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Preparation and Creative Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

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Conquering Blocks to Achievement

My book Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life shows you an intelligent program for overcoming your internal blocks to reaching your highest achievements. All people everywhere on earth have an Every living thingurge to bloom, to blossom, to reach their fullest potential, but most aren’t able to because their inner blocks stop them time and again. They give up. They settle for lesser lives, and there’s no need for that.

There are a thousand blocks, but the main inner blocks you face are these:

Fear

Being afraid to take risks

Thinking too much

Doubting yourself

Hesitating

Fear:  Fear is the internal block of blocks, the obstacle of obstacles. The whole raven-1002849_640secret of existence is to be free of fear. When fear is conquered  your life begins fresh.

Being afraid of taking risks: How mediocre our lives would be if they consisted solely of avoiding risks. A survey was done of 300 adults who were asked to reflect on their lives, their happiness and their regrets. Who were the most dissatisfied with their lives? Those people who regretted not taking more risks.

Thinking too much: The Chinese character for “cowardice” is composed of two symbols, “meaning” and “mind.” The coward is one who finds too much person-690231_640meaning in things. He or she thinks too much. You’re thinking too much and becoming a coward when you spend an inordinate amount of time anticipating what could go wrong. Thinking that way you won’t start that business and won’t change your career though you’re unhappy, and won’t write that novel, and the rest of your life wish you had.

Doubting yourself: All people but fools doubt themselves sometimes. For most people, self-doubt is a fleeting and not-so-serious thing. But it dominates the lives of others and is their most serious block. They experienced doubt when they were children, and they still experience it as adults, and if nothing is done about it they will experience it the rest of their lives. What differentiates people who are confident from those in the habit of doubting themselves is not necessarily ability. People who doubt themselves may have as much ability or more ability, or much more ability than their confident counterpart who’s far less gifted but much more successful.

girl-1031309_640Hesitating: If you often find yourself waiting (for your lover to call you up, for that “just right” feeling before you act or for the “right” moment to start your life’s big enterprise) you might be on your way to becoming a hesitator. What you need now is a life of decisive choices. Throw a stake in the ground and say, “No hesitations anymore.”

REMEDIES

Practice the Skill of Making Your Body Obey Your Mind

The samurai skill of making your body obey your mind is this: going into action and getting done what needs to be done in your life in spite of your blocks. Not letting them stop you. You needn’t go off to a sanctuary on the top of a mountain to conquer your fear of whatever. You can say, “OK fear, come along if you want but THOUGH I’M TERRIFIED I’ve got a speech to give. Self-doubt, hesitation, thinking too much—you can’t stop me.”

Every day in offices, streets, art studios, and living rooms people are thinking: “In order to do it (whatever it is) I’ve got to first overcome my problem—my fear (or shyness, lack of self-confidence, bad habits, indecisiveness, etc.). Once I get rid of that baby, I’ll be all right. Then I’ll be able to sell, or lead company staff, make a speech in the town hall, go on a diet, etc.

The real problem isn’t what they think it is. It’s not the fear or lack of confidence or doubt. It’s their belief that the fear and doubt have the power to prevent them from doing the “it.” If you forget about yourself and your blocks completely and focus only on adapting to what life requires of you, no block will ever stop you.  Say to yourself, “THIS BLOCK HAS NO RIGHT TO STOP ME.” Keep your mind focused only on the task; forget about your emotions. PUT EMOTIONS OUT OF THE EQUATION.

So the next time a block is threatening to stop you, just have your body obey your mind.

Be Bold

The argument can easily be made that boldness and daring in and of themselves are what bring success in life. Boldness is the power to let go of the familiar and the secure. It isn’t something you save for when your life, your work, is going well. It’s precisely when things are going badly that you should be boldest. When things look particularly grim and you’re most discouraged, increase your determination and go forward confidently.

