Tag Archives: memories

Ross Lockridge: Artistic Success Became Tragedy

As a boy I had heard the story of the short, strange life of a novelist from my part of the country who wrote one book, and then he died. When I was old enough I read it, and it was a long and wonderful, beautifully-written book. tree-246194_640And I remember the movie they made from it, and the wistful music and the tall golden tree at the end when everything turned out well. I have the feeling now that a little time should be taken to remember him.

His goal since his Midwest American childhood was to write a great successful novel. Why shouldn’t he? If ever there was “a charmed life” it belonged to Ross Lockridge, Jr.  He was immensely talented, handsome, confident, reliable, competitive, rarely drank and never smoked, married to his pretty hometown sweetheart, father of four, brilliant, a success at everything he ever attempted– sports, academics, girls—highest GPA in Indiana University history—for six years a relentless worker on the novel that consumed and obsessed and tormented him and on which he staked his claim to greatness—Raintree County.

He believed in his critically-admired and widely-praised book and single-mindedly devoted himself to writing it and to its promotion. He worked with no other purpose, compelled by a force that made everything but the book unimportant, nothing else mattering—twenty or thirty pages a day flying from his typewriter–a rich man now after years of financial worries, scrounging, budgeting, and sacrificing. Yet shortly after Raintree had catapulted him into fame and money, and was the biggest success in the literary world, seeing his book become not just a hit, but the number one best seller in the United States, he committed suicide.

He left the new house his royalties had bought him, telling his wife he was going to mail the letters he was holding in his hand and might stop over at his book-with-treefather’s house to listen to a basketball game on the radio. He seemed to be in a good mood and had seemed cheerful all day. He was now mentally ill and had to admit that. He had sought treatment though his family didn’t want to admit he was sick. Recently, his wife had found him opening and closing the kitchen cabinets and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m looking for a way out.” His many treatments of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy—“shock treatment”) had failed.

He went into the garage, locked the doors behind him, started the engine of his new car and ran a vacuum cleaner hose from the tail pipe into the car’s ventilation system. He lay down in the back seat and was found by his family hours later. He was thirty-three.

There is never a single theme, event, or explanation that comes out of a man or woman’s life. But no one who knows anything about how easy it is to be trapped in a pursuit of achievement that’s gotten out of control, especially in the arts, can fail to hear the echoes of similar voices equally successful and equally in despair—Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway’s suicide and one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and Pulitzer Prize winning beautiful, sexy poet, doomed Anne Sexton’s.

Success not only did not bring Lockridge happiness, it brought pain and depression. Everything in his life he’d reflected in his book and now the book branches-625907_640was done and he had nothing creative left. He tried, but he couldn’t write anymore. He felt he had made too many compromises to his publisher and the movie studio, had given in too often when he shouldn’t have, and had sold his soul and was paying for it.

Anyone who’s been touched by fame’s and wealth’s pursuit recognizes the symptoms of Lockridge’s ambition gone awry: sadness, the sense of being cheated and exploited, resentments, anger, hostility, and then the misery of miseries: his inability to create. The fulfillment that gives a healthy artist’s life, its main meaning was no more. All his joy was gone. Success was too difficult for Ross to bear.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Ernest Hemingway, Life History Study, Literature, Raintree County, Ross Lockridge, Writers

Art and Memory

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Filed under Artistic Integrity, Artists, Growing Up Stories, Memory, Personal Stories, Writers

Joys Of A Workaholic Writer Wasting Time

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

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

Today I will explore the joys of wasting time.

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

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

A number of studies comparing novices with experts in most fields support the idea that because of their great knowledge and skill, experts are able to accomplish with almost no effort what non-experts can accomplish only with difficulty or can’t accomplish at all. That’s just common sense, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

(If you’re curious, according to me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer's Block

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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

Serendipity in a Creator’s Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Awakened to a Waiting Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even as a boy I knew that.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Imagination and Creative Success

The mind imitates what it first imagines.

Writers and artists often reflect on their careers and wish they were doing better—were more skilled, had made more progress, and were experiencing important successes more often. All the while they are wishing, they are in possession of a highly refined ability that may hold the answer to their wishes. When we possess the potential to perform something, if we vividly and in detail imagine ourselves performing it successfully, our potential will be released and we will perform nearly the same way during the actual performance as we did in our imagined performance. This insight—this technique—can help a writer or artist achieve greater success.

Nadejda Sarbatova2

Painting by Nadejda Sarbatova

If there is one unique skill writers and artists possess in abundance, it is making vivid visual images. Images are the basis of the writer’s and artist’s work. They think in images, and the central problem is how to put the image of the thing—the poem, the book, the play, the painting, the sculpture, the building—into a tangible form that satisfies the creator and also appeals to an audience. Can you write a description of a character’s face or of the leaves on a tree or paint them without the ability to visualize images of them in your mind and then to make facsimiles of those images in words and pigments, words and pigments that will recreate for the reader and viewer the very images you had salvador-dali-32079_640imagined? Surrealist Salvador Dali liked to use in his work images that came to him when he fell asleep—you can understand why–so he would sit at a table while sleepy, prop his chin with a spoon, and then wait to be awakened when he fell asleep and the spoon fell.

