Tag Archives: Creativity

Writers and Shyness:  Anton Chekhov, Master of the Short Story

I think it’s well established that wherever they been born and bred, many writers–young, middle-age, or old–are shy. Certainly I personally have met and read about scores who are. Shy writers may be far more prevalent than we realize. Shy writers and shy artists, actors, dancers, soloists, and composers are well documented and may in fact be the rule rather than the exception in the world of artistically creative people.

path with overhanging trees in winterAs is true of all complex psychological characteristics, it is not easy to assess why a man, woman, or child is shy–what causes it– possibly particularly for the person who is shy and tries to understand why. Causes are part genetic and part environmental–that’s known; but that insight doesn’t tell us much about writers and shyness. Does serious writing (painting, acting, composing etc.)–possibly in an occupation–attract shy people because it requires so much introspection, savage self-criticism, and living much of the time in your head just as shy people do?  Can shyness be outgrown? I think so. I’ve seen that happen.

Shy writers may puzzle us and make us think, “Why in the world should she (he) be shy?” when they possess all the qualities that should result in a more socially self-assured and confident person, (and confidence is so crucial to a creative.) They have qualities some people would flaunt, such as prodigious and unique giftedness, highly developed Reflection of scene in waterskill, physical attractiveness, stunning achievements, exceptional intelligence, and disarming charm. Yet many shy writers, from the most famous to the least famous, despite having everything a person could want, are chronically ill at ease in any spotlight, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t. They try their best to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and are dismayed or depressed when they can’t.

Of all the world’s short story writers, Russian Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), is generally acknowledged to be the best. By the age of twenty-six he was a national celebrity; fingers were pointed at him wherever he went.   He never failed at anything, for example transitioning without any apparent effort from great fiction to great drama. He was cultured, well educated, and intellectually brilliant, the most popular Russian writer of his generation, and unlike most of us other humans, never suffered great sorrow. Yet he was shy.

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

His shyness might explain his hatred of personal appearances, promotions, exposure, and publicity. He refused to do readings: “I don’t recite…If I do it for three or five minutes my mouth dries up, my voice grows hoarse, and I can’t stop coughing;” “I recite abominably  The main thing is I’m terrified. There’s a complaint called ‘fear of open spaces;’ well, I suffer from fear of the public and publicity.”

He was an innovator whose ideas on the art of short fiction–extraordinary economy of language, objectivity and complete absence of moralizing, lyricism, blurring of the boundary between protagonist and author, understatement, extremely brief openings (two or three lines at most) or none at all, surprising detail in physical description, repetition of key words, inconclusive endings–have become standard practice, changing the way that genre is created.

As an adult he had all the requirements of happiness. But it is possible that an absence of affection in his childhood permanently stunted his personality. He wrote: “So little affection came my way as a child that I treat caresses as something unfamiliar, and almost beyond my ken, now that I’m grown up. That’s why I can’t show fondness for others, much as I’d like to.” Extreme holding back of emotions, introversion, social discomfort, and self-effacement distinguished the mature Chekhov.

He said, “Father began teaching, or to put it bluntly, beating me before I was five. He birched me, boxed my ears, clouted my head, and when I woke up each morning I’d wonder if I’d be beaten that day. My brother and I were forbidden to play and lark about.” He described himself as “a serf’s son, a one-time shop boy (his father was a struggling, eventually bankrupt grocer), public school student, brought up to worship rank, to kiss priest’s hands, to defer  to other people, who said thank you for every bite of food, who was often beaten, who had no galoshes to wear.”

Chekhov began what was to become, unexpectedly, a literary career as a struggling medical school student who submitted short comic pieces to humor publications.  Later, as a serious writer, he was to say that his early comic works Owl “exhibited no characteristic beyond silliness.” Soon he was writing a popular and widely discussed column of comic tales. But, he said, he was “bored stiff and longed to give it up,” much as he needed the fifteen rubles a month which it earned him. His creative imagination was so fertile that he bragged that he could select any subject at random, “an ash tray or even a wall” and make a story of it. He said all he thought about other than stories was “Money. Money. Money.” He vowed he would not die a journalist, an occupation of “scoundrels.”

He maintained a medical practice, and his identity as an author  cannot be understood in isolation from that of Chekhov the physician. He wrote, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress.” He never asked for payment from struggling people in the arts. His medical practice supplied him with material, bringing him into close contact with people from all levels of society, and did so at times of crisis when they were too much under pressure to wear their usual masks. For a writer who specialized in detaching characters from their illusions about themselves that was invaluable.  But he neglected his own health though he was aware that he was tubercular, and that that more than likely would be the cause of his death, as it was to be.

In 1886 veteran novelist Dmitry Grigorovich hailed Chekhov as a writer of genius with a remarkable literary career in store for him if he did not waste his talent writing trifles. Grigorovich wrote to Chekhov: “Judging by the different Massandra Wineryqualities of your undoubted talent, your true feeling of inner analysis, your masterly descriptive passages, the way in which you give a complete picture of a cloud at sunset in a few words, etc., you are destined, I am quite sure, to become the author of many excellent and truly artistic works.” It was Grigorovich’s letter that finally decided Chekhov to be more serious about his work, and to devote all his time to literature.

He turned away from writing comedies to more serious, literary writing, and then his stories became almost without exception perfect works of art. Publications asked him to name his own price. Chekhov responded with modesty, reserve, and anxiety. According to biographer Ronald Hingley, “There was no true satisfaction for him in all this fuss. He was meeting too many people; he felt over-praised,” in the way American novelist Walker Percy would feel seventy years later when he wrote, “Reading reviews of your own book is…a no-win game. If the review is flattering one tends to feel vain and uneasy.” At the age of twenty-nine, when he wrote the memorable “A Dreary Story,” Chekhov had firmly established himself as the finest active Russian fiction-writer of his generation.

When abruptly Chekhov’s stories began becoming widely popular and catapulted him from obscurity to celebrity something happened to him that he hadn’t expected. He became self-conscious and unsure of himself.  He said: St. Petersburg path“Formerly when I didn’t know that they read my tales and passed judgment on them, I wrote serenely, just the way I eat pancakes. Now I am afraid when I write.”  Janet Malcolm: “His letters of that period have a feverish, manic quality…He is alternately boastful and fearful. Chekhov’s letters now also begin to express his ambivalence toward writing that was to remain with him. They suggest that the literary artist…is doing something unnatural…Chekhov would often talk of idleness as the only form of happiness.” A similar tension between writing as legitimate work for a person to do appears in the biographies of many working class and middle class writers.  Chekhov resolved his dilemma by slowing down and going at his work with more seriousness.

Praise of his work only irritated him because he doubted the critical abilities of those who praised him: “I yearn to hide somewhere for five years or so and tackle serious, meticulous work. I need to study, to learn everything from the very beginning because I am a complete ignoramous as a writer. I need to write…sixteen pages in five months, not eighty pages in one month.” Very self-critical,, he wrote, “For two years I’ve disliked seeing my work in print. I couldn’t care less about reviews, literary chat, gossip, success, failure, high fees.”

He ascribed to himself laziness, apathy, and idleness: “My flame burns low and steady without flaring and crackling. That’s why I never dash off fifty or sixty pages in a night, or get so absorbed in work as not to go to bed when I am tired. And that’s why I never do anything outstandingly stupid or remarkably brilliant. I think that if I lived another fifty years and spent all the time reading, reading, reading, and learning to write well…which means economically, then I’d bombard you all from a vast canon which would shake the heavens. But as it is, I am a pygmy like everyone else,” “Everything I’ve so far written is nothing compared with what I’d like to write.”

His personality’s reserve was so profound that he found it extremely difficult to establish intimate friendships with anyone, man or woman. Everyone closest to him was always aware of a certain distance that couldn’t be broached. Famous, renowned, envied, he had not a single friend. An acquaintance said, “He never opened his soul to anyone.” Chekhov was capable of touching deep emotions in his writing but was not able to make intimate contact with anyone in his real life.

But with his difficulties his achievements in the craft of short fiction are yet unsurpassed.

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Anton Chekhov, Becoming an Artist, Confidence, Creativity, Emotions of Creators, Shyness, Writers

Many Paths to a Meaningful Life

“Nobody has a right to be unhappy, or to live in a way that makes them unhappy” (James Agee).

Painting of Sunrise

Glowing by Nadia Parsons

There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life readily available to us. Paths are as innumerable as stars, and everyone has more than one.  If you think your paths are best, well then they’re best–for you, though even the person dearest to you might give you an argument. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. If you believe yours are best, no argument will convince you they aren’t. And if you believe someone else’s aren’t, no argument will convince you they are.

Some find that living what I call a “smart” life–a life rife with meaning and vitality and purpose involves acquiring wealth and luxury. Others–like me–have little interest in that at all. They can’t understand what the overly aggressive pursuit of wealth is all about and what makes pursuers of it tick. If you are a writer, artist, or actor, and I asked you about your attitude toward money I suspect you would be something like me.

Some people live to acquire power, and they run for political office or head a corporation.  Others, like many artists, like to stay out of the limelight and are not interested in acquiring power, they prefer quiet, modest lives. Some other people like to win and are so competitive that they’ll bet you that their pat of butter will melt faster than yours or their elevator will beat yours to the top. But others find no meaning in competitiveness and couldn’t care less about butter pats or elevators.

