willa Cather had to read from the Bible before she was Athlete stretchingready to start writing. Ernest Hemingway had to first sharpen all the pencils he anticipated using that day. Edgar Alan Poe petted his cat before he started. Thomas Wolfe took long walks to get ready.

Like most writers Honore Balzac had to have coffee first. He overdid it, though, drinking fifty cups a day, and eventually dying from coffee poisoning. Samuel Johnson drank twenty-five cups of tea before starting his writing day.

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t get started unless the pen’s ink was very dark. Alexandre Dumas, pere needed rose-colored paper to start if he was writing nonfiction, but for fiction he had to have blue paper and yellow paper for poetry.

 

Writing Is Not Easy so You Might Need Something to Motivate You

The great innovator Gustave Flaubert said it was a delicious thing to write. I’ve never known or heard about or can conceive of or imagine a writer who didn’t feel that way. There’s just something about the act of writing that is motivation enough for most writers. But Victor Hugo needed some other motivation too. So at the beginning of his work day he gave all his clothes to his servant who was ordered to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of several hours.

 

You May or You May Not Need Solitude

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, went a year without talking to anyone. Truman Capote’s advice to young writers was to socialize and not “go up to a pine cabin all alone,” because “You reach that stage soon enough.” Voltaire preferred the company of his mistress. He wrote in bed using her back as a desk.

 

Make It a Point To Please Your Publisher and the Book Buyer

Victor Hugo wanted to know if his publisher liked Les Miserables whose manuscript he was submitting. He wrote on its cover “?” His publisher answered “!”. That is the most succonct literary correspondence in history. A publisher’s salesman said, “I often think how shocked authors would be if they listened to the book store clerk selling their books. They’ve worked a year on their book, two years, three years, maybe longer, and there it is. A word or two and a decision is made.”

Your book must match the taste of the person who will buy it. The author of the sensationalist best-seller Peyton Place said, “I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have lousy taste.”

Popular W. Somerset Maugham said that he had never met an author who admitted that people didn’t buy his book because it was dull.

 

If You Have a Grudge Against a Fellow Writer, Here’s What to Do

“If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Sender).

 

You May or May Not Have First Book Overwhelming Success, But Be Patient

Maurice Valency thought that failure is very difficult for a writer to bear, “but very few can manage the shock of early success.” P.G. Wodehouse said that success comes to a writer rather gradually, and that it is something of a shock to him or her to realize the heights to which they have risen.

Humorist Robert Benchley said, “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

 

Your Main Goal Is Production of Text, so If You Write Very Fast, You Can Produce Lots of Books

In his life Alexandre Dumas, pere wrote 1,500 volumes. British author John Creasey and French author George Simenon each wrote more than 500 books. Earle Stanley Gardner wrote 140 books. He dictated 10,000 words of text a day and once worked on seven books at the same time.

 

As You Can See, Writers Lead Fascinating Lives. But Don’t Believe Them

Playwright Lillian Hellman said writers are “fancy talkers about themselves.” She said that if she had to give advice to young writers she would say, “Don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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

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Raymond Carver: Teaching and Mentoring a Writer Whose Goal Was Greatness

More than any other writer, Raymond Carver (1938-1988) revitalized the American short story when in the last third of the twentieth century that genre had grown stale. Carver’s subject matter had never been a part of American literature before and his writing techniques were also unique. In the 1980s when he was most active he was referred to by a British literary critic as “the image of Raymond Carver From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositoryAmerican Chekhov.” Another critic considered Carver “one of the greatest modern short story writers.” Poet Hayden Carruth wrote, “Among the great American writers of the 20th century, no question, Carver is the most endearing. He carries our humanity into the 21st.”

From the age of sixteen until his death, Carver’s goal was to be a great writer, and if need be, to sacrifice everything else to reach that goal.  He married young and had two children before he was twenty. According to biographer Carol Sklenicka’ s Raymond Carver: a Life, Carver and his  first wife Mary shared that goal “not to sell out Ray’s writing, to not have him get involved in some other career that would make him forget what he really was here on earth to do.”