Images also affect the writer’s audience because the audience thinks in images too. Even the smallest image is like a photograph the audience mentally sees. In poetry the just right image can make a poem, but just one wrong image can ruin it—that’s how sensitive readers are to images. In her book, The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp tells the story of the difficulty director Mike Nichols was having getting Annie ready for Broadway. A scene that was supposed to get laughs was failing, so Nichols asked famed choreographer Jerome Robbins to fix the scene. Robbins looked at the stage and pointed to a towel hanging at the back of the set. He said, “That towel should be yellow.” The change was made and thereafter the audience laughed at the scene.

Remembering is at the core of a writer’s repertoire of skills, the writer’s stock in trade. And it is composed of images—remembrance of things past. Artists who paint in studios paint from memory of the landscape, the sunset, the garden. Images, imagination, and intuition go hand in hand. Novelist Thomas Wolfe’s ambition was to turn even the most minor experience he had ever had in life and every image he remembered into words—“those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash…which seem to be of no consequence…which live in our minds and hearts forever.”

table-92514_640So it should not be difficult for you to use your highly-developed image-creating and image-remembering powers to help you achieve your goals—to visualize yourself working diligently to achieve them, and then achieving them with great success. What first occurs in your imagination is a rehearsal for reality. Turn that to your advantage.

The research and practical experience showing that imaginative practice—mentally visualizing performing an action the way you wish to perform it—can actually improve performance—and substantially–is overwhelming. That your mental images can do that is a stunning insight. I can vividly imagine myself running a mile in 3:47, but I will never be able to do it, nor will I ever sing a Puccini aria on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera though I can picture that too. They are beyond my physical capabilities. But when something is within the range of our capabilities–and that range is much broader than we usually believe it to be–the images we hold can have a startling effect on actual performance such as becoming a better and more financially successful writer and artist.

There’s no arena in which the effects of inner images on performance is as widely recognized as athletics. In one landmark study that looked at the effects of imaginative practice on actual performance, basketball free throw shooting was looked at. Participants were divided into three groups. The performance of each participant was measured on the first and last days to see if the experiment led to any improvement. One group practiced shooting for twenty minutes each day for twenty days. A second group didn’t practice at all. The third group spent twenty minutes a day not actually shooting–not touching a basketball at all–but just imagining themselves shooting free throws successfully; standing at the free throw line, looking at the rim, bending their knees, etc. When they “saw” themselves missing, they imaginatively corrected their aim. The group that practiced actually shooting improved their performance by 24% over the twenty days. Not surprisingly, the second group that hadn’t practiced at all didn’t improve at all. But the group that hadn’t actually shot one ball, but practiced in their imagination alone, improved in scoring almost as much as those who actually shot the ball—23%.

golf-163637_640(1)Golfers were divided into three groups. Before putting, Group I imagined the ball rolling into the cup. Group II practiced every day, but made no use of imaginative practice. Group III imagined the ball missing the cup. The performance of the group using imaginative practice of the ball rolling into the cup improved 30% between day one and day six. The group that practiced every day, but made no use of imaginative practice also improved, but only 10%. The group that imagined the ball missing the cup showed a decrease of 21% over the six days. These experiments weren’t really “about” free throw shooting or sinking putts at all. They were about the impact of practicing in your mind on your actual performance.

Mental patients have improved their condition by imagining that they are perfectly normal and then behaving in exactly the way they imagine. Hospitalized patients took a personality test. Then they took the same test a second time. The second time they were instructed to answer the questions not as they normally would, but as they would were they a typical, well-adjusted person on the outside. To do that they had to form and hold in mind an image of how a well-adjusted person would act. Seventy-five percent showed improved test performance. Some of the improvements were dramatic. Imagining how a normal person would act, many began to act like, and feel like, a well-adjusted person functioning in the outside world. That affected their recovery.

The famous concert pianist Arthur Schnabel took lesson for only seven years compared to the twenty or twenty five years many pianists take. And while even the most successful concert pianists generally spend hours every day piano-302122_640practicing, Schnabel hated practice and spent little time on it. He was asked how he could practice so little and be so great. “I practice in my head,” he said. Mozart made very few corrections on his compositions. Before he began to put notes on paper he already had a complete mental picture of what they would be. He wrote:

…provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.

  • Hold clearly and steadily in mind throughout the year, throughout the day, images of what you aspire to—the writer or artist you wish to be; to produce exceptional work, to write beautiful or persuasive or moving text, to draw or paint more skillfully than ever. It is first in your imagination that you launch yourself toward your highest aspirations. Decide what they are, and then vividly imagine what you want to have happen. Then pursue them with determination in the way you have vividly imagined them.
  • Regularly, for fifteen minutes every day (weekends included) imagine the actions you want to take:

Vividly

In specific detail

Step by step

Over and over.

Repetition fixes an image of the ideal performance in your mind.