Painting of grey clouds over pink sky

Coating of Smog by Nadia Parsons

However they differ, all paths to meaning and living a smart life have this in common: for the people traveling them they have heart. Following paths that have heart brings you happiness. You don’t find meaning as if it’s lying around like a quarter on the sidewalk by a parking meter. You have to decide on the paths you’ll follow and hold them prominently in mind and commit yourself to them. That’s mature living.

These are ever-changing times. Everything is going faster. But here are paths that are leading people like you and me to meaningful creative lives.

Beauty

You and I have had moments of experiencing something so incredibly beautiful it was indescribable. It was then that we were reminded of what we had forgotten in the whirl of our everyday lives: we are insignificant and half the time we don’t know what we’re doing, but there’s pure joy in just being alive. The flow of life in our veins, in the world, before our eyes–the dazzling sun settled in the sky like a yellow coin, flopping in the whitest snow when we were children, sky-writing on a summer day in a clear sky, clouds, friends waving as they come down the street, a poem, a painting, the smell of a barbeque, a yelping dog chasing a squirrel in the yard– precious life at its simplest. What is more to be treasured than the energy I feel in my muscles right now, this moment, and the ability to think any idea I wish this moment, and excited now, to follow it wherever it leads?

Devotion to a Purpose.

A life without purpose is a meaningless existence. For many people life is tedious and unrewarding. But when, perhaps suddenly, they discover the purposes that ignite their imagination, their lives acquire a vital meaning. They focus on their most important purpose and their lives change instantly.

Adventure, Thrills, Excitement, and New Experiences.

Paintng of sky with blue and orange sections

Divisions by Nadia Parsons

This is the path of men and women of action: explorers, mountain climbers, high wire trapeze artists, etc. Race car drivers are the happiest they will ever be when they’re banking into a curve at 180 miles an hour.

Fun and Laughter.

Play comes naturally to animals, including humans. Every mother knows that even babies have a sense of humor. Smiles are universal. In every culture on earth a smile means the same thing. Laughter is therapeutic. There are more than five thousand laughter yoga centers worldwide.

Leading a Moral Life

“How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world” (Virginia Woolf.) Our goodness tells us what we ought to do. During the Great Depression my mother found a hundred dollars on the floor of a bus. That was a lot of money in those days; money was scarce in our family. Instead of spending it she placed a notice in the newspaper, despite the fact that she and my father were broke, unemployed, and had a family to support. Here was a good woman and good man. No one claimed the money so it now belonged to my folks.

Achievement.

People often think of hard work and long hours as unpleasant and damaging to one’s health. They consider it something to be avoided, whatever the achievements it might lead to. It’s often thought that people who are like that are “work addicted.” Well, that’s true, they very well might be addicted, but hard work in pursuit of your purposes, overcoming obstacles to them,  is a positive addiction. People who train hard every day to run a marathon–for that achievement–are addicted, and it’s positive. We applaud them. Psychologist George Valliant studied the lives of leading achievers among graduates of the Harvard Business School. He found that they had unusually excellent health, and good marriages and happy lives, in spite of seventy hour work weeks.

Living Up to Your Duties and Responsibilities.

A duty is an obligation. It’s what we owe. Even the word “duty” sounds like a burden to some people.  But if we love what we owe the duty to, it is no burden at all, and we welcome it.

“Responsibility” is derived from the Latin “re-spurdere,” which means, “to answer the challenge.” We bear responsibilities to ourselves, our husband or wife, our children, our parents, our lovers, our friends, the earth, and all humankind. When we live up to them, we answer the challenge to a responsible life.

Painting of sky in white and grey

Climate Shift 2 by Nadia Parsons

Some people will shirk responsibility and refuse to answer the challenge whenever they can. You see that in personal life and at work. In any group or organization, given a task to perform, if one member of the group doesn’t do his job, the best workers will generally assume the responsibility he is avoiding rather than not accomplishing the task. To complete the task is their duty. Many people living smartly and meaningfully relish taking personal responsibility rather than being the pawns of circumstances. They owe that duty to themselves and to those who depend on them.

Some duties you bear as lightly as a feather and live up to gladly. But duties are not always pleasant. You would rather stay home on a rainy night when you are bone tired rather than driving twelve miles to visit your friend in the hospital. But you do what your duty requires you to do, without regard to how pleasant or unpleasant it is, and you’re proud of yourself and happy you answered the challenge. To lead a life of duties fulfilled is worthy of you.

Financial Security.

The need for security is a powerful human need, and people will do almost anything to satisfy it. It’s said, “Money can’t buy happiness.” But after having none of it for a long time and suffering, when you have it, it certainly does bring happiness. Some people have the need to acquire security, and when they do they’re at their best and leading a smart and happy life.

The Good Life

A life of ease, luxuries, good food, good drink, and good times brings meaning to the lives of many people. It has down through the long corridors of history. In the ancient Roman city of Timgat an inscription was found in the pavement which reads, “To hunt, to bathe, to gamble, to laugh, that is to live.”

Good Health

The young believe they are generally immune to illness, just as they are not quite convinced that they’re mortal and will not live forever. Older people know they are mortal and everything about the body goes through periods of disrepair. That’s why you hear them say, “The most important thing is your health.” For some people, attaining and preserving good health through such things as diet, exercise, and fitness is prominent in their life path.

Leisure

Some people value vacations, long weekends, or puttering around in nature. A famous little Zen poem reads: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing/ Spring comes/ And the grass grows by itself.” Wonderful nineteenth century American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Time is but the stream I go fishing in.”

A Spiritual Life.

Painting of heavy, dark clouds

Clarity by Nadia Parsons

It’s been said that the essence of modern life is that nothing is sacred. But for many people who are leading a smart, meaningful life that’s not true at all. Some people find happiness in material objects, but others find it by turning away from outward things. They seek happiness inwardly, in the spirit. Many find meaning in the belief that they belong to something cosmic, something beyond human existence. They believe that we all come from God trailing clouds of glory and are the beneficiaries of divine grace, and that one’s soul can be elevated toward God. Walt Whitman wrote: “I see something of God each hour of the/ Twenty four and each moment then/ In the faces of men and women/ In my own face in the glass.”

Unhappiness.

Some people are happiest and seem most alive when they’re miserable. You might be able to name people like that. But in some ridiculous way, they may have found something that suits them. Their unhappiness may be deceptive. Listen to your friend bitterly complain about a terrible job, nagging wife, troublesome children, interfering in-laws, the price of gas, a bad movie, problems with the boss, too-tight shoes, a medical report, crooked politicians, traffic, etc. In the middle of their complaints interrupt him and ask, “Are you happy?” They will stop talking, smile, and say, “Yah, I’m pretty happy.”

The Respect of Other People

We have a need for family, for friends, for company, to fit in and be a part of society, to belong. But at the same time we also have the contrary need–to be unique, to be different, to be noticed and singled out and respected for who we are alone, individually, for ourselves.

Self-respect, Self-esteem.

Life isn’t a courtroom. People needn’t prove their worth to anyone else. But they do need to find themselves acceptable, approve of themselves, be a person they can believe in, feel proud of being someone they can confidently reveal to the world and not hide. They can boldly declare, “This with my flaws, weaknesses, and strengths is who I am.”  Those who pursue a path of self-respect, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, never lose sight of that goal. They strive never to do anything that is in any way unhealthy for them. Then they are in good company with themselves.

Loving and Being Loved

“Love is patient and kind…. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (First Corinthians 13) “Love seeks only one thing. The good of the one loved” (Thomas Merton). We are intended to be loved and to love, and not to be lonely and unloved. We are not isolated islands in a sea of humanity. If we love, we will be loved. D.H. Lawrence wrote: “Those who go searching for love/ Only make manifest their own lovelessness/ Only the loving find love/ And they never have to search for it.” To have a day as I have and you have when everything turns against you, to arrive home, to be greeted by someone you love and who loves you, to see a smile, to hear laugher somewhere in the house, to be kissed: that is life at its fullest.

Sacrifice and Service.

Painting of sunset

Transitioning to Night by Nadia Parsons

Leading a life without concern for others becomes increasingly unsatisfying. We are capable of pettiness, jealousy, and selfishness, but we are also capable of unselfishness, compassion, helpfulness, kindness, and sympathy. “Man achieves fullness of being in…care for others. He expands his existence by bearing his fellow man’s burden….The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve” (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Some people find great happiness devoting themselves to the wellbeing of others, and ask nothing in return. There are countless examples of such quiet self-sacrifice in everyday life. Someone set out this morning to help the needy, and someone else to comfort the sick, or to visit the home-bound, or to raise money for a charity. They make the other person’s problems their own. Helping to solve them, they are making the most of their lives.

There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life. What are you doing here on this earth with this life you’ve been granted gratis?  Does it have meaning? How will you be remembered? What paths are you following?