“Mary had had a big dream that her husband was going to be not just a good writer, but a great one, and she was willing to waitress and sell encyclopedias, and do all this while he was back home drinking, dickering with his short stories…Whether you say her motives were religious or altruistic, she was completely devoted to having Ray become a great writer. She worked tirelessly to that vision and gave the best she had to give.” It was Mary Ann’s role to earn the money Carver needed to start as a writer’s tenuous career and to support him and see that “he got things done.” We will never know if Carver would have reached the success he did without her support.

Few writers have had such an impact on a genre of writing in America as Carver had on the short story in that era. He was not a novelist. Although he is best remembered for his eight books of short stories including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, he also wrote essays, plays, reviews, a screen play, and seven book of poetry, including A New Path To The Waterfall. Ten films have been made from his stories. About his poetry, the Times Literary Supplement found it “infused with a largesse of spirit that adds a new dimension to the impression the man left by the cool perfection of his stories.”

You cannot talk about Carver without mentioning his many troubles. Throughout his adult life Carver struggled with alcoholism, marital problems, divorce, and bankruptcies.  Drinking calmed his anxieties and resentments and allowed him to have fun, but his need for booze became more powerful as it helped him to medicate his feelings.  His private life was difficult and the strains destroyed his first marriage. As many artists are able to he had the ability to find literary material in the suffering he lived through. A stylist, he was able to relate his life’s conflicts to readers in direct, carefully-crafted stories and poems.

 

The Approach and Impact of John Gardner

A major turning point in Carver’s life and writing career was discovering the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov; another was his being taught and mentored in 1958 in a John Gardner From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositorycollege class at Chico State University by John Gardner (1933-1982). In years to come Gardner, then twenty-six, would become an important and influential person in American literature. Carver said that a good writing teacher is something like a literary conscience, a friendly critical voice in your ear, and that after being taught by Gardner, all his writing career he sensed him looking over his shoulder when he wrote, showing approval or disapproval over words, phrases, and strategies.

Gardner would write philosophical fiction best sellers Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and esteemed books for writers The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. When Carver met him, Gardner was an advanced thinker who worked day and night to refine his aesthetics and to communicate his sophisticated, yet practical knowledge to students.  He believed that “Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved.”

In a relationship such as Gardner and Carver had “a master transfers the knowledge, expectations, and experiences of a science, art, skill, or philosophy to a protégé who may eventually establish a new frontier in the field, break existing records, and create new traditions” (Donna Rae Clausen). The process of matching a promising novice with an expert challenges the novice and provides encouragement in the development of his or her talent.

Gardner’s teaching, personality, and work routines affected Carver profoundly. Gardner believed that to be successful writers had to possess something on the order of what I call “inner skills of the artist:” certain psychological traits such as a sensitivity to language, accuracy of observation, the special intelligence of the story-teller, and a writer’s intuition.

He said, “Art depends heavily on feelings, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rules, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green. It is feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportion of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things” He believed he could help students develop those traits through his teaching.

Gardner would begin the school year by assembling his students on the lawn, ask them a few questions, and tell them he didn’t think that any of them had what it took to be a writer, that as far as he could see none of the students had the necessary fire. He said he would do what he could for them, that they were about to set out on a trip and they would do well to hold onto their hats.  Starting the class that way was meant to intimidate students who weren’t serious.

Cartoon of man watering can as head watering man with plant as headGardner thought that a novelist needed “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” He was energetic and charismatic and his students responded. One student said “he was born with a quicker ratio to the passage of time than the rest of us.” Carver said that Gardner’s teaching “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously…I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”  He considered Gardner the teacher who first inspired him and intimidated him, teaching him to be tough on himself.

Carver said, “I was simply electrified…(Gardner) was out of a different cloth from anyone I’d ever met…He was very helpful…and I was at that particular point in my life when nothing was lost on me. And changed the way I looked at things…my life was pretty boxed in, but I learned things from him and even if I couldn’t put these things into practice immediately, the things I learned were longstanding and abiding.”