  • Imagine that writing or painting come easily to you—the ideas are clear, the words and brushstrokes come out of you without effort, fluently, as if on their own. Now there they are on the page and canvas exactly as you want them.
  • Imagine you’ve found the solutions to artistic problems that till now you haven’t been able to solve. Imagine that you have overcome obstacles that have been blocking you.
  • Delete from your mind every image of failure such as imagining yourself receiving a rejection from an editor or gallery and add only images of success. Do that continually and relentlessly. Get rid of images of yourself as a failure, not competent, not up to the writer’s or artist’s tasks—discouraged, disappointed, weak.
  • When an image of failure enters your mind—as it will (you are human)–replace it with a more optimistic image of success. If you visualize yourself failing, you sabotage yourself and increase your chances of doing that, just as putters who visualize themselves missing the hole are prone to missing the hole. You are actually practicing failure.
  • It isn’t necessary to be relaxed when you’re visualizing. In fact, some tension, some excitement, makes you more alert and focused.
  • Visualize yourself working as skillfully as you would like in the ideal work setting you would like, during the hours you would like, for the length of time you would like.
  • Then, focus your mind on the task ahead of you often. Think of it again and again. Then, immediately before you perform it, clearly visualize yourself performing the action perfectly—the right words, the right imagery, the right form and technique, right style, the meanings you intend.
  • Do it–whatever it is—precisely the way you have imagined doing it. Images, no matter how vivid, will come to nothing unless you translate them into actions that conform to the images, so let the images guide you.
  • Be enthusiastic and confident. Enthusiasm and confidence add zest to your images.
  • Combine your images with thinking aloud. For example saying aloud as you are visualizing, “I will work smoothly and efficiently. Everything will go well. I don’t anticipate problems, but if there are any, I’ll be able to solve them.”

Add Feelings

youth-570881_640The technique of adding feelings is adding emotions of successful achievement to what you have visualized as though you’ve already succeeded. This is a very effective motivational technique. You’re not interested now in the mental images of the way you will achieve the goal. Rather you’re letting yourself feel what you will feel when you have reached the goal—or solved writing or artistic problems or made progress. Having done those things you’ll feel satisfaction, pleasure, pride, a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence; you’ll feel relieved, and possibly excited, overjoyed, elated, and thrilled. Whatever you imagine you will feel then, feel it now in anticipation. Don’t wish and hope you’ll succeed, but treat success as an accomplished fact. It’s done, and you have already succeeded and are glowing with positive emotions. Feel the physical sensations of that glow, that sense of warmth, the excitement, the energy, the heightened perception, the sharpness. Imagining what you will feel when you succeed fuels your motivation to succeed because that is how you want to feel. Congratulate yourself: YOU DID IT and now you are enjoying the feelings.

Every day—once, twice, three times, four times — let yourself feel the strong emotions you’ll feel when you’ve succeeded.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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The Life Path of Artists and Writers

path and sunlight-166733_640Who are you? Where are you going? Where have you been?

As a boy I realized that Socrates’ advice that everyone in the Western world has heard at least five or six times–“Know thyself”–was no less difficult than to walk from my porch to the moon. But I know now that if we look carefully at where we have been, who we have known, what our life’s events from the earliest days have meant to us, and where we are going, we can in fact satisfy Socrates and know ourselves. This is a goal that is particularly important to creative people because their work is an exact reflection of the remarkable men and women their lives have made them.

 Your Ground Plan

It is a biological concept that applies very much to artists and artists’ development: everything that grows—a rose, an eagle, a human being– has a life plan, a ground plan, and a life structure. All parts of this structure have a time to emerge that when complete form a unified identity, in our case, they come together to form the identity “artist,” and more specifically a type of artist: novelist, violinist, classical pianist, jazz pianist, movie composer, stage actor, ballet dancer, modern dancer, etc. That ground plan leads either directly in a straight line or in a roundabout helter-skelter way to that identity, but lead to it, it does. There is an order to our past, present, and future lives, however disorderly and unconnected they may seem.

frank-lloyd-wright-396991_640(1)

Frank LLoyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most renowned architect, knew from his earliest days that he would be an architect. When he was a child his mother told him he would, considering architecture man’s crowning achievement, and began to mold him to that art by placing illustrations of architectural masterpieces on his bedroom walls and encouraging him. And prodigies, Mozart, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Broadway composers Marvin Hamlisch and George Gershwin, and trumpeter Miles Davis among innumerable other artists followed a “neat and tidy” development, and knew as children precisely what their adult life’s pursuit would be. There could be no doubt. Novelist Henry James and his philosopher/psychologist brother William were raised with one objective in mind: to make them creative geniuses, and that’s what they became.

However, many successful artist’s ground plans follow a less neat and tidy, “messy,” meandering path, as in the cases of painters Vincent van Gogh (failed teacher, failed preacher, failed everything who yearned to find his true calling—and did at thirty-three when he was told he was starting too late), and Paul Gauguin (former affluent stock broker who abandoned his family to paint), and novelists Sherwood Anderson (successful business owner who also abandoned his business and family to write),Joseph Conrad (sea captain), and Henry Miller (telegraph office worker), and playwright Eugene O’ Neill (ship’s deck hand, grave digger, and aimless ne’r-do-well). The meandering path is typical of many artists as they experience hits and misses, successes and failures, victories and defeats, false starts and detours over and over. Straight or roundabout, tidy or messy, the artist’s ground plan is in effect and leads to his/ her being an artist and being recognized as such. There is not one best way to become a successful artist—writer—performer, etc. But there are any number of perfectly fine ways.

Has your creative ground plan been tidy or has it been messy?

La Grande Ligne

Out of the mass of experiences of his life, the artist (1) must somehow or other settle on an art and way of life that fits him; (2) must have the personal makeup necessary to excel in the art; must possess the (3) knowledge, (4) drive and persistence, (5)  confidence and (6) complement of skills necessary to excel, and must (7) further develop strengths along certain clear lines.

music-7971_640La grande ligne (“the long line”) is a term in music that means simply that every good piece of music gives the audience a sense of flow, of continuity from the first note to the last. That continuity and flow is the challenge and be-all and end-all of every composer’s existence. Every artist’s life—every painter, writer, actor, dancer–whatever his/her chosen art, has a grande ligne, a flow from beginning to end. All of the artist’s choices and goals should be understood as relating to their ground plan, whether the artist is or isn’t aware of that fact.