The beautiful and powerful paintings featured in this post are by artist Nadia Parsons, the Sky Painter, whose path is to capture fleeting moments of change in the sky. “As we observe the sky,” the artist says,  “we can become acutely aware of how small we are in contrast to the vast scale of the universe. We also have an opportunity to appreciate our importance as it coexists with fears of our own insignificance.” (Nadia Parsons, https://www.skypainterstudios.com/about/ )

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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Filed under Achievement, Beauty, Creativity, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Duty and Responsibility, Finding Meaning in Life, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Moral Life, Motivation, Self-Concept, Self-Direction, Spiritual Life

Inspiration, Information, and Learnings For People In The Arts

Part 6 of a series.  See also Part 1, Part 2 & 3 Part 4, and Part 5

Pink and orange zinnias in impressionist style

Late Season Zinnias by Steven V. Ward

THE NATURE OF ARTISTS

  • “Artists shape the structure of their creative lives not by means of their gifts, but by means of their work. Production–to produce good works– is the artist’s overriding goal. Delicate creatures, when unable to produce works, they almost immediately fall into some form of self-doubt and then despair” (David J. Rogers).
  • “To possess and capture beauty (the artist) will do anything, use anything…be ruthless, murderous and destructive, cold and cruel and merciless…to get the thing he wants, achieve the thing he values” (Thomas Wolfe).
  • Berry branch with shadowy colored background

    Berry Shadows by Steven V. Ward

    “There is nothing we will not give to the person who can show us the undiscovered world within ourselves, for most of us are unaware of the possibilities we hold” (Seymour Krim).

  • “It is all in the art. You get no credit for living” (V.S. Pritchett)
  • “The hunger to succeed in spite of every impediment and the confidence that you can, along with skill, energy, focus, and the knack of overcoming obstacles have proven to be the key indicators of success in art” (David J. Rogers).

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

  • “The uninitiated imagine that one must await inspiration in order to create. That is a mistake. I am far from saying that there is no such thing as inspiration; quite the opposite. It is found as a driving force in every kind of human activity, and is in no wise peculiar to artists. But that force is only brought into action by effort, and that effort is work” (Igor
    Pink flowers on impressionist background

    Spring Colors by Steven by Ward

    Stravinsky).

  • “It has not been possible to demonstrate that creativity tests are valid” (Howard Gardner).
  • “If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing works” (Marc Chagall).
  • “If he thought, he would go wrong; it is only the clumsy and uninventive artist who thinks) (John Ruskin).
  • “If a man has talent and can’t use it, he’s failed. If he uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he uses the whole of it, he has succeeded, and won a satisfaction and triumph few men ever know” (Thomas Wolfe).
  • “Everything you can imagine is real” (Pablo Picasso).
  • “It is important to forget about the opinions of others and to write after your own fashion with careless, proud indifference” (Llewelyn Powys).
  • ”There are no rules. It’s amazing how willing people are to tell you that you aren’t a real writer unless you conform to their clichés and their rules. My advice? Reject rules and critics out of hand. Define yourself. Do it your way. Make yourself the writer of your dreams (Anne Rice).
  • “Most creators know intuitively from the beginning of their serious work on a project what the final product will “feel” like. It may take weeks, months, or years to complete the work. But they’ve had from the beginning some sense of it. And that sense will guide them through the entire creative process” (David J. Rogers).
  • “Great artists feel as opportunity what others feel as a menace” (Kenneth Burke).
  • “A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter than of the painted” (Samuel Butler).
Three white and pink lotus blossoms on blue background

Lotus Trio by Steven V. Ward

CREATORS’ WORK LIFE 

  • “Wake about seven thirty, have breakfast and am working by nine and usually work straight through until two p.m. After that it’s like living in a vacuum until working time next day” (Ernest Hemingway).
  • “Publishing is a very mysterious business. It is hard to predict what kind of sale or reception a book will have and advertising seems to do very little to the good” (Thomas Wolfe).
  • “We should write our own thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend. We should not disguise them in any way” (Leo Tolstoy).
  • “When I write I feel like an artist. When I’m not writing I don’t feel like anything at all) (Saul Bellow).
  • “I work on whatever medium likes me at the moment” (Marc Chagall).
  • “They come and ask me what idea I meant to embody in Faust as if I knew myself and could inform them” (Goethe).
  • “Great artists have no consideration for anyone’s sleep. Left alone and working all night, they phone you at three or four in the morning to announce they’ve thought of something” (David J. Rogers).
  • “We all do better in the future” (Raymond Carver).
  • Yellow Wildflowers on an impressionis style background

    Yellow Wildflowers by Steven V. Ward

    “You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, and publicity” (Thomas Wolfe).

  • “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working” (Pablo Picasso)

I am pleased to again feature in this post artwork by the talented artist Steven V. Ward whose work can be found on FineArtAmerica.  Some of his work also appears in my post More Inspiration and Information For Creators #5

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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Filed under Artists, Creativity, Creators' Work Life, Quotations, The Nature of Artists, Writers, Writing

The Writer’s Block You’ve Never Heard Of

When Writers Hate Words and Painters Hate Paint

I

I adore words. Words have been my dearest medium since my childhood in a Welsh home where the English language Pink clouds behind single bird in a treewas king and queen. I can hear words as if they are being spoken in my ear as I read them on the page or computer screen.  I swear I can taste them. If I don’t read a minimum of a few thousand of them in books every day I am fidgety and dissatisfied.

I study words assiduously and they float in my mind because they are the building blocks from which a writer fashions images, ideas, and narratives. I want to know all of them and use them in my work when I need them. The more of them I can use intelligently the more ideas and emotions I will be able to communicate. Writers cannot pour the whole of their talent into their work without a storehouse of expressive language at their ready disposal.

Wooden typesetting blocksThe vocabulary in the piece may be as simple as Ernest Hemingway’s or as complex as William Faulkner’s. Either way, each word, doing its part, must have zest. If you lack the one and only “just right” word you cannot adequately convey the emotion and its shadings, or the expression on a face as it differs in daylight or at midnight, or a beach at dawn.

What can be more painfully frustrating and galling for writers who take their work seriously than sensing there is a word that will express precisely what they want to express, but not being able to think of it and having to settle for a second, third, or fourth best word?

I maintain on shelves massive loose-leaf notebooks with bright red, orange, and yellow covers. In them I enter words I come across that I think I might wish to use at some time that I don’t currently know or do know but don’t use. The 2 spiral notebooks, one lime green and one blacknotebooks are filled with many thousands of good, useful words and brief definitions and ideas for using them.

I consult these notebooks regularly. When I begin writing something substantial I jot down many interesting and lively–“good”–words that I will work into the text. I might write down in the notebook the word “irascible” with the note–“a nice, strong, dramatic word to use,” or other nice words, “pallid,” “stipulated,” and “rapture.”

II

But never knowing why and never knowing when, I experience a mystifying writer’s block you’ve never heard of that overwhelms me. I’ve never heard anyone else say a word about it, nor have I read about anything like it. I’d like to tell you about it now.

It is a periodic aversion  to the basis of the creators’ medium–words to writers, color and paint to painters, and music to composers. Such an intermittent malady may seem odd, but for me, odd though it may be, it is a fact. Sometimes writers hate words, painters hate paint, and composers hate notes.

water collor paints next to a blank notebookPainters feel the same way about paint as I do about words–that the goal of doing this thing called art in these media is to never be caught unable to express what you want or need to express.  A writer must be able to write everything down, a painter to paint everything she can see or imagine, and composers to be able to use all the means available to them to express all emotions.

When you are a magician with language as American novelist Thomas Wolfe and American poet Walt Whitman, and French novelist Marcel Proust were–more so than any other writers who walked this earth (including Shakespeare)–you have available to you all the words you will ever need to express with the exceptional skills of the trained writer, which you take for granted, anything and everything–any emotion, any idea, any situation, any image–you can hold in your mind.  Nothing is out of your range, everything is within your grasp.

But at times I become so filled up and overly sated with words–thinking of them, writing them, reading them from morning to night year after year, decade after decade–that I reach a kind of maximum limit and it is futile to go on. I must be away from them.

random letters in the shape of a brainFor a while I have to be free from the tyranny of having to go through the process of translating, as though from a foreign language, every palpable thing I can see or touch or hear or imagine, or remember, and each and every mood I can feel, into abstract, impossible-to-touch symbols–words and syllables.

There is no word or combination of words ever written in poetry or prose that is as tangible and pleasurable as a kiss or a caress.

I find that it is hopeless to try to fight this mood. Nothing but frustration is gained by being heroic and hacking away at the keyboard in hopes that something more or less intelligible that can be worked into something more meaningful will mercifully appear on the screen. No, it’s best when words become abhorrent to me–to you, fellow writer–to just shut down, be patient, and wait.

I think this bottling-up happens to many writers, but they don’t realize what’s happening to them. They come to that impasse I know so well and they have no idea why or what to do next. And painters may be unable to even look at their palette and grow sick for a while of their beloved medium and need a break.

My periodic aversion to words, when the bases of my craft are repugnant to me, reminds me of  the great cellist Pablo Casals whose first thought when he fell and injured his hand was a happy one–that maybe now he wouldn’t have to play the cello anymore.

III

Having been through this troublesome block many times, I stop writing and I stop reading and try to clear my mind of words, just as painters who have been exposed to too much color stop painting for a while.