People are curious and want to know more about boldness because they know how important it is. I was asked to write an article on the subject for Success magazine and the article received one of the magazine’s highest readership scores ever in their history.

I know a painter. The best teacher she ever had gave her the best advice she ever received. He looked at her as she painted and said, “You’re being too careful. Make bolder strokes.” He went away. She followed his advice. He came paint-33883_1280back and studied her work. He raised his voice and said, “Bolder.” Later he came back again and said, even louder, “Bolder! What are you afraid of?” ”

It’s worthwhile to ask yourself when you discover yourself being stopped by blocks: “Bolder! What am I afraid of?”

Be Committed To A Life With Purposes

The samurai was taught, “Focus on your purpose.” When you discover what you must accomplish with your life, and moments in it, there comes something new and remarkable into your existence. You become inspired and mighty. You’re electric with that rarest of qualities possessed by so few—INTENSITY. Then your every act takes on a power strong enough to bring down a wall of iron. All hesitations and all fears and doubts fall away. You feel a zest, a tingle. Your imagination is on fire. It’s strength to be of one mind, complete and undivided, fully committed to a life with purpose.

Purposes are far more powerful than blocks. In the face of a powerful purpose, blocks dissolve and disappear. They can no longer stop you.

It’s never justified to say you can’t find a purpose. Purposes lie all around you like glittering jewels. Make whatever you’re doing your purpose of the moment, from the smallest thing to the biggest. Give what you’re doing stature, however insignificant it may seem. Then you’ll have intensity.

For a shy woman to conquer her shyness and go to a party alone is a major purpose. She’ll need a strong will and great courage. To take a second job for your family is a purpose. To be an attentive parent is a purpose. To start out on a new career is a purpose. To save a rain forest is a purpose.

Feather-60552_640When you make a purpose out of what a moment before was merely a responsibility, or a chore, or a duty by thinking, “This, what I’m doing now is my purpose” extraordinary achievements become possible. Obligations, once a heavy burden, now become light as feathers. Your life becomes tinged with a kind of glory. You become tinged with glory, and there is hardly an obstacle you can’t overcome, no obstacle out in the world, and no obstacle in you.

So, begin every day and every act of every day with a powerful purpose in mind.

 

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

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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Creative People Need Optimism

I’ve mentioned before that while most of my blog readers are extremely talented and impressive artists and writers of all sorts in 135 countries, I don’t usually write about technique. That information can be gotten in a thousand places, and usually what’s said you’ve heard 200 times before. No, the turf I’ve staked out for myself concerns what I call The Inner Skills of Creative People. For there, I think, inside you, in your spirit, will be found the magical difference between run of the mill, adequate creators and great ones. Technique is important but will take you only so far. There’s more to being a creator. There is just something about great painters, writers, dancers, and actors that makes them great, and it comes from within.

So I write freely and happily about such creators’ necessities as courage, persistence, tenacity, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, and discipline.  And resilience, enthusiasm, guts, self-motivation, boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, and other spiritual dimensions of you, the creator.

And today I’ll write about the creator’s Inner Skill of optimism. 

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens

What separates winners from losers, Olympic athletes from other world class competitors? According to a group of researchers who studied America’s top wrestlers, the difference is not in physical ability, and it’s not in training methods–they’re pretty standard. Wrestlers eliminated in Olympic trials tended to be self-doubting, confused, and pessimistic before the match. The winners were optimistic, positive, and relaxed.  Those who made the team were also more poised and in control of their reactions than the losers, who were more likely to become emotionally upset. The researchers were able to predict 92% of the winners by using profiles of the wrestlers alone–without seeing a single wrestling match!

It’s not only in athletic performance that optimists fare better than pessimists, but in school and work performance too. In one experiment, students’ success on tests was more related to their optimism than to their intelligence. A positive, optimistic frame of mind increases power and effectiveness. A pessimistic frame of mind depletes them.