Gardner taught Carver that the best writers discover what they want to say in the process of “seeing” what their writing is saying, that writing was more than self-expression, and that the best writing had always come from a serious attempt to write in a particular form. Gardner believed in traditional plots and drew plot diagrams.

Gardner believed that art could have a moral impact (in 1978 writing the book On Moral Fiction), and was a believer in the importance to the would-be writer of what could be learned by a serious study of the best writers literature had to offer. Carver said that Gardner “was here to tell us which authors to read (such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Henry James and Camus and Proust) as well as teach us to write.” He taught Carver to prefer plain words over pseudo-poetic words–(“ground”, not “earth.”)

Carver was sensitive to criticism, but Gardner always found something to praise to balance the criticism. He wrote “nice” or “good” in the margins from time to time. When Carver saw those comments his heart would lift. The single principle that Gardner applied to all the stories was “If the words and sentiments were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn’t care about or couldn’t believe in. then nobody could ever care anything about it.” Gardner believed that writers should be aware of the battle that goes on in the writer between “those age-old enemies, the real and the fake.”

Possibly the lesson Carver learned from Gardner was that a serious and passionate writer might also be an unpublished writer. Carver was desperate to publish but the stacks of manuscripts in Gardner’s office gave Carver reason to hope and have patience in the years to come,

Gardner recognized that Carver had an exceptional talent, but was “desperately poor” and needed a place to work. He invited Carver to use his college office and typewriter on weekends.  Carver and Gardner did not become personal friends. There was a five year difference in age and other differences between them. Gardner with a Master’s degree and Ph.D was far better educated.

Gardner, who was to die at forty-nine, was supportive of Carver’s writing, and applied pressure on him to excel.  He deleted some of Carver’s words, phrases and sentences, and made it clear to him that the changes were not negotiable. Carver said, “We’d discuss commas in my stories as if nothing else mattered at that moment.” Carver became more and more committed to writing excellence. He said “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but it interfered with his writing.” Through his perseverance he was eventually published prolifically.

Carver was to teach writing at universities when he became established and more widely known and his stores were being regularly published.  Like Gardner Carver believed that to be successful writers must come to the role with certain traits. He said, “No teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place. “

Jay McInerney, one of Carver’s students, said of Carver, “He mumbled. I think now it was a function of a deep humility and a respect for the language bordering on awe, a reflection of his sense that words should be handled very, very gingerly.” Carver taught that literature could be fashioned out of “real life, whatever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup.”

Carver didn’t believe that the work of a student should be negatively criticized. He was not there to discourage anyone. His harshest criticism was “it is good you got that story behind you.” Another of Carver’s students said, “He taught me passion and anger and focus.” Just as Carver received invaluable help and feedback from john Gardner, Carver, in turn, provided that type of assistance to his students.

In the spring of 1982 a student happened to stop by Carver’s house a few minutes after Carver had heard that Gardner had died in a motorcycle crash. Carver was distraught and couldn’t sit still and he talked about Gardner. He said that before he met Gardner he didn’t even know what a writer looked like, but “John looked like a writer.”

Every writer will benefit from feedback and active help. A writer of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly from someone whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that?  If not, I must. Am I receptive to constructive criticism?  If my mind is closed I won’t benefit.”

No one on earth has achieved anything significant without help.

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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

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15 Strategies for Breaking the Bad Habit of Avoiding Work or Quitting Too Soon

Creative people begin projects with the goal of finishing them. No writer or artist has ever thought, “My goal is to quit this project when I’m halfway through.”  If you find you’re consistently not Jigsaw puzzle piecesfinishing, you’ve developed a bad habit and you’d better do something about it.

Creative work may be joyous. Yet it is sometimes tedious and unenjoyable.  It’s natural to prefer what’s easier. The easiest choice is not to work at all today.  But that usually results in feeling guilty and irresponsible. The works you may be devoting a good part of your life to never gets done.