Then, without the written word, I have lost my bearings. I am aimless. I watch TV, paying no attention, or look for someone to talk to or go upstairs and lift weights or go for a walk or thumb through a baseball magazine.

A listless evening or a day or two of seeming to have no purpose in life pass, and my passion for words returns and I am hungry to sit at the computer and watch nouns and verbs, and then their friends the adjectives and adverbs appear in a perfect order on the screen as I hoped they would.

beautivul sunrise on blue skyAt that moment the creator’s existence–lived in a little world of contented seclusion, devoid of glamour–seems to me in an astonishing way to be as splendid and wonderful as any life on earth could be.

I am again confident, blissful, my temporary word-aversion now gone from me. I am happy. Everything I love and can think of I then love more tenderly. I am creating again, performing the sole work I believe I was so carefully allotted X number of years in this world to see what I could do with–which may be the same feeling you have about your work.

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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A Strategy for Defeating Writer’s Block and Painter’s Block

Hand of artist dipping brush into colored cups of paintWhen they are free of blocks creators are the most productive human beings on earth, capable of generating tremendous volumes of writing, painting, music, etc., the likes of which no one has ever seen. When I was in the business world lecturing on human motivation, my approach was unusual. I held up my beloved writers, artists, actors, composers, and particularly ballerinas as models of commitment, sacrifice, and inexhaustible drive and courage.

I’d say, “Study people in the arts. They will teach you more than anyone else what motivation and the quest for excellence really is, the demands it makes on you, and the heights of achievement it can take you to.”

Yet, it’s quite possible that at any given time the majority of creators–wonderfully talented though they are, with so much potential to contribute beauty to this oh-so-needy world, longing for one thing only: to create–are experiencing a block that is tying them in knots, and are at a standstill. The ability to overcome blocks is a major survival skill for creators

Some blocks last hours, and some for years. Minor blocks come and go and are nothing to worry about. For example, just not being in a mood to work for a short period. But some creators even now are being controlled by a chronic inability to create that is driving them to despair and anguish.

What could be more of a torture to a creator than to long to work, to be ready to work, and to have something urgent to say, but be unable to work?

There are many causes of creator’s blocks. Some of them are hard to diagnose and hard to cure. Exceptionally rare is the creator who is not blocked some of the time, though many puff out their chests and boast that they have never been and claim to be unable to imagine how anyone could be. That infuriates the person who is deeply mired in a block who prays night and day to know where to turn to remedy it.

A writer whose head is composed of crumpled paper uses a typewriter.

By Drew Coffman

The causes of blocks may be much more complicated than many people realize. It has been found that blocked creators are more anxious and less confident people than creators who aren’t burdened by blocks. Blocked creators tend to worry excessively, and are self-doubting, and more prone to depression. They have also been found to be less ambitious and more easily discouraged than creators who are not blocked.

So to cure a severe block, the creator’s whole unique psychology–who they are as human beings and how they differ from other people–may have to be factored in if the block is to be overcome. A creator’s mind, more than other people’s minds, is the birthplace of rich images.

No one on earth can generate mental images as skillfully and profusely as creators. That’s the role they commit themselves to–makers of vivid images in words, paints, physical gestures and movements, and sounds. I believe that a path to freedom from creator’s blocks is through those images. I’ve written extensively about that in another post.

BUT THE PERSISTENCE OF BLOCKS IS STRONGLY ASSOCIATED WITH A POOR CAPACITY FOR DAYDREAMING.

Here is a strategy involving your creator’s abilities to make images and daydream that may begin to loosen the grip of a protracted creative block. I have designed it for writers, but it can be adapted successfully by creators of any kind:

  1. When you are caught or snagged and having difficulty writing, I want you to slow your breathing down, inhaling and exhaling smoothly, using an ancient breathing technique I’ve written about. There is no need to hurry. Just breathe comfortably for a while until there is a rhythm.
  2. Now I’d like you to project your consciousness above you into a corner of the room and see yourself in images in your mind’s eye writing smoothly and effortlessly as though you are someone else who has never had any trouble writing. There’s no strain and the words appear almost magically on the page under the direction of your creator’s mind.
  3. Think about the state of being you would be in at maximum productivity. Can you identify it? What would it entail?
  4. Think about the state you’d like to avoid—anxious, compulsive, self-doubting, and depressed. Let all your ridiculous worries and all obsessions and doubts drift away.
  5. Think of your mental state. It should be alert. It should be sharp. You should be thinking of writing words and not thinking of yourself doing this exercise.
  6. Now, daydream to your heart’s content.

Vivid mental images that can be made into creative daydreams and “mind wanderings” that writers I’ve talked to have found helpful in breaking through blocks include:

Traveling through space to get to a place of creative freedom (I often in my fantasies do the backstroke through space high above the earth. Below me are ancient cities with palaces with magnificent gold steeples and minarets.)

Going down deeper, inside and under the block

A faucet opening and the words you’ve been waiting for pouring out in a deluge

Flipping on a light switch

Going around a wall

Crossing a bridge

Enjoy the images. Go with them. Revel in them.

 

Use this strategy, doing the exercise once or twice a day for seven consecutive days or whenever you are blocked, and you should see results.

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Acquiring Creator’s Survival Skills

Whether they are five or seventy-five, beginning creators don’t know the first thing about their craft, but don’t know they don’t know. They’re playing, experimenting, discovering, having fun, and are thrilled to be creating, and that’s Young boy painting at an easelenough. Then in time, if they are to become more skilled writers, artists, actors, dancers, and so forth, they will realize they don’t know enough about the craft they’ve now become attracted to more seriously.

They want to get better and be more accomplished and have success. So they strive to learn as much as they can about their craft. That drive to get better and better still, to find their one true voice that activates even their deepest creative potentials, to learn, to reach consistent excellence over a long period of time dominates true creators as long as they live.

The more skillfully advanced creators know a tremendous amount about their craft and at times are capable of unique and extraordinary creative feats that make you gasp. Yet, they are incomplete. They realize there are many other things of a non-technical nature to know, having to do with surviving a creator’s sometimes intense, demanding, troubled, uneasy, or tragic existence. Preparation is the key to creative success, whatever the field. Without survival skills the creator is not fully prepared for a creator’s life.

Horizon and sunset seen through branchesThey acquire survival skills or they do not survive: their career ends prematurely, or they crack up, or their talent abandons them, or the production of work grows increasingly difficult, the ease and effortlessness of the master disappears, leaving in its wake frustration and regret. Horace said that painters and poets alike have always had license to dare anything, but when they lose confidence they become afraid.

Three Stages

Stage I: At the start of their careers, would-be serious creators work Number 1as though technique and mechanics aren’t especially important. They have a story to tell, a message to communicate, a vision, and that’s all that counts.  They start out full of naïve optimism. Unless they are creative geniuses who have powerful creative intuition that more than compensates for technical shortcomings the result is that the work they produce suffers from creative ailments.

The execution of the work may be dull, awkward, muddled, and show almost no regard for the audience—a failure of craftsmanship. Successes are few. Possibly there are no successes at all. Creators get depressed and doubt their talent: are they good enough or are they fooling themselves that they can produce work that will please them and please an audience? The root difficulty is being blind and deaf to the need for technical abilities. In time that becomes very clear to creators who may come to realize their technique stinks and needs many improvements.

Stage II: Intelligent creators now turn their attention to acquiring techniques so that their work becomes more Number 2coherent, less obscure, and less naïve. Technical abilities take over from inspiration.  Creators become preoccupied with acquiring technical knowledge about their craft and the mechanics of producing quality work. They study to ferret out the secrets of the best in the field, read articles, books, and blogs. They take classes, educate themselves (the principal source of a creator’s expertise), find a mentor, locate good teachers, get involved in a writer’s, artist’s, or actor’s milieu, and may go to workshops, conferences, and retreats. They work hard. Their technical skills do improve. They are better creator this year than they were last year.

Stage III: Then creators realize that technique and mechanics are insufficient–that there are many creator’s survival Number 3needs they didn’t anticipate, and are unprepared for, and a whole set of little-discussed survival skills directly related to success and fulfillment that technique can’t help them with.  Serious creators’ lives are full of pressures, strains, dilemmas, quandaries, and problems. Bonnie Feldman was of the same mind when she said in Writing Past Dark: “The bookstores shelves sagged with volumes on technique. A hundred authors explained how to show don’t tell, and why a story needs a conflict. Why hadn’t anyone written a book that would help me?”

What Technique Can’t Help You With

Creator-survivors must be natural, less controlled, less inhibited, less blocked with punishing self-criticism, more expressive and spontaneous. They must be balanced, flexibly-minded, less strained, less anxious–carefree, focused on their work, not themselves –manifestations of good mental health. How otherwise will they ever be able to “snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic?” Technique will not teach creators those things, yet they are crucial to the writer’s, artist’s, actor’s, and performers’s well-being and productivity.

cog wheels of goldTechnique will not teach you the single greatest survival quality of any successful creative enterprise: a desire to excel that dominates the creator, a need so strong that not much else matters as much. That is an empowering survival skill major creators possess without exception.  Do you possess it?