One major job of writers and artists is to sell their work—to magazines and publishers, and galleries, show sponsors, and clients. It stands to reason that the more optimistic writer and artist will have more selling success than their museum-184947_640pessimistic counterparts because optimists make better sales people than pessimists. A study was done of two groups of people selling over the phone. One group was comprised of trained and experienced sales people who were pessimistic. The others were women who didn’t have a single day of experience or training in sales at all, but scored high on a test for optimism. The untrained and inexperienced women optimists easily out-performed the trained and experienced pessimists. So if you’re not a natural optimist, you may wish to see the strategies below.

Anyone who’s trying to be creative should aim for an optimistic mood. Pessimism decreases creative productivity. But a mood of optimism improves problem-finding and problem-solving abilities, and if there are two abilities every creator needs it is to be able to find the main problems to solve and to be able to solve them. Creators in an optimistic mood feel safe, which fosters bolder, more relaxed and creative approaches. Optimists are more willing to take risks.

Optimism entails:

  1. Feeling free and easy as you write, paint, dance, or act.
  2. Being collected, composed, and calm; not fretting and worrying or being grumpy, resentful, or irritable.
  3. Putting unsolvable problems aside, forgiving yourself for past  mistakes and letting them go.
  4. Being decisive and taking actions that will benefit you.
  5. Thinking hopefully.
  6. Being endlessly curious about life and confident that you can handle whatever it brings.
  7. Maintaining hope and faith in the rightness of things and the future, and that things will work out for the best; trusting your luck.
  8. Ridding yourself of bad habits.
  9. Having confidence and feeling in control of things and master of your destiny.
  10. Being open, trusting, genuine, sincere, kindly, and generous with others.
  11. Being brave and totally focused and clear-minded in action.
  12. Experiencing moments of bliss knowing that at that moment you and your life are at their best.
  13. Never letting setbacks penetrate your spirit; expecting to succeed and not to fail.
  14. Holding no illusions, but  knowing exactly where you are in life, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there.
  15. Having implicit and unshakable confidence in your goals and not budging a single inch from them, being willing to work hard for them, knowing that fear is your most powerful enemy and that there’s nothing to fear and no reason to hold anything back.

This is the route to optimism and personal power.

Pessimistic writers and artists believe they’re not in control, that creative tasks are too much for them. If you believe you’re not in control, you set lower goals and have a weak commitment to them. But the more strongly you believe that you are in control the higher the goals you set, the stronger your determination to achieve them, and the longer you persevere, even in the face of adversity. Optimistic writers and artists take adversity as a challenge and aren’t discouraged. Trouble ignites them, it fires them up; they’re confident, and they come to life. Even as a young poet Anne Sexton sent out a poem as soon as it was rejected.  Sometimes she sent out the same poem fifteen times.

rose-1130037_640Optimists are able to persist just as strongly in the face of difficulties as when everything is rosy because they have absolute confidence in themselves and hold a favorable view of their future. Persisting rather than giving up, they’re more likely to succeed. Succeeding increases their self-confidence and optimism even more, and they apply themselves again. This cycle is true of people doing any kind of work, from workers on an assembly line to their supervisors, from students to their teachers, from children to their parents, from one writer or artist to another: wherever you find optimists and pessimists.

Optimism does not take the place of talent, focus, hard work, and the development of skills. But if there are two equally talented and hardworking artists or writers–an optimist and a pessimist–the optimist will go further and have more success. And pessimism can destroy creative talent.