A number of components must come into alignment to result in a unity of direction and purpose of a person’s life, and certain steps must be followed. The components making a business woman are different from the components that work together to make a diplomat or a baker. Artists have alignments of components of a certain characteristic type–many personal qualities, interests, motivations, values, abilities, experiences, and other components. If just one component is missing, you no longer have a painter, sculptor, writer, or dancer. Everything must be present.

Life History Process

A way to acquire a clear view of your life’s “long line” is to come to understand: yourself as you are at this moment; the relationship between the person you are now and the days and years of your past life; how you conceive of your whole life; what happened in your life—what events meant to you and what they mean to you now. And to answer the question, “What am I trying to do as a human being, and as a creative person?”

  • Divide your life into periods, such as:

++++ Birth-15 years

++++ 15-25

++++ 25-45

++++ 45-65

++++ 65-

  • Recall key EPISODES from those periods, period by period—“When I was six this happened to me. It was very important because it introduced me to music…” “At twenty-three I had a gig at a local bar and met an agent at a party…” “At thirty I started to dabble with bright colors…” Very often an episode occurs when the artist’s existence seems to be organized and focused toward the art and he has a premonition that from that point forward the art will be prominent in his life. Your entire life is a drama composed of the total number of significant episodes. Looked at closely and objectively, they reveal larger plots and themes. Right now, even without much thought, what particularly meaningful episodes come quickly to mind?

++++ Episode 1

++++ Episode 2

++++ Episode 3

++++ Episode 4

Methods that can be used to help you recall key episodes include discussions with relatives and friends, looking at report cards, documents, and records, and at your products—stories, drawings, compositions, paintings, performances. Photo-history is a method that involves looking at photographs to stimulate your memory. Assemble photographs from your life. Put the photos in chronological order; look at one at a time; ask about the photos—when was it, where was I, who are those people, what was happening?

Looking closely at individual episodes, ask: “What was I trying to do?” “Who was I?” “What was I learning?” “How was I changing?” “Was something leading me in the direction of my future work—an experience, a teacher, a success, a failure?” How did everything contribute to your becoming who you are? When did your artist’s, writer’s, or actor’s ground plan start taking shape? How did it begin? Through what ups and downs did it lead you then?

You may wish to write an autobiographical narrative about important episodes as I do with my “Growing Up” stories—direct statements of what happened when. When you do, memories buried deep in your mind will come flooding back, and you will remember what was happening and how you were feeling. Memories—particularly of childhood–are a main source of a creator’s inspiration. Author Thomas Wolfe’s ambition was to describe everything he had ever experienced. Author John Updike said that nothing that happens to you after the age of twenty is worth writing about. Personal motifs begun earlier in life stay with the artist throughout life and are reflected again and again in everything he or she produces. These themes cannot be avoided; they are the artist’s DNA. Artists accumulate experiences, people, places, key episodes, and ideas which they will draw on the rest of their lives, endlessly recapitulating them in their work. He/she never forgets them. These are the origins—and the content– of their craft.

  • When reflecting on episodes think about:

++++ Your characteristics; your personality at the time

++++ Your abilities

++++ Your needs

++++ Your ambitions and dreams

  • Look at the episodes for times in your life of shifts and changes of direction—crises, periods of trouble and distress, great pleasure, and achievements. Look for the choices you made and how you dealt with their consequences. What did the choices mean to your life?
  • Sift through episodes for MAJOR THEMES. Your life has been a route of recurring themes, like those in a musical composition or a novel. For author Ernest Hemingway the themes of danger, of war, of adventure. Chagall’s Hasidism. Themes help explain many events in a person’s life and show continuity. Themes are groups of episodes that fall into a type.

What do you think right now, without much reflection, are your significant life’s themes?

My major themes are childhood, family, the place where I grew up, growing in understanding.

++++ Theme 1

++++ Theme 2

++++ Theme 3

++++ Theme 4

Bearing the major themes you’ve found in mind, ask yourself:

“Where do I seem to be headed? Where does it appear my grande ligne will lead me now?”

“What have I learned about myself from reflecting on my life and my artistic career?”

“What more do I want out of my painting, my dancing, my writing, my acting? What more can I give to it?

“Where do I want to be headed from this day on?”

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Angie

woman-259004_640(Appeared previously under a different title in East on Central)

A few afternoons a week when I was twelve I performed odd jobs for a small neighborhood grocery store with a creaky wood floor and a big bay window called Angie’s.

When I had a delivery to make I brought my red, hand-painted-by-my-father wagon around front and put the load in. Then I would charge, bound straight for glory down the narrow little streets whose every bump my wagon was friends with and had crisscrossed a thousand times, until I had turned a corner or was otherwise out of sight of Angie’s husband Mr. Costello, who spied like a penitentiary guard from the top step of the store to see if I was slacking off.

I treasured my escapes to my happiest world that waited as loyally as a dog outside the store for me. I loved being out on the familiar streets alone, on my own, free, with no adults to burden or restrain me, and there like a person entering a garden after a long illness, relished being reunited with the hallowed fresh air and sunlight, the glorious shades and shapes that festooned this, the tiny patch of the earth that Fortune had so generously allocated to me, and the sights that pleased my eyes, and sounds beyond number that sang in the streets like minstrels.