Technique won’t help you overcome the miseries of self-doubt and discouragement—the creator’s main inner obstacles to success–that dreariness that has ruined tens of thousands of creator’s careers. Technique is terribly important, but it will not teach you the survival quality of simple, unadulterated courage in the face of hurtful setbacks, cruel criticism, and heart-breaking adversity.

Nor will it teach you the necessity of creator’s taking calculated risks, normally the only path to success. It will not teach you the survivor’s drive, high focus, and persistence which may be a more important success factors than brilliant intelligence. These are qualities creators must possess to survive.

Technique will not teach you the daily-needed psychological skills of optimism, powerful motivation, and stamina. Technique will not teach you a single one of psychological and spiritual survival skills that you need to supplement the creative techniques you’ve acquired.

Preparing For Survival

Creators should learn to dialogue among themselves freely, unabashedly, happily in their everyday creative lives about such needed Stage III creator’s inner survival qualities as strength, persistence, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, discipline, good creative moods. And ideal creative moods, resilience, enthusiasm, guts, energy and sweat, passion, sacrificing for the sake of your craft, and boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, patience, maintaining at all times a confidence of succeeding, and other dimensions of you, the creator. These inputs will make you a better-prepared.

If you lack those internal skills of the heart and mind you must acquire them just as you acquired creative technique. You can do that. You can acquire survival skills of mindfulness, meditation, and non-attachment.  You can learn to endure rejection and manage stress. You can learn to listen to your body and enjoy your work more. You can become more optimistic and resilient. You can learn tranquility and peace of mind from reading people like the master Vivekananda.  You can read biographies of great creators to see how they overcame adversity. You may wish to read my Fighting To Win which has specific strategies to help you on your path.

Be aware of where you are deficient and what your survival needs are, as “I am not a confident person now; I must work on that.” Then you can set out on a program of self-development designed to better equip you for your chosen creator’s role, your creator’s life path that you may wish to follow till the last breath of your life.

Begin the day by asking, “Am I strong today?” “Will I persist?” “Will I be confident?” “Will I stop doubting my talent?” “Will I adapt and be patient?” “Will I be enthusiastic today?” “Will I be courageous?”

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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More Inspiration and Information For Creators #5

Part 5 of a series.  See also Part 1, Part 2 & 3, and Part 4

 

Leaves floating on water with reflections

On the Surface and Beneath by Steven V. Ward

 

 CREATORS’ FEELINGS, EMOTIONS

  • “(Creators) who lose their youthful rebelliousness are in grave danger of losing their talent as well” (Robert Jourdain).
  • “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-
    Lost Pink Hydrangea by Steven V. Ward

    Lost Pink Hydrangea by Steven V. Ward

    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” (John Gardner).

  • “Every day the rejected manuscripts would come through the slot in the door…I’d sit at that old wooden table and read one of those cold slips that had been attached to a story I had loved and worked on very hard and believed in, and I couldn’t help crying” (Ernest Hemingway).
  • “One of the marks of a gift is to have the courage of it” (Katherine Anne Porter).
  • “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity” (William Faulkner).
  • “Research has found that uncontrollable anger is common among creative geniuses of all stripes. Always reaching for the impossible, life can be a long series of obstacles and frustrations” (Robert Jourdain).
  • “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings” (Gilbert Murray).

WRITERS

  • “Writing is harder than anything else. It’s much easier to wash dishes” (Kristin Hunter).
  • “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything” (Virginia Woolf).

    Watercolor Iris by Steven V. Ward

    Watercolor Iris by Steven V. Ward

  • “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon one can never resist or understand” (George Orwell).
  • “History shows that the less people read, the more books they buy” (Albert Camus).
  • “The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it” (Raymond Chandler).
  • “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” (Robert Benchley).
  • “The only drama which really interests me and that I should always be willing to depict anew is the debate of the individual with whatever keeps him from being authentic, with whatever is opposed to his integrity” (Andre Gide).
  • “When men ask me how I know so much about men, they get a simple answer: everything I know about men I learned from me” (Anton Chekhov).
  • “If you are silent for a long time, people just arrive” (Alice Walker).
  • “For the writer there is only endless memory” (Anita Bruckner).
  • “The classical authors you still read today are not those who said the truest things. But those whose language has preserved a trace of them” (Jean Guitton).
  • “It would be as hard to predict the dancing flight of a flock of finches, or the subterranean movements of a single mole, as to explain a great writer’s peculiar gift” (Llewelyn Powys).
  • “A writer is interesting because of his peculiar perspective. Can this perspective be taught? I think not…A
    Blue Hydrangea Sunset Impressiion by Steven W. Ward

    Blue Hydrangea Sunset Impressiion by Steven W. Ward

    beginning writer hesitates to anoint himself, to make a declaration of his very special character. And so he seeks institutional support. He goes to the universities and gets a Ph.D. in creative writing and feels himself armed for the struggle. Like any other licensed professional. But this is social assistance rather than creativity.” (Saul Bellow).

 ARTISTS

The art featured in this post is by the talented artist Steven V. Ward whose work can be found on FineArtAmerica. His beautiful images attracted my attention on social media, and he kindly gave me permission to display some of them in this post.

  • “I alone here, on my inch of earth, paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself…Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it” (John Ruskin).
  • “One man in particular has the faculty of inflaming your imagination till you feel ready to declare him one of the bringers of heavenly fire. And yet his art is mad. Your first impulse is to laugh at these staggering cottages with flaming red roofs, or the blaze of rockets and Catherine-wheels supposed to represent night. But your laugh dies on your lips; you go on gazing, stupefied yet interested; and when you leave the exhibition, you do not know whether you have been looking at the pictures of a madman or not, but you have forgotten all the other pictures in the room” ( (From a review by Cecelia Waern of a painting by Vincent van Gogh in 1892).
  • “Like other creators, artists exhibited androgynous personalities, meaning that they were not concerned with
    Digital Watercolor Field of Wildflowers by Steven V. Ward

    Digital Watercolor Field of Wildflowers by Steven V. Ward

    their actions being viewed as masculine or feminine” (Jane Piirto).

BALLET DANCERS

  • Other performing artists try to give the definitive performance of a work, a role, a score, but ballet dancers have even higher standards that apply only to dancers. The standard against which dancers measure their performance is not simply that of the highest excellence. “Every serious dancer is driven by notions of perfection–perfect expression, perfect technique…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 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”(Susan Sontag).

ACTORS

  • “The great moments (in theatre) are almost always connected with the personality of an actor or actors” (Tyrone Guthrie). 

COMPOSERS

  • “The most perfect (musical) instrument in the world is the composer’s mind. Every conceivable tone-quality and
    Winters Approach by Steven W. Ward

    Winters Approach by Steven W. Ward

    beauty of nuance, every harmony and disharmony, or any number of simultaneous melodies can be heard at will by the trained composer; he can hear not only the sound of any instrument or combination of instruments, but also an almost infinite number of sounds which cannot yet be produced on any instrument” (Henry Cowell).

 

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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

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The Self-Concept: Freeing Up Your Creator’s Mind and Personality

In those happy days when I was starting out and writing books during the night while my wife and children slept, I was a business consultant during the day. One client was an anal-type organization–lots of rules, very little freedom, business workers in office cubiclesdictatorial–and many disgruntled employees. You might have worked in an organization like that. You may be working in one now.

One rule was that no one from one unit was to visit another unit during working hours. They were serious. Wherever you went you heard people saying, “Don’t get caught out of your unit.”

Your creator’s self-concept–self-image, self-estimate–is your internal, private opinion of the kind of creator you are and of the actions you are or are not capable of performing as a creator. It directly controls how successful you are in your creative endeavors and how full and satisfying your creative life will be. Like that nutty rule, your creator’s self-concept says, “Whatever you do, don’t get caught out of your self-concept.”

Your behavior has absolute trust in your creator’s self-concept and believes it and obeys it. You may have decided after five years writing that you’re a pretty average poet, so you work only hard enough to write average poems, never expecting to do any better. Your self-concept is perfectly content with mediocrity although you may have the potential for greatness. It is continually telling you to stay inside its definition of the kind of person you are: “You’re a decent painter but let’s face it, you’ll will never be much more than that.”

Many people I’ve met and you’ve met tell themselves they’re not creative. They realize that creativity could make them happier, but they claim they just don’t have it. Many people think, “Oh, a painter is creative, or a novelist or an architect. But I’m not a bit creative.” Yet researchers have demonstrated that the self-concept is so powerful and yet so malleable and so easy to change that the moment–the moment–people start thinking “I am creative” instead of “I’m not creative,” creativity increases. They can write and paint and perform dramatic roles passably well.  Now they have a creator’s self-concept.

Disappointments lead some creators to think, “I can’t produce really superb art work. . .sell my stories to magazines…make a lot of money…place my paintings in the best galleries…get in a good show… compete with young creators…” and so on.

Many creators have such narrow self-concepts they’re living in a unit that’s only a fraction of the size of their true creative ability. They possess the capacity to accomplish high creative goals but they don’t realize they do. Other creators have wide and expansive self-concepts. Their actions are bolder. They are self-confident. They expect to excel and often do.