Productivity is the creative’s main purpose—bringing all the training and talents into the act of producing finished works of the highest quality the artist is capable of at this time.

High-achieving creatives exert more energy from the start of a project and work steadily without long interruptions for a much longer period than the majority of creatives, often producing staggering amounts of their best work.

How do you break a habit like avoiding writing or painting or quitting before you should? There is only one way, as pointed out by the foremost American psychologist Willian James, and that is to Woman working at an easelstart another contrary, more fruitful habit. To break the habit of consistently not writing, you develop the habit of writing regularly. To combat the habit of quitting too soon, you make yourself not quit.

No one is saying it will be easy and that you will not encounter resistance. But you are not helpless. You’re an adult, and what is needed is a mature, adult, rational approach to production. Production is a necessity not only to increase artists’ volume of work, but to enhance their talent. The more work artists generate the better their skills become.

Here are 15 strategies to help you break the habit of avoiding work or quitting too soon:

  1. Keep your production goal in mind. If your goal is to work for an hour or to produce X number of words before you quit for the day, make yourself accountable. Don’t be satisfied with less. As you become accustomed to reaching your performance goals, your motivation will climb. It’s exciting to set a goal of writing 200 words a day and to write 250. And more exciting to write 275 or 300.
  2. Take regular breaks. Relax. Get up and stretch. Walk around. Artistic performance improves after rest periods. Even if you’re tempted to work straight through without a break, take one anyway. Even if you’re working for a long, sustained stretch of time (say four or more hours) work in short, intense, concentrated half-hour spurts, with short rest periods between spurts. That is the most efficient, healthiest, and most productive way to work.
  3. Set reasonable goals–moderately difficult–not too high or too low. And no goal you set should be beyond your current capabilities to achieve it.
  4. Get in the habit of saying, “Work is my friend. Idleness, lethargy, and avoiding work are not my friends. Work is my friend.”
  5. Ignore your past reactions. In the past you may have let yourself off the hook if you weren’t in the exact mood to stay with your work session’s goal. And maybe you were in the habit of not setting work goals at all. Don’t be a slave driver, but don’t let yourself off the hook so easily.

computer keyboardYou’re not a child or hedonist, a worshipper of permissiveness and pleasure who doesn’t have any will power. There are many writers who write not the traditional four or fewer hours daily, but put in eight hours a day, much longer than the majority, considering themselves no different than their parents who worked eight hours a day and the majority of the work force who work eight hours daily.

  1. Seize the first opportunity to break the old habit of avoiding/quitting and start the new. When you feel that first urge to lose your focus, that first, “I’ll put this off till tomorrow,” DON’T DO IT. Continue working. Be strong.
  2. Set aside time to be alone. For high quality uninterrupted work to happen, most creatives need isolation and solitude.

Texting, emails, and phone calls are subversive and can destroy creatives’ best work intentions. Whether you let yourself be delayed by interruptions or not is a reflection of your motivation and drive. Interruptions are one of the biggest enemies of creative thinking. Creatives with strong drive are able to persist steadily without interruption whereas poorly motivated creatives will interrupt their work more often and avoid working on it for long periods.

distorted clock facesIt takes longer to completely absorb yourself in an ambitious project than in an easier, less complicated one. And during that period, distractions seem to come up out of the ground. Any intrusion on the delicate world of a creative mind can make that world disappear. Every intrusion not only robs you of time, but also of the time it takes you to recover. If you set a goal of working a three-hour session and have three interruptions you may be busy for three hours but only do fifteen minutes of actual work. If you try to do four things simultaneously, you’ll probably only finish one, at most two.

One study showed that following an interruption for an email or phone call, people were so distracted that 40% of the time they didn’t get back to work, but moved on to something else. If you quit 40% of the time, how long will it take you to finish your novel?