Seven Strategies for Maintaining Your Optimism

  1. Think optimistic and hopeful thoughts–not just once in a while, but all the time, whatever the circumstances. When you find yourself thinking unpleasantly, pessimistically, change and think optimistic thoughts. The only way to drive out an undesirable thought is by substituting a powerful desirable thought. By thinking differently, you can replace writers’ and artists’ self-doubt and discouragement with self-confidence, fear with courage, boredom with interest, and pessimism with optimism. Don’t dwell on the negative, but jump over to the positive every time. Be like a fish in a stream and swish your tail and quickly change directions. Think thoughts that make you feel free and easy, composed and confident, free of worry, and brave. Just kick every other kind of thought out of your mind.
  2. Be addicted to goals and action. The path to living optimistically lies in action. Optimistic action immediately invigorates you.
  3. Always maintain high hopes no matter what. The question isn’t whether you’ll experience defeat, but how you’ll handle it when you do. Everyone without a single exception takes it on the chin sometime. When you’re beaten–by an event, a situation, a circumstance, a person–gather yourself up, be resolved, and come back again. Never let misfortune penetrate your depths. Setbacks can’t defeat an optimistic and determined person. That’s not possible. The optimism of a creative person needs to be indestructible.
  4. Don’t dwell on past failures. Why punish yourself with what didn’t work out? When you’re knocked down, get up right away. Get back on your feet. Regain your bearings. The next moment offers a reprieve, a new beginning. Seize it.
  5. Continually look to past successes. List them on a sheet of paper and you’ll see how long a list can be. Look at them when you doubt yourself and your optimism will return.
  6. Spend time with optimists as much as possible. Birds of a feather flock together, so choose your birds very carefully.
  7. Learn to play. The joke goes that a horse sits down at a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?” You run into long-faced people at work, the check-out stand, the post office, writers’ groups and artists’ groups–everywhere–all the time. But people with a sense of humor are happier, healthier, and more optimistic.

sun-314340_640You know very well that if your thoughts are pessimistic–if you’re “off”–your commitment to action is not 100% and your spirit and energy are weak. You don’t feel like working; you take the day off. But when you’re optimistic and know what you want and are confident you can get it, you’re able to devote yourself to it with a powerful singleness of purpose. When you’re like that there is almost no way of stopping you from any success you  dream of.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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Stamina: The Creative Person’s Hidden Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow said, “For the artist work is the main thing and always comes first.” Psychologist Howard Gardner writes about high-excelling creative people. He says, “Individuals whose stock in trade is to do things which are novel, are people who’ve got to have a pretty good command of how they work.” Some writers and artists produce 10, 15, 25 times more work than others and those most productive usually rise higher in their field and find a greater sense of accomplishment. The more work you produce the higher quality your work will tend to be because the more you do something, the better you get.

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

…THE MOST INTENSELY

…FOR THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME

…OVER THE LONGEST TIME SPAN

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Writing Routines and Rituals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Two Success Stories for Creative People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Living with Commitment and Power

When I was writing Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your work and Life and getting ready to send the manuscript off to Doubleday, the publisher, a good friend with my best interests in mind made it a point to come over to my house one afternoon to warn me. He said, “You’re not going to talk about death are you, Dave? It will be too depressing for your readers because your writing is always so optimistic, hopeful, and inspiring, and that’s what readers will be expecting. No one wants to read about death. No one wants to be reminded they’re going to die. I know, I know very well you have this belief that a writer must always tell the truth and owes it to the reader to never not tell the truth, but leave that out of your book. Even your editor won’t like it.”

Fighting to Win shows how the wisdom and philosophy of the samurai, the greatest and most spiritual warriors who samurai-161642_640ever walked the earth, applies to the everyday lives of anyone who can read the book, and will help them—old people, young people, students, movie stars, writers, artists, business people, teachers—anyone–Americans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Russians. And since death was so ever-present in the lives of these samurai men and women whose role was to risk death in battle without flinching or running away, how could I ignore death?

Warriors are taught to act boldly and decisively in the face of inevitable fate. In his “Primer” for samurai, Shigesuke Daidoji says, “The idea most vital and essential to the samurai is that of death, which he ought to have before his mind day and night, night and day, from the dawn of the first day of the year till the last minute of the last day of it . . . Think what a frail thing life is, especially that of a samurai. This being so, you will come to consider every day of your life your last and dedicate it to the fulfillment of your obligations. Never let the thought of a long life seize upon you, for then you are apt to indulge in all kinds of dissipation.”