What’s holding narrow self-concept creators back? Don’t look at me. I’m not holding them back. You’re not holding them back. They are holding themselves back. Some creators—maybe you know a few of them—have self-concepts so narrow and confining that they have made themselves incapable of doing anything significant. Often they don’t even try.

Many of you reading this are fiction writers. But we are all fiction writers. ALL SELF-CONCEPTS ARE FICTIONS; THEY ARE ALL MADE UP.  They are not real in the way a flower pot is real or a desk is. They are merely ways you have chosen to view yourself. From this insight it’s a short, leaping step to the next: “Hey, since I made up this damned self-concept and I’m not happy with it, and it’s holding me back, all I have to do to increase my possibilities and free up my creator’s mind and personality is to create another one and act accordingly,” or “Do I need a self-concept at all?” If your self-concept is right for you—if you’re happy with it—by all means keep it. But if it’s bringing you creative disappointment after disappointment and discouragement and you’re dissatisfied with it, you’d better, I think: (1) change it, or (2) operate without it.

I want to tell you two stories:

Story One: “The Storekeeper and the Thief”

In Japan in the nineteenth century, storekeepers were considered lily-livered weaklings. One storekeeper became sick and tired of this reputation. To prove that it was totally false he took lessons at a martial arts dojo. He devoted himself religiously and after some years he became an expert. After closing his shop late one night, the storekeeper and his wife started home down the dark streets carrying the day’s receipts. They had just turned the corner when a man holding a knife stepped out of the shadows and ordered the storekeeper to hand over his money.

At first he refused, but when the thief charged him, growling, “You miserable merchant, I’ll cut you to pieces,” the storekeeper lost his courage, fell to his knees, and began to tremble with fear. Suddenly his wife cried out, “You’re not a storekeeper, you’re a master of the martial arts.”

The storekeeper turned his head and looked at his wife. “Yes,” he said, “I am.” He stood, a warrior now, totally fearless, completely calm. He let out a powerful katzu, “battle shout,” and leaped at the thief. He defeated him easily.

Story Two: “The Teaman and the Ronin

In feudal Japan, a servant, a poor practitioner of chado, the Way of tea, unwittingly insulted a ronin, a masterless samurai. Outraged, the ronin challenged the servant to a duel. “I’m not a warrior,” the teaman said, “and I’m very sorry if I offended you. I certainly didn’t mean to. Please accept my apology. ”But the ronin would have none of it. “We meet at dawn tomorrow,” he said, and as was customary, he handed the terrified teaman a sword. “Go practice,” said the ronin.

The servant ran to the home of a famous sword master and told him the terrible thing that had happened. “A unique situation,” the sword master said. “For you will surely die. The thing I might be able to help you with is isagi-yoku, the art of dying well.”

While they talked, the teaman prepared and poured tea. The masterful way he did it caught the eye of the sword master. He slapped his knee and said, “Forget what I just told you. Put yourself into the state of mind you were in as you prepared the tea and you can win this fight.” The teaman was shocked. The sword the ronin had given him was the first he had ever held. “What state of mind?”

“Were you thinking ‘I’m a teaman?’ ” asked the master.

“No. I wasn’t thinking at all.”

“That’s it!” The sword master laughed. “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head, ready to cut your opponent down. Don’t think you’re a teaman or that you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”

Image of kendo {{PD-1923}} The next morning the ronin appeared on the field and the teaman immediately raised his sword overhead, his eyes on the ronin, his ears waiting for the battle cry. For long moments the ronin stared at the raised sword, and the determination in his opponent’s eyes. Finally the ronin said, “I cannot beat you.” He bowed and left the field.

The problem of these two men should seem familiar. Their predicament is one we all encounter every day. Our opponents aren’t usually thieves and they certainly aren’t wandering samurai ronin, but that’s not important. Those weren’t the main opponents anyway. The primary battle, the main event, was going on inside the storekeeper and the teaman. To win on the outside, each had to deal with a faulty, inadequate, self-defeating self-concept.

Option One: “I’m a Warrior, Not a Storekeeper.” Changing Your Self-Concept

Many creators are overlooking their creative abilities. They persist in thinking they’re storekeepers when if they just thought differently about themselves they would see what warriors they have the potential to be. Listen to the things you say about yourself and think about yourself that begin with “I am,” “I’m not,” and “I can’t.” They are your self-concept in action. And they directly control what is possible for you.

 

Robin tells herself, “I’ve been working on the thing I call ‘My Novel’ for years and can’t seem to finish it. It’s embarrassing. I have no will power.”  And because of it she has real problems getting the damn thing off to a publisher. Ariel tells herself she’s not intelligent enough to write a Hollywood screen play. She doesn’t realize that intelligence is not fixed and final in a person, but can increase with use and with it her concept of herself as an intelligent woman.

Creators are what they are because they keep telling themselves they are. If they stop telling themselves they are, they change. If creators say to you, “I just can’t talk in front of large groups,” or “I’m not the sales type,” or “I’m not a really clever person,” and then ask you if there is anything they can do about it, you might suggest that they never, never say that again. Then suggest they counter every “I’m not” or “I just can’t” with a firm “I am” or “I can.”

Saying it isn’t enough.  What is in your head doesn’t count for anything unless you translate it into action, “body knowledge.” It’s not enough to think, “Hey, I’m not just a storekeeper, I’m really a warrior after all.” To defeat the thief you have to fight, and you can because:

 All behavior is nothing more than an act, a performance.  Acting is easy. Everyone can act. We are all performers.  As soon as a public speaker realizes that she is not a lecturer but an actor, her presentations get good. To BE confident, ACT confidently.

Find a model, someone who does well what you would like to do. Watch how she does it, then do it the same way yourself. Or borrow from a number of models.

Option Two: Operating Without a Self-Concept

The sword master advised the teaman, “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head. Don’t think that you’re a teaman or you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”

In sales training sessions I gave I often used a simple role-playing exercise that’s designed to demonstrate the teaman alternative. The teaman alternative is not replacing your old, limiting self-concept with a new and improved one. It’s not thinking you’re a cowardly storekeeper or a poor teaman, but it’s not thinking you’re a warrior either. It’s not holding any self-concept in mind, but just taking action, doing something.

After everyone in the training group had played the part of a sales person making a presentation to a potential customer, I asked them to list the things that they did well during the role-play and the things they would like to improve upon. Then we discussed the “like-to-improve-upons.” Sam said he was no good at thinking on his feet. He went blank. A real salesman, Sam said, is able to handle himself smoothly.

Gerri said her problem was talking too fast. Her words came shooting out so fast she often said the wrong thing. She got flustered. She blew sales.

One by one, they all had to tell me about their “improve-upons.” Midway through every description of a problem I stopped the speaker and said something like “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I’ll tell you what: show me how you would like to be able to do it.” Then I just sat back and watched the amazing thing that almost always happened. Virtually every time, they were all able to do what they said they had trouble doing or could not do at all. Now they were acting.

Sam, for example, actually did think on his feet, and responded smoothly and quickly to the prospect’s objections. Gerri actually became a more composed, together, non-flustered and relaxed saleswoman. Shy people who wished to act more boldly and self- confidently actually did. Those who wished to improve their body language did so. And tough, defensive people who “always” argued and who wanted to be more friendly and warm succeed in acting that way.

I had prompted each of the role-players to act directly without letting their self-concept affect their performance at all. They were doing before their self-concepts had time to inform them, “You just got through saying you couldn’t do that, so it doesn’t make any sense for this guy to ask you to.”

What the role-players learned is precisely what the sword master taught the teaman: You can do what even you believed you couldn’t if you forget about your self-concept totally.

Seeing how easy and effortless it was to forget about a previous self-concept and just act, just be, just perform was exciting for everyone. It was an unforgettable life learning experience.

Man painting a pictureDo whatever you’re doing  creatively without any thought about your “I ams,” “I can’ts” and “I’m nots,” or any concern about “what bad thing will happen if I fail” or “what great thing will happen if I succeed.” You’ll be unhappy whenever your internal opinion of yourself makes you concerned with yourself instead of the creative action at hand.

The creative action at hand–the story or the painting to be crafted, the role to be played, the dance to be danced–they are all that matters, they are the main thing.  Forget about everything else. Watch what happens. Watch your creative life change.

 

Parts of this post appeared in different form in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work And Life

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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The Warrior Creator

My thirty-seven year old son Eli, a school principal and YA author, and a wonderful man, has been a strong supporter of my work since he was a little boy and went with me to store after store while I autographed books. It’s he who suggested I write a blog. That’s when I said, “A what?” So three years ago that’s what, with my wife Diana’s technical help, I started to do.  I hope my blog friends are reading this post and will benefit from it. A few years ago Eli called me and said, “Dad, in an internet reader’s poll Fighting To Win has been maned the best motivational book ever written.” I said, “Well, how do you like that?”  Any creator knows what a joy it is to have his/her work praised. (That’s one reason we work so hard isn’t it?)

Hand with penAnd any author knows that if he writes a book that catches on, he’ll never get rid of it. He will become identified with it the rest of his life.  So here I am, the author of Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life. I’m happy to say that that prescriptive how-to-do-it self-improvement book is a classic that since it first came out thirty years ago has been widely used by people of all kinds here and in Europe and Asia as a guide to actualizing their wonderful talents that otherwise may have lain dormant and unused. It started as a book popular with people in the work world, particularly business people, but then quickly spread to people in the arts.