  1. Commit yourself totally. Artists will exert themselves and overcome impediments when they are on fire with the incomparable excitement of creating. 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 you’ve developed of working through impediments such as tiredness. Either you’re committed to writing or painting regularly or you’re not.
  2. woman sitting at the edge of waterDon’t let a lousy mood prevent you from working. When I’ve written about the effects of moods on your writing, I’ve shown that no matter how you feel before you start writing, once you get started your mood almost always improves and you feel good. You may begin with depression or sadness and end feeling elated.
  3. Start with success. Failure the first time you attempt to break an old habit of avoiding work or quitting too soon makes your commitment weaker. But success on the first attempt makes it more likely that you’ll try again. Be sure that the first day and first week you’re starting the new habits of working and not quitting you stay with it. If your goal is to work forty-five minutes do not work fewer than forty-five.
  4. Be consistent. Bad habits are incorrigible and don’t disappear without a fight. They have strength. They may have been a part of you for years. If you don’t win the battle with avoiding work or quitting too soon, your ability to replace the bad habit will soon disappear. You must not flinch from making the consistent effort.  But when you make no exceptions, the new habit settles into your personality and you become a highly efficient creative person.
  5. Motivate yourself to finish a project by having something better and very appealing to go on to after you finish this project. Don’t let yourself do B unless you finish A.
  6. Use positive affirmations and helpful self-talk: “I’m doing well. It’s taking shape. It’s becoming easier for me to begin difficult projects and to stick with them.”
  7. Make the act of not only starting work (which is easy) but finishing it (which is harder), become second nature. Pick the unfinished project or activity you find the most important to finish. Then when you finish that one project, pick the next one and finish it, paying no attention to anything else.
  8. Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit. The majority of writers and artists eventually quit completely, but the artists you remember and talk about did not quit.

Over the course of your life you’ve learned to manage yourself and to do what is in your best self-interests. And if you are an artist, what is in your best self-interest is to choose work over idleness, Sculptor at work in studiowork that leads to the fulfillment of your gifts over the avoidance of work.

You can be strong. Our commitments falter when we are weak and self-indulgent. You are aiming to create art. If you’re working, you’re doing the right thing.  Most artists love to work.

© 2020 David J. Rogers

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

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Pursuit of Perfection in the Arts

Masks representing theater (blue and redActor Lord Laurence Olivier aimed at perfect performances, as did Peter O’Toole, Olivier’s successor as the world’s greatest actor–the perfect performances in the perfect tragedies as the perfect characters–as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, or Iago. One night Olivier felt that he had achieved perfection in a performance. Others in the cast also told him he had.  He said, “What I’m thinking is I’ve done it, but will I be able to do it again?” Perfection is difficult and rare. It is hard to repeat. It is a concept that grows in importance to artists as their skills and accomplishments ascend to high levels.

In her essay “Dancers and the Dance” Susan Sontag states that dance differs from the other performing arts. The standards which dancers measure their performance against is not that of the highest excellence as it Is with actors, singers, and musicians. Sontag believes that the dancer’s standard is perfection. She says, “Every serious dancer is driven by notions of perfection–perfect expression, perfect technique.”

Sontag says that dance demands more of the dancer than any other art or any sport demands.  She writes, “While the daily life of every dancer is a full-time struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (Which are inevitable) dance itself is an enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammeled, effortless, at every moment fully mastered.” When performing, dancers must hide their pain behind a performing smile. Injuries must be hidden. The dancer’s performance smile is “a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing.” Behind the grace of the dancers is much discomfort and pain they endure while training themselves for such performances and while performing.

A male and a female ballet dancersIt is true that serious dancers currently and throughout history have aimed at perfection, but other artists–usually the best in the art, those that are aware that they have a significant talent–also aim for perfection in their work, I believe. Those who do aim for perfection in their novels, musical composition, and paintings and other art works let it be known through their obsessions with their work that they are extremely serious about their art, and are willing to face its challenges with drive and commitment.