Delivering groceries was my favorite chore because it liberated me from Mr. Costello, whom I considered diabolical. Otherwise I would have to sweep the floors or shelve cans while Mr. Costello hovered menacingly over me, scowling and cursing, “Don’t do it like that kid, damn it, do it like this,” or, “Boy, turn the friggin cans so the customer can see the nice picture of peas on the front.” I didn’t think Mr. Costello despised me any more than he did anyone else since he treated everyone so miserably, without discriminating, including Angie–especially Angie.

Almost all the people I delivered to were feeble old widows, worn to weariness by a long life and loneliness. They led quiet, solitary lives, having years before given up hope of leaving their apartment for fear of falling and being hospitalized and dying there alone. They had thin, emaciated hands with long fingers and translucent skin that was traversed by long knotted blue veins. They walked with backs bowed and in a slow shuffle—despondent women in perpetual mourning. Their slippers made shy whispering sounds on the carpet, and in the air about their apartments hung the stale and unmistakable odor of a human life approaching its end.

Most every afternoon Mr. Costello, who had committed so many wrongs that it was impossible to remember a fraction of them, would go into the bathroom in the rear by the freezer and come out gussied up in dark silk shirts and two-tone shoes and brilliant yellow or pink ties. Smelling of sweet cologne, he would leave the store, walking in an arrogant strut. Then I would stand behind the shelves and watch Angie—singing softly to herself, swaying, dancing–as she glided, a seraph, through the narrow aisles. She was young and lithe; Mr. Costello was so old.

Beautiful, Angie had such fire in her spirit that I felt it flaming out to me when I approached her. It singed me like molten tongs. She smiled with such sweetness, gentleness, guilessness, and goodness that it broke my heart. She was to me an Egyptian queen, and her hair, her voice, her hands, her presence, brought something into my life which I knew to be love.

Because of her my life was purer and more beautiful, and when I stood close to her I could not breathe. When I dreamed, it was of her. When she was left alone by her husband, those were her hours of splendor, when she was set free and her spirit soared and she became the woman she truly was. But when he returned at sundown the day seemed to die and she surrendered and was transformed into a captive again.

One afternoon after he had chastised me for being a dime short on a customer payment, and I had accepted his wrath wordlessly, terrified to speak, Mr. Costello left the store. Angie came down the stairs to the basement where I was weighing potatoes. In the dim half-light of the single overhead bulb, I looked at her lovely face and her large round breasts confined in a green cotton blouse.

“Don’t let him scare you,” she said.

I longed to ask, “Why don’t you run away?” and to thank her for her kindness. But being a child uncomfortable with both adults and words, I said nothing. She came close and held my face between her soft palms and kissed my lips. Then she touched my shoulder with her finger and turned and went upstairs. Soon I heard the little chime on the front door and Mr. Costello returning early and grousing that Angie had been sloughing off. The bread racks, the cases of produce, and soup cartons hadn’t been touched.

pull-25799_640Out on the street on a delivery one afternoon I met Red Martin. In the air was a hot, summery, sleepy, syrupy feeling. The cicadas were out in great, noisy numbers and the neighborhood panhandler dozed contentedly in the shadows in a doorway. Red was a tough boy with hair of fire. We stopped on the sidewalk for just a few minutes, maybe only seconds, only long enough for Red to say, “Going to the playground. Feel like coming along?” and for me to reply, “Gotta work.”

“See ya,” Red said, and hustled up the street, tossing a baseball in the air that he raced to catch in his mitt.

“See you, Red,” I called after him.

On the way back to the store after the delivery, my wagon rattling noisily without a load, I realized that what meant so much to me–Angie’s kiss–was meaningless to her. She would surely forget it as quickly and completely as she would had she petted a kitten.

I didn’t know then that my memory of that one moment would accompany me through all my life like a medallion that I would take out from time to time to admire, that once in a while something would remind me and I would wonder whatever had become of her, would wonder if we are ever granted a reprieve from our mistakes or must spend the rest of our lives paying for them.

Billy Henson came running down the street and stopped me just about where Red and I had talked ten minutes before.

“Did you hear what happened?” Billy said.

“What?”

“Red Martin died.”

“Red Martin,” I said. “I just talked to him. How could he be dead?”

“All I know is he started running out by the pitcher’s mound and fell down. His head hit a rock or something and he was dead. They say he died when he hit the ground. Anyway, he just died. He’s dead.”

Red Martin, I thought as I walked back to Angie’s, Red Martin. I had never really liked him that much, though I didn’t remember why. But I was remorseful and reproached myself now that he was dead. The realization that life was so uncertain and that for the first time death had come near to me and would again filled me with awe.

Somehow, I thought, approaching the store, a death should be a more momentous event, something should change as a result, something should be different; the world should take note. But everything in my world of those streets, those sounds, those sights, those people, was the way it had been before. Everything the same–except for Red.