Over the years I’ve received thank-yous from accountants and sales people, and painters, writers, opera singers, composers, movie directors, actors, musicians, and so on–people who’ve come to realize that whatever their walk of life might be, the psychology of the warrior fits them to a T because they are thinly disguised warriors too.  It’s a tribute to Fighting to Win that it Is still available as an eBook, is still being read, and is still changing lives.

I turned to the study of the samurai way of life as a result of hard times taking a terrible toll on me. I experienced far too many disappointments and was cheated in business by people I had trusted. I was looking for something that would Samurai swordsman in silhouettesalvage me from the kind of misery I was experiencing and in the samurai Way found strength as well as insights, strategies, and techniques I could use to pull myself out of the awful lethargy I had settled into. By way of the book, magazine articles, TV and radio, the internet, and speeches, I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful people. They have told me that they too have found solace from setbacks and gained the psychological and spiritual wherewithal to excel in their careers through samurai wisdom and what I call “the inner skills of creative people.”

The samurai of Japan were the greatest warriors who ever walked the earth. Trained to perform phenomenal feats of courage and fearlessness, they were stern, quiet, utterly serious people who devoted their lives to developing their skills, spirits, and minds to the highest possible level.

Just as all creative people face internal obstacles that interfere with their lives, so did the samurai. The bulk of his or her training (there were women samurai) was devoted to overcoming those inner obstacles that are no different than the obstacles you and I and creators of all descriptions face—anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt, hesitation, fear of taking risks, nervousness, discouragement, crippling over-analysis, depression, apprehension, impatience, anger, and more.

Japanese Character for Warrior

Japanese Character for Warrior

Creators and warriors both begin as ordinary people with the potential to be exceptional and memorable, to apply themselves and acquire impressive skills not everyone possesses, and to develop talents and excel at their chosen life path–their “Way.” Each Way is different: the Way of the painter is similar to yet totally different from the Way of the actor, which is like but different from the Way of the writer or the ballet dancer, etc. At a certain point in their training and development, they cease being ordinary anymore, but have become extraordinary. They have wholly recreated themselves.

To function superbly in their chosen role–the painter to paint, the writer to write, the performer to perform, the samurai to fight–of necessity all must be brave,  be bold, take chances, and resist discouragement, fear, hesitations, and self-doubt. Ideal warrior creators have the courage of a lion, the boldness of a gambler, and yet the sensitivity of a butterfly. Critics and nay-sayers are not capable of intimidating them–nothing does. Think how liberating it is to be incapable of being bullied by agents, by publishers, by directors. They are not flustered. Now you are thinking how glorious that would be. When they are facing critical moments, their goal is to be as relaxed as a person sitting down for breakfast, and that’s possible.

I’m sure you know many creators who encounter the fear of performing their craft–that’s one of their fears. When I Empty canvas on easelvisited a successful painter friend of mine I saw the same unfinished painting on the easel. Nothing about it changed month after month. Not a single new brush stroke touched the canvas. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for a number of years.  When we got together again I asked first thing since that was what I was the most curious about: “Whatever happened to that green pastel that was on your easel for so long?”

She said, “I never finished it.”

I said, “You were afraid.”

She said, “I was terrified of it.”

I know a singer who has had a successful professional career, but suddenly and inexplicably after five years developed a fear of performing and for two years retired because of it. She read the book, applied what she read, resumed her career, and was more successful than ever. Her ordeal of not being able to perform matured her.

Fear–there are a thousand of them–is the creator’s most formidable foe. You know that: fear of not being good enough or creative enough or smart enough or talented enough, of being rejected by an audience, of never reaching the success you dreamed of since childhood.

Some creators are afraid even to enter their work room in the morning. The creator’s fear tightens him/her up. Confidence disappears and self-punishing self-doubt takes its place. Their thoughts don’t flow as they did when they Archer about to shoot an arrowwere confident.  To create becomes difficult if not impossible. But once creators learn to defeat fear, their minds and spirits are immediately rejuvenated, and creativity flows out of them in torrents: the novel takes shape; the just-right color is added to the canvas. What can possibly stop them now?

Warrior creators must always be ready to overcome almost unbearable personal impediments that might stop other people and to overcome scores of obstacles of all sorts standing between them and their highest ambitions.  Every year thousands of painters and thousands of writers and other creators give up and quit–just quit–and thousands more are getting ready to quit right now, possibly you. Hopefully they’ll eventually learn that adversity can’t be avoided and in fact is essential to a creator’s development.  If only they had persevered a little longer. Persistence is a creator’s good and faithful friend.

When you are a warrior creator your spirit must be strong and poised, in the words of the samurai strong enough to bring down “a wall or iron.” If you are knocked down you must not lie in bed and moan and whine, but must jump up. Knocked down seven times by circumstance you must jump up eight. You must take care that your spirit is never broken, whatever happens.

Your “depths” should never be penetrated. Inside the warrior creator is a tiny core of strength that nothing can touch. You must control your breathing so that energy is released like steam from an engine because the work creators apply themselves to is unbelievably difficult. Tremendous vitality spread over a whole lifetime and put into every poem, every sculpture, and every actor’s role is needed if one wishes to create.

Like samurai, warrior creators strive to remove all psychological blocks, and learn specific techniques for doing that, and having done that to be able to function freely without conscious effort, the way do when you are your most creative. When you are at your best and well trained everything is automatic, the fluid movement of a master swordsman, the ease of the gestures of a violinist, the sure brushstroke of an experienced painter, the rhythmic typing of a writer in the zone.

The work seems to do itself, and everything is easy. The release of the arrow is the most difficult problem the archer Dew falling from a leaffaces. Like the inspiration of the artist, the release “should be done without thought, like a drop of dew falling from a leaf or a fruit falling when it’s ripe.” One’s every creative act should be like the release of an arrow.  I’ve seen people like that and so have you.

All that warrior creators need is within, in their minds. Your mind holds all the secrets.  The meaning of all things is within, not something that exists “out there.” Warrior creators “grow from within.” You should leave your mind alone and not complicate it with fruitless anxieties and jealousies so many creators experience. Only then can the mind function uninhibited, in the state of highest creativity.

The mind of the warrior creator must never get “caught” or “snagged” (toroware), or “stopped” (tomaru) on internal obstacles like a fish on a line but should always be flowing smoothly from thought to thought to thought like an unimpeded river. When warrior creators are at their best, their hearts are undisturbed and at total peace, their bodies and minds operating without conscious direction. To the master in any field, to execute their art is no more difficult than to breathe or utter their name.

When most productive warrior creators are confident and self-possessed, they are certain that sooner or later they will succeed. There can be no doubt about that. They are disciplined.  Their egos are under control. They look squarely at reality and never flinch from it. If up ahead is something unpleasant, well, up ahead is something unpleasant, so let’s get to it right away and get it over with.

Warrior creators are always trying to improve themselves. Tomorrow they should be smarter, stronger, more knowledgeable, and better skilled than they are today. They do things mindfully, deliberately, and are fully committed. Whatever they do they have every intention of completing. They are “immovable” and don’t budge from their important goals.

Warrior creators are designed to move. They know that when things are done leisurely, seven out of ten turn out poorly. Poster saying "Action is your natural inclination, a fulfilling life your true destiny"The Way of the warrior creator is action, action, and more action–getting things done, not procrastinating, not delaying, not stalling, but finishing what you start without delay and going on to the next thing.  The main goal of all creators is production–to produce works, an actor to play many roles, the writer to write many stories, the lithographer to work with many plates. No creator is more able to produce voluminous works than men and women of action.

The warrior creator knows that when you encounter calamities, it isn’t enough to say you’re not upset, but it is best to “dash forward bravely and joyfully” to meet the difficult situation.  What you fear the most you must get to first. Warrior creators accept whatever they are doing and flow with whatever may happen. They are taught to expect nothing but to be mentally and physically prepared for anything.

They focus: the concentration of the artist is astounding to the non-creator. Their lives are focused too, to enable them to do their work without interference. Among their affairs are many responsibilities, but no more than two or three “matters of greatest concern.” The most important time in the warrior creator’s life is the present moment: “There is only one purpose of the present moment, but a person’s whole life is just a succession of present moments.”

For the warrior creator every moment brings with it a CHOICE POINT at which one’s whole life can change: “From this point on, after this present moment ends, shall I be strong or shall I be weak, shall I commit myself to my craft or continue playing at being a painter, shall I buckle down and see what I can become at last?” These are crucial questions.

The warrior creator is to think what a frail thing life is and is reminded that every day of his/her life may be the last. Poster saying "The delicate cherry blossom doesn't last long in the wind that blows it from the tree."There is no fear of death. So warrior creators dedicate their lives to the fulfillment of their obligations to others and to themselves. They have an obligation to their art, their craft, and to live with the energy and flexibility that go into a creator’s every work: “Never let the thought of a along life seize upon you, for then you are apt to indulge in all kinds of wasteful dissipation.”