The urge for perfection begins, I think, with a niggling, Then the artists become increasingly aware after a number of works have been produced and (usually  but not always) thousands of hours have been put in,  that perfection is within their reach and not merely a remote fantasy–that THEY–Faulkner, Picasso, Stravinsky, Cassatt, Proust, Cezanne, and Virginia Woolf–have  what it takes.

To be an artist seeking perfection you have to possess art-relevant traits that will equip you for a creative life. If your ambition is perfection, and you are not self-critical and self-demanding, you will have problems. The artist aiming to produce perfect works has to be self-critical, always looking for faults in the works and in themselves that will have to be corrected. When Sontag had praised a dancer for a superb performance she heard “a disconsolate litany of mistakes that were made–a beat missed, a foot not pointed in the right way.” Sontag adds: “In no other art can one find a comparable gap between what the world thinks of a star and what the star thinks about himself or herself, between the adulation that pours in from the outside and the relentless dissatisfaction that goads one from within….Part of being a dancer is this cruelly self-punishing objectivity about one’s shortcomings, as viewed from the perspective of an ideal observer, one more exacting than any real spectator could ever be.”

Intense concentration is necessary too if you hope to produce a perfect artistic performance; this is true of every art. All you need do is look at the intensity of the eyes of an artist painting, or a writer at the keyboard to realize that. Everything in the artist’s mind that is not needed for the artistic performance is ignored, and only what the performance requires is brought into attention.  Anyone who produces great works that are the result of the mind in action such as archers, mathematicians, and artists of unrivaled talent like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov project a state of extreme (yet also relaxed) focus. Sontag says that state is not just something that is necessary for a great performance, but, “It is the performance, the very center of it.”

Painting of Frank SinatraWhen they are watching the performance of a play what the audience hopes to see more than anything else is a virtuoso performance they will not be able to forget however long they live and how many plays they see. The virtuoso performance is the single most exciting and popular feature not only of drama but of any art, and the most thrilling feature of a virtuoso performance is not the possibility that the artist may fail. Rather, it is the spectacle of succeeding in an extraordinary way–a performance that is perfect because it has no errors. All the time I am listening to music as I do all day long or reading a narrative I think is great such as James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” and Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” I am thinking, “Keep it up James and Frank. Don’t fail. Continue being great until the story or the song is finished and perfect from the beginning to the end”

Playwright Eugene O’Neill, America’s greatest and most innovative dramatist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.  Long Day’s Journey into Night was his masterpiece. One of his experiments was revealing the characters’ interior  monologue. Another was making the speech of poor, uneducated characters a part of the drama. Another Nobel Prize winner–Saul Bellow–who said that writing was more important than his wife and children–aimed to write perfectly. A third Nobel Prize winner–Ernest Hemingway–made no secret that his aim was to produce perfect works and be the greatest writer in the world. Many critics believe he accomplished that goal. Writer Joan Didion thought his every sentence was written with such craftsmanship that it was perfect.  Many critics, teachers, and writers consider the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, the founding father of modern theatre, and the leading prose writer of his era, perfect. It is hard to tell what a Chekhov story or play “means” because he does not judge or clarify meanings; meanings are left to the reader or audience.

Perfection in the arts is always attributable to the personality of the artists that filters through their talent. The artist aiming to produce perfect works must keep the audience clearly in mind. Critic Gilbert Murray said that writers who have the powers of revelation are the ones who have experienced–seen or felt–more than the average run of intelligent beings. Behind every work, whether poor or great, are the tastes and the disposition of the person who created it, as well as a sensitivity to the audience. In the theatre the actor’s aim is through the performance to jolt the members of the audience–to please in a powerful way, to be accepted as though a friend, to lodge securely and permanently in their memory, displacing less important things.

The days and nights of everyday living of the artist seeking perfection must be filled to the brim with their art. More than likely, the artist has grown up with it, seen it mature, and watched it take over a good part of his or her being. Short story master Raymond Carver reflecting on his career put it this way: “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but interfered with writing.”

 

© 2019 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artistic Perfection, Artists, Composers, concentration, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Drive, Laurence Olivier, Susan Sontag, Writers