Those same familiar streets shaded by the same cool poplars and elms, same cars slowly passing, same neighbors coming and going, same pungent smells of bubbling tar where muscular shirtless sweating workers with colorful bandanas toiled in the torrid sun, same red wagon buffeting noisily behind me; my returning again to Angie’s where cruel cologne-smelling Mr. Costello with his afternoon girlfriends and two-tone shoes and string ties would continue the daily torture of his wife. And where Angie would slowly metamorphose into one of the decrepit dying women I delivered to, and would sing gaily in the aisles of that little store like a bird lovely in its cage until the last end of her days came, as Red’s had come, and mine would come, and everyone’s would come.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Aligning Your Past, Present, and Future

eiffel-tower-417962_640Even at the age of eight Sarah dreamed of visiting far-away places. She would lie in bed and imagine lush, exotic islands, and grand cities with great cathedrals and towering spires. Her favorite subject in school was world geography, and she would press the pages of her texts open and study the pictures of nomadic Laplanders, ocean-liners, snow-capped mountains, and South Sea Islands. She would stand in front of the family globe, and spinning it, would watch the world race by.

After working in a large department store until she was twenty-two she married and in ten years had four children, two boys and two girls. She was a stay-at-home mother, and was wonderful at raising the children who loved her dearly. For the first twenty-five years of her marriage she was never gainfully employed outside the house. She and her husband were never able to save enough money to travel very far, as she still dreamed of one day doing. She came into her own and found fulfillment as a wife and mother, but when the youngest child reached his teens she realized it was time to change her life and venture outside the home to start a career.

She suffered the same fears and insecurities most people would who had been out of the job market for a quarter of a century, and didn’t know what to do to find a job. One day, on a whim, while passing a travel agency she had driven past hundreds of times on the way to and from errands, she went in and applied for a job. She was hired and now, in her late-forties organizes and accompanies group tours to Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. She is doing what she dreamed of as a child, and is happy. Life offered her the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life path, a second birth, and she took it.

aircraft-74020_640The Wright brothers–Wilbur and Orville–were the first to demonstrate controlled, mechanical flight. But their insatiable interest in building a machine that flew began when they were children. Their father, Wilton, went on frequent business trips, and made it a point to bring home from each trip something for his children. He brought home from one trip–when Wilbur was eleven and Orville seven–a small toy helicopter made from bamboo paddles and a rubber band that when the rubber band was wound and released could lift off the ground. The brothers fell in love with the toy and played with it constantly, until it broke.

Then they disassembled it to see how it was made, and then built endless copies of it, even getting in trouble in school for playing with them. The toy made an indelible mark on them, got them started on aeronautical design, and they never forgot it. Even as older men, long after they had invented the flying machine and were world renowned, they would make helicopter toys for their nieces and nephews.

I asked my nurse in the hospital why she had gone into nursing and she said, “When I was a young girl I was sickly and I had to have a nurse. We were together night and day, and she was a good woman who seemed very happy. We became close, and it was then I decided that when I grew up I would be a nurse too. I’ve had such a wonderful life, and nursing has been so rewarding, that I’ve never regretted that decision.”

When Harry Truman was a boy, while he and his father worked together in the corn fields of Missouri, his father entertained him with exciting stories of the great ancient Greek and Roman orators and statesman, stories which Harry vividly recalled when he went into politics and when he had to make critical war-time decisions as President of the United States. Many times he called those stories his father told the most beneficial education he had ever received and an important reason he pursued the career he did.

woman-304812_640When my friend Rebecca was a young girl she would play “office.” She would pretend to be the president of a company and would have her younger brother play her assistant. She would spread papers every which way in front of her on the kitchen table as if it were her desk and she was very busy. She would call to her assistant-brother, “Bring me my pen” and he would bring it and she would then scribble her signature on papers. In her mid-thirties she founded and is president of what is now one of the most successful mid-size advertising agencies in the Midwest. She still signs papers all day long.

They are professional guitarists who as children were given an old battered guitar by an uncle and taught themselves to play. Or they are accountants who have always loved working with numbers, or a movie director whose parents loved movies and took their child to the show along with them, or a car dealer whose parents owned a dealership.

Innumerable artists–writers, musicians, composers, dancers, painters, architects, performers, and professional people, particularly engineers and physicians–became seriously interested in what would be their adult pursuit as young children.

 Foreshadowing

A distinctive quality of many people leading fulfilled lives is that quite early in life they became interested in the subject matter they later pursued as a vocation. The continual deepening of their interest and the development of appropriate skills was what guided them to their careers and that largely accounts for their success. They find their greatest achievements in occupations which build on their childhood interests.

From the earliest years on, patterns of choices show remarkable consistency, even over long periods of many years. Our lives of today often were foreshadowed and our intended destiny laid out for us years ago. Foreshadowing is a clue to our life’s most important purposes, though at times the path to fulfillment is not direct, but roundabout, with many side-trips, delays, and false starts.

Many highly accomplished people in varied fields find fulfillment pursuing their childhood interests in avocations–parallel careers.

A strategy when you are confused and don’t know which career direction to go in is to remember what excited you as a child, for it may be that in what comes to mind then is the most promising and most fulfilling direction.

********

One warm afternoon when I was five or six I was playing on the floor in front of the television that my mother had left on while she went away to vacuum in another room. I was playing with my fleet of toy trucks, and as poet Dylan Thomas would say, I was “As happy as the day is long.”

But from time to time I found myself glancing up at the screen and then after while found myself putting my trucks aside completely and getting closer to the screen and folding my arms in front of me and watching an old black and white movie very intently. I realize now that the semi-strange language the actors were speaking was British English.