Hagakure, a famous samurai text, says, ‘Every morning make up your mind to die. Every evening freshen your mind with the thought of death.”

“Freshening” your mind with the thought of death might seem a grim way to spend time; on the contrary, it is anything but. Those who are totally aware of how short their life will be—and who can feel the importance of that fact in the deepest corners of themselves—live a completely different kind and quality of life than the people who drift mindlessly along, never letting the thought sink in that in a relatively short time they will be gone.

All truly living things–creators in particular–have an urge to grow, to continue growing til the end of their lives.

In Japan the samurai is likened to the delicate cherry blossom which doesn’t last long in the wind that blows it from the japanese-cherry-trees-324175_640tree. One moment it is there and the next it’s gone. The same is true of the samurai and you and me. You are a cherry blossom and I am a cherry blossom too.

Every person with vitality and spirit chooses to die hard; to not go gentle into that good night and to fight against the dying of the light. If you’re a person with spirit, you’re no fool. You know death is going to get you, but it’s going to have a battle on its hands. While alive, you’re going to live without wasting your limited time being worried, cowardly, tentative, or putting things off for a tomorrow that might not come.

When you live with the full knowledge that death is always stalking you, you feel a quick surge of powerful energy, a sudden spark that overcomes you. When you live in the samurai style—as if you are already dead—you operate even more vitally. You acquire extraordinary courage, boldness, and decisiveness. You’re not timid any more, not about anything, any task, any impediment. You “go beyond the trifles of the world.” You fear nothing; you are fearless.

You reach a state of seishi o choetsu, “beyond life and death,” where even the knowledge of your death no longer frightens you. All that matters now is making use of the tremendous power you suddenly feel inside to accomplish all you set your mind to and to find your true destiny, a power strong enough, says the samurai “to bring down walls of iron.” And then your every act takes on an intensity that you have never known before. You live with commitment and power, two feet higher and  three steps faster than everyone else. And you find that you have incredible control over the conduct of your life. You find that there is not a single obstacle you cannot overcome.

The Rabbit and the Fox

A wise master and one of his students went for a walk through the countryside. The student pointed to a fox chasing a rabbit and said, “Oh, the poor rabbit.”

cottontail-rabbit-938478_640The master said, “The rabbit will elude the fox.”

The student was surprised. Maybe the old man’s mind wasn’t so sharp anymore. He said, “No, you see, the fox is faster.”

“The rabbit will get away,” repeated the master.

“What makes you think so?” asked the student.

“Because the fox is running for his dinner, but the rabbit is running for his life.”

The first step in living at the gut-level is understanding that we are all running for our lives.

An Exercise

The exercise is a short one. Read this . . .

The first man asked, “How do you feel?”

“Like one who has risen in the morning and doesn’t know whether he will be dead in the evening.”

“But this is the situation of all men.”

“Yes, but how many of them feel it?”

. . . and feel it.

I sent the manuscript off and ten days later my editor called to talk about it. He started by saying, “We love that section about the samurai and death. I was worried about how you would handle that. You made a potentially depressing subject inspiring. One editor would read those pages and pass them on to another editor and say ‘Look at this’ and now we can’t imagine the book without them.”

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Programming Success in Writing and Art

Theresa

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

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

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

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

Programmed Activities Force Out Un-Programmed Activities

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

Two and A Half Million Artists

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

Paul Pulszartti 3 (4)

Painting by Paul Pulszartti

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

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

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

Learning How To Excel and Plateauing

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

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

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

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

Not Screwing Around Anymore

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

Theresa’s Programmed Activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talent and Many Truths to Tell

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Artists Aim for Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Take Charge of Your Creative Life

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

How are you like them?

How are you different?

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

“I could…”

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

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

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

The Song of First Swallow by Paul Pulszartti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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