The warrior creator turns back again and again to the creative work to be done in this much too brief life, this single blessed moment that is occurring right now.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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

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Fiction and Truth

I was in a writer’s group some years ago, an extraordinary group because except for me it was composed entirely of women–and they were elderly, seventy, eighty, ninety years old. At first I thought, “What am I doing with this bunch of old ladies?” But I quickly changed my tune.

They were tremendously talented and clever, sharp, and knowledgeable, and taken all together had hundreds of years of Typewriter, paper, glasses, pen, book on a wooden surfaceprofessional or amateur experience. It was a great, exciting group, the most pleasant and worthwhile I’ve known. The atmosphere every time was warm, radiant, cordial, and safe–a most productive creative environment. I often think of them fondly. At a session I read aloud a short story I’d written.  When I was reading I heard one woman–an award-winning journalist–say to her friend with a tone of discovery, “This really happened. You can tell.”

Well it had really happened. I hadn’t changed a single thing from the actual events and the actual setting and mood and people, except the names.  Even then I used their correct initials–“Wayne Collins” became “William Carruthers,” etc. In writing it I had to make everything accurate. If I wrote, “She had grey eyes,” I wouldn’t let myself get away with it. I just had to change it back to the real color, blue. Then the group turned to the question everyone seemed interested in that my reading had raised: “Can obviously autobiographical material–meaning it had really happened, the detail told you that–qualify as fiction?”

The eight people in the group were evenly divided. Four said, “Fiction is fiction and non-fiction is non-fiction. There’s a big difference.” I once asked my wife, an excellent writing teacher, “What is a short story these days,” and she replied “Currently, a short story is anything you want it to be.” That liberal view was basically the attitude of the other four members of the group, including me, so in our minds my strictly and admittedly autobiographical story more than held its own as fiction.

It goes without saying that when they are creating, all writers–all people in the arts–depend heavily on their own past experiences. But while most writers create characters and plots using their imagination as the dominant shaper of the work, some writers–such as those cited in this post–adhere slavishly to their own experiences and knowledge.

Truth is what the writer, painter, actor sincerely believes in his/her own heart. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist and for the audience. The artist is often not striving for literal truth, but is inventing too, saying to the reader, “I’m trying to convince you that if this were happening, this is how it would be. If characters were people, this is how they would feel, talk, and behave.” But some writers invent far less than remember.

In college and in graduate school I was trained in “The New Criticism” that says all that matters when studying a literary work is the work itself: the author’s personality should not enter into it. I had a knack for sticking to the text and ferreting out patterns of images and symbols.

But I am a writer of fiction and poetry and I know from my own long experience and that of many other writers that the author’s personality and experiences are everywhere present in the creative process and permeate the content of everything the writer commits to the page, every feature, major or minor. Critics may not know that or may act as though they don’t, but every writer does. A writer can look at a passage in her work and say, “That character sounds so bitter because I had a bad tooth ache that day and so I was in the perfect mood to write that dialogue.”

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

There is a long precedence for obviously autobiographical content being put into fictional form and being accepted as fiction even though it really happened. Short story master/playwright, Russian Anton Chekhov, said “Art has this one great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…There is absolutely no lying in art,” and in a letter to his brother, “Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself.”

That’s much easier to do when you are writing about yourself because you know yourself better than you know any character you can imagine and you know better than anyone else what happened to you if you have a clear and accurate memory. Autobiographical fiction writers obviously need exceptional memories–and most have one. Their most important creative routine is to stimulate their memory. I may look at photo albums as a way of doing this.  I’ve said about myself–hopefully not bragging–that I can remember every blade of grass on the street I lived on when I was eight.

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised to “write from recollection; [but} trust more to your imagination than to your memory.” Most writers are liars–they invent. But some writers write their best fiction, poetry, drama, and screenplays when they are writing the literal truth–or almost the literal truth–and not lying.

American Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, for example, said,  “I have never written anything which did not come directly or indirectly from some event or impression of my own,” and “I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one; Is it the truth as I know it, or better still, feel it,” and “I am a dramatist. What I see everywhere in life is drama. I just set down what I feel in terms of life and let the facts speak whatever language they may to an audience,” and “Writing plays was the easiest thing in the world for me. I wasn’t making anything up.”

Some famous autobiographical authors who could be obsessive about not lying or writing about things they hadn’t experienced themselves include:

Katherine Anne Porter

Saul Bellow

Ernest Hemingway

Sherwood Anderson

Marcel Proust

Thomas Wolfe

Eugene O’ Neill

Henry Miller

Anton Chekhov

James Joyce

D.H. Lawrence

Sylvia Plath

Malcolm Lowry

Scott Fitzgerald

Raymond Carver

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, another Nobel Prize winner, could invent with the best of imaginative writers, but was obsessed with telling the truth, the importance of telling the truth, in his words, “the straight statement without moralizing or elaborating or decoration”–what “is not messed with.” He was asked what the job of the artist is, and he said it is to put down what you see and what you feel in the best and simplest way you can. What he had personally done and knew most about was what he was interested in telling about. “His standard of truth-telling remained…so high and so rigorous that he was ordinarily unwilling to admit secondary evidence…picked up from other sources than his own experience” (Carlos Baker.) Whenever I read the wonderful Hemingway short story “Indian Camp” I know that boy sitting in the rowboat was once the real Hemingway and the man with him was his real father just as in the boy in the story I read to the group was my best recollection of how I was as a boy.

Thomas Wolfe had an enormously retentive memory, as autobiographical writers generally do, and engaged in exhausting, sustained, many-hours-long periods of writing. (Research shows that the most productive writers and painters usually work in long, protracted bouts of creation and not in brief, choppy spurts. For maximum effectiveness you would preferably have or develop the ability to concentrate your attention for long periods, and if possible, find long uninterrupted, unimpeded periods of time for work.)  The artist’s highest goal is to make conflict-free, habitual use of the urge to create that dominates him or her, with no one and nothing interfering. It is not just interference that so aggravates the creator, but even the threat of interference.

Wolfe’s aspiration was to put into his writing precise descriptions of every experience and every impression and every sight and sound he had ever known. He wanted to put all the experiences in his life into written language, and had every confidence that was possible. His life had to be “looted clean.” “Everything had to be used; nothing could be implied” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature).

Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe, Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

Like many creatives whether in the arts or the sciences, Wolfe was governed almost wholly by the compulsion to work, to be as productive as he could possibly be. Words came out of him straight from his memory as water comes from a spigot–hundreds of thousands of words, thousands every night, manuscripts of a million words, his never having any concept of the requirements of a publishable book. Whenever he was deterred from working, this tall, handsome, tremendously gifted man from North Carolina would fall into a black mood. Then he would brood, drink, and pace the streets all night until he was able to work again, starting in the evening and working past the break of dawn.

Malcolm Lowry was the English author of the wonderful virtuoso-performance novel Under the Volcano. It’s generally considered one of the great works of the twentieth century. It is possibly the most accurate description of a man’s alcoholism ever written. (He wrote, “One dreaded the arrival of anyone unless they were bringing alcohol.”). Lowry almost never tried to invent characters or events because he didn’t know enough about any other person to be able to do that. His subject was himself and he could not focus on anybody outside himself. When he tried to, the writing went flat. He didn’t know anything about world events or anything else either. Everything revolved around his thoughts.

James Joyce

James Joyce

James Joyce had such a need for authenticity and accuracy that he believed he didn’t possess an imagination at all: he couldn’t make things up. When writing Ulysses he sent a letter home to Dublin asking a friend to go see if it was possible for a man in average physical condition to jump from this place to another at a specific address, or was it impossible. He had to know or he couldn’t finish the book. He was depressed when after the book was published a retired sea captain wrote him telling there was a mistake in the book in that with wind blowing the way he described, the boat wouldn’t have behaved in the way he had it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with Hemingway, is arguably the most dramatic example in American literary history of an author whose private life is reflected consciously or otherwise in virtually everything he wrote. Fitzgerald’s language, his prose, his voice, tell us what he was going through at any given moment in his career, from his early extraordinary successes through his crack-up. Saul Bellow’s fiction is strongly biographical fiction. Its focus on the workings of a brilliant mind help explain why his writings are in essence long monologues. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is also strongly autobiographical.

T.S. Eliot said, “We all have to choose whatever subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.” Literary critic Gilbert Murray wrote, “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings.” It is not a random choice, but a discriminating, highly selective instinct, a particular order of things that has an outstanding appeal to that particular writer. Painter Julian Levi said, “It seems to me that almost every artist finds some subdivision of nature or experience more congenial to his temperament than any other.” The subject matter, the subdivision of experience that all these writers mentioned here found, and that autobiographical writers today find, is not what they can imagine, but themselves and the recollection of the lives they’ve lived.

It’s generally thought among critics that Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past were the two greatest novels of the twentieth century. The subject of Proust’s book was Proust as much as the subject of Lowry’s works was Lowry. Wolfe’s subject was Wolfe, Fitzgerald’s was Fitzgerald, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, Plath’s was Plath, Hemingway’s was Hemingway, etc.

The answer to the question, “Can a true story be communicated as fiction?” is “Of course.”

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Creativity, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction, Literature, Malcom Lowry, Memory, Thomas Wolfe, Work Production, Writers, Writing