One person in particular on that screen mesmerized me. I wanted to watch him and listen forever—the way he moved, the way he spoke, his voice, how he gestured, everything about him. What was happening to me was beyond me to describe. I was young; I didn’t have the vocabulary. But I still do not have the vocabulary, not because my vocabulary is deficient, but because when you see or read or hear something that is so out of the ordinary, you are unprepared for it and no words in all the lexicons, even the most expressive, are sufficient. You are mute.

All you know is that what you are feeling is jubilation; is joy. In my little child’s way I knew that on that screen before my eyes a performance that was not commonplace, but extraordinary was occurring, and it was because of that man’s skills and his presence, his being. My mother walked by and I touched the screen with my finger and said, “Who is that man?” And she answered. “That is Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.”

How did I know that? How could I tell? What in my little boy’s mind was responding to an artistic achievement of the very best? I was so young. But even when you are so little, true art has a way of breaking through to you and declaring its power, and as you can see, you remember it all your life and cannot forget.

 ********

One day in the third grade my favorite teacher (at any level), Miss Gross, standing in the front of the room, started reading aloud an essay I had written. She had had us describe something that had happened to us, and because I loved to run and could run like the wind and ran whenever I could, I wrote about running while playing football.

I heard her read (very dramatically as only Miss Gross could) my words: “The boys tackled me and I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Then I heard Miss Gross say, “That is poetic language. That is an image. David has made a simile.”

So, I’ve made a simile, I thought. Isn’t that something?

Then running home under the maple trees after school, I got to thinking that if I wanted I could make similes all the rest of my life. So, why do I write, and why do I try so hard, and why have I been doing it with extreme passion and happiness and commitment these years, and why do I find that there is nothing I would rather do than study and learn and write about artists—Debussy, Cassatt, Faulkner, Graham, Baryshnikov, Hepburn Gershwin, Stravinsky, Wright, the Beatles, Satie, Calder, O’Neill, Chekhov, Chagall–any artists at all, and fill my life with their desires and aspirations, their capacity for hard, sustained work, their sacrifices, their single-mindedness and persistence, their devastating setbacks and colossal achievements, their strengths as human beings, and their frailties that all contributed and made possible works that I can actually hear, and look at, and read, and touch?

Because, you see, the glorious experience of that pleasant afternoon in front of that screen—the finest actor of his era and I alone together in my living room–had somehow made a tribute to other creators of such beauty seem necessary and inevitable. And because of my need to make similes, I can’t help myself.

 Let Me Know

These are childhood stories of human destinies being set in motion—a direction, a future–taking shape. I would like to hear your story. I would like to know about the experiences that set you on the right course and led you to what has consumed you most. What key events from your youth led you to becoming what you’ve become?

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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The Writer’s, Artist’s, and Actor’s Quest for Truth

Painting by Urwana DeBoulans

With kind permission of artist Urwana DeBouclans

An actor in teacher-actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre Company owned a dog that she brought to rehearsal, and it slept all day while the company rehearsed. Inexplicably, every night just before the actors were to end the rehearsal the dog got up and went to the door with its leash in its mouth, ready to be taken home. It puzzled Stanislavski why the dog trotted to the door several minutes before his master called him, just as rehearsal ended. How did the dog know that rehearsal had ended before anyone went to the door?

Eventually Stanislavski figured it out. The dog could hear from the voices when the actors started talking like normal people again. It could tell the difference between the fake and the real. If a dog could, certainly an audience could, and the fake is repulsive in an actor. As the best actors tell each other, “When you are on stage or before the camera, remember not to act. People can tell when you’re acting.”

The Actor’s Truth

Stanislavsky was the most significant figure in the history of actor training. When he used the word “art” it meant “life” to him, and life meant the truthful, the real, the authentic, the genuine.

“Life” is all he wanted, and life is what he struggled to get to flow through the actor, and between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist as well as for the audience. Actors should behave as though the character is real and what he is doing is real, as though the conditions and circumstances of the character’s life are real. That the dagger Othello stabs himself with is real. That everything is real. Stanislavsky said that the judge of the truthfulness of a performance is not the actor or the audience, but the actor’s fellow actors on stage with him. If you have an effect on your fellow actor; if he believes in the truth of your performance, you’ve reached your creative goal: truth.

Many Paths

A household name in his time, John Ruskin was a 19th century English art and architecture critic and wonderful stylist whose beauty of expression ignited the creativity of Marcel Proust. Ruskin believed that what distinguishes great artists from weak ones is first their sensibility, second, their imagination, and third, their appetite for hard work. He might just as well have added a fourth, their quest for truth. All great artists in every art are aiming and have always aimed to achieve that object of their quest. What that truth is to them—how they conceive of it—varies from artist to artist, and is the basis of their distinctive work. A Zen adage reads: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain. “ There are also many paths, many routes, to artistic truth. You are on a path.

To Ruskin the artist’s truth lay in his/her self-expression, the revelation of the artist’s being, such as the painter’s special talent to convey every shadow, every hue, every line, every impression of “visible things around him ” and secondly his ability to communicate his every emotion. Painter and print maker Edward Hopper too believed that the aim of great painters was to attempt “to force the unwilling medium of paint” into a record of their emotions. A skilled writer, a skilled dancer, a skilled sculptor works an entire career to express every shadow and every emotion—in words, in motion, in an object.

Truth and the Artist’s Vision

In Fire in the Crucible: The Alchemy of Creative Genius, John Briggs sees the artist’s quest for truth and beauty as the artist’s important motivation to communicate his/her vision. That vision is based on “themes” which are the artist’s “fingerprints.” The vision is a strong part of the artist’s identity and may well have become a part of him in childhood, and may well too, be reflected in his work all his future life. In early life future artists accumulate experiences, people, places, key episodes, and ideas which they will draw on the rest of their lives, endlessly recapitulating them in their work. These are the origins of their craft. Anyone who knows an artist’s work well is able to identify the artist’s recurring themes and subjects—his preoccupations that are everywhere in the work.

Your work has themes in it that are inseparable from your personality and creative spirit and life. Those themes and that vision affect everything about your work down to its smallest detail. Every part of the artist is revealed in his/her art and cannot be hidden. And if it is really art, its truth is that it is in close partnership with the whole being of the audience that the artist is trying to reach, the beauty and truth in the work resonating in the sensitivity to truth and beauty in the audience.

Hemingway’s Truth

No artist talked about or wrote about or was more consumed with the quest for truth than Ernest Hemingway. The writer’s job, he said, is quite simply “to tell the truth,” to speak truly. To tell the truth was to tell about what he had personally experienced, or what he knew from going through something similar. Most artists are concerned with subjective truth more than literal truth, but Hemingway used no other information from any sources than what had happened to him, not literary sources, not academic. Truth was transcribing accurately and simply for the reader “the way it was,” and “the real thing,” putting down what he saw and felt in the simplest way he could. He could invent and elaborate as any artist does, but he elaborated from the reality of what he actually knew from having been there. He said that a writer’s “gift” was a conscience, a “built-in, shockproof bull shit detector” the “writer’s radar” that went off in his mind when the writer was not telling the truth, but “faking.”

Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck, and if you stated it purely enough, always.”

Similar to Hemingway, many painters paint only what is before them and is true and visible, and refuse to paint from memory. Are you an artist who sticks to “the way it was” and “the real thing”?

Henry Miller/ Gertrude Stein/ Paul Cezanne

Novelist and essayist Henry Miller felt that the artist’s truth lies in finding a “voice,” and that the discovery of one’s true voice doesn’t happen easily, but requires boldness. Miller imitated every style in hopes of finding the clue to the gnawing secret of how to write. Then:

“Finally I came to a dead-end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known because there was no divorce between myself as a writer and myself as a man: to fail as a writer meant to fail as a man…It was at that point…that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those I loved. Immediately I heard my own voice…the fact that I was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad had dropped out of my vocabulary…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.” (Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing)

Gertrude Stein also found truth and beauty coming out of the artist’s spontaneity: You “have to know what you want to get; but when you know that, let it take you and if it seems to take you off the track don’t hold back, because that is perhaps where instinctively you want to be and if you hold back and try to be always where you have been before, you will go dry.”

Truth doesn’t lie in “careful thinking,” But “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition.” It “will be a creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing.” (John Hyde Preston, “A Conversation with Gertrude Stein”). In the same way, 19th century landscape painter George Inness found that the truth of art is the artist’s “personal vital force” that if left alone comes out of the artist spontaneously without fear or hesitation.

A creator must necessary possess tremendous drive, determination, and persistence because exceptional creativity requires a tremendous amount of effort. Paul Cezanne’s truth was the perfection of his craft in a lifetime’s work: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping, and it would still seem to me as if I knew nothing…I consume myself, kill myself, to cover fifty centimeters of canvas…I want to die painting…” All great artists are spurned on by a single-mindedness, but few can match Cezanne in that regard.

An Architect’s Truth

new-york-115629_640Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Not one given to easy goals, Wright’s architectural goals were , he stated, “the rejuvenation of architecture, the creation of indigenous forms to express and suit life in the United States, and the destruction of Fakery and Sham (that) rule the day.” To Wright, truth didn’t lie on the surface of things. Surfaces were deception. Truth was hidden and capable of being discovered only by probing deeply. “For the architect the patient analysis of nature would reveal the true meaning of functional structures.” Wright found in nature and the machine the two inseparable cornerstones of his search for truth. (Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture.)

A Dancer’s Truth

Isadora Duncan’s quest for a dancer’s truth was lifelong and intense. “My art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one true movement…I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement…I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the center of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of the vision for the creation of the dance—it was from that discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.” (Isadora Duncan, Autobiography)

Commitment and Sacrifice as Truth

Artists exhibit ferocious concentration on the task to be accomplished and will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it.

“I have always put the requirement 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 always been the case with me.” (Saul Bellow)

“What one bestows on private life—in conversations, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” (Novelist V.S. Naipaul)

“Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Your Artist’s Credo

It should be apparent from what you’ve just read that great artists are precise and clear and quite serious about what they are striving to accomplish—what truth they’re seeking–and can describe it succinctly in a paragraph or two.

How would you describe your overall artistic vision, the truths you are trying to express in work after work? And what are the handful of most important recurring themes that are so much a part of you?

“What I’m trying to get across is…”

“In all my works I find these themes again and again…”

You might ask people who know your work well their opinion. Put the answers down in writing, a statement of your artist’s credo.

Let me know by leaving a comment about the truth you are seeking, your artistic vision, and the themes in your work. I’m writing a book about art and artists of all kinds and want to see what your thinking is. If you are not an artist but are interested in the subject, I would like to hear your opinions too.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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