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 The Worst and Best Traits of Creative People

Night scene of ridge over water with street lights Whether you find creative people in remote little mountain kingdoms accessible only by mule or in big, modern, cosmopolitan cities, you will discover that they are surprisingly alike. The many traits they share are not all favorable; some are obstacles. Yet those traits–the worst and the best together–prepare creative people for fascinating lives other people look at with admiration and envy.


Creative people:

Feel deeply and are gifted. They are people whose ecstasies and traumas will be the raw material for their creations–never to be forgotten, but reflected again and again many times in the works they contribute to the world.

Red-haired, barefoot little girl in a blue dress with a serious expression sitting on a chair and playing a violin May be “overlooked” as school children. Their talents unrecognized, they may have undistinguished elementary and high school careers, only to be recognized for their significant achievements later in life to the surprise of everyone.

Are self-absorbed, concerned first and foremost with themselves, their own wellbeing and state of mind, their projects and their cherished and most private desires, needs, hopes. Their self-absorption can make them overly emotional, temperamental, and difficult. But self-absorption is a necessary feature of a creative personality.

Proud, may react defensively, angrily, bitterly to criticism.

Man wearing a black sweater holding his head in his hands, as if sad or upset Sadly, at times may be too emotionally ill to work, particularly poets and writers who may be victims of the high and inexplicable incidence of debilitating mood disorders affecting them.

Have a strong belief in, respect, and enthusiasm for their art.

Need confidence. Confidence grows exponentially with each success. The most accurate predictor of future success is past success, as “Since I have written a best seller before, I can do it again.”

Are often “seduced” by their art. There is no shortcut to the tremendous amount of experience necessary to become highly skilled in an art. It is hard for someone in the arts not to see their art taking over more and more of their time and possibly becoming their most important activity, finding themselves doing everything for their art.

Are rebellious, bold, and open to new experiences. More daring than the majority of people. Have no fear of risks.

Pianist performing in front of an audience on a stage with a shiny wood floor and a background of blue water behind him Have an insatiable need to establish rapport with and hold an audience–followers, fans to applaud them.  And yet, deprived of an audience, they will still work just as conscientiously.


May not seem to be but are competitive, ambitious, prone to envy and jealousy.

Will of necessity bloom late due to the difficulties of becoming established, overcoming a sequence of hurdles, and mastering their chosen art. Late developing, being “behind,” they needn’t despair because they often accelerate and “catch up” quickly after their first successes, often surpassing those who bloomed sooner.

Tend to “live in their heads.”

Consider themselves the best judge of their work, its “foremost authority.”

Are lucky to have the particular creative talents esteemed by society that make them ideal writers, artists, actors, dancers, composers, etc. as if  they are people who have been ordered from a catalogue.

Beige and brown Siamese cat sitting up on a light-colored wooden table and looking at the viewer with intense blue eyes.“Know who they are.” Are marked by a clear, unambiguous sense of identity, as “I am an historical novelist specializing in women’s roles in England during the Victorian era.”

Can be characterized as having heightened perceptions of the drama in the world and the beauty and importance of their art. In time they develop a “novelist’s mind,” or a ”painter’s mind,” or an architect’s, or dramatist’s mind, etc.

Can be perfectionists who are extremely hard on themselves and others (loved ones, associates, subordinates).

Abhor pretense.

Are not driven by the same needs as even the people dearest to them. (That causes conflicts).

Hold sacred their independence (Will fight for it, don’t want to lose it) Hate having their freedom interfered with or restrained.

Are far more self-disciplined in their work than most people in other fields.

Fanciful painting of many red, orange yellow, blue, and green, and white open umbrellas floating in the skyCan be playful, child-like, humorous, silly, fun to be with, and seem younger than their age.

Are committed to the development and refinement of their talents; motivated by “an urge to improve.”

Are exuberant, often boastful, about their achievements.

Love to work, work hard, sometimes harder than seems humanly possible.

Possess extraordinary energy and are excitable.

Must be patient and longsuffering because if they reach high-level mastery and become famous they will have persisted doggedly through thick and thin for years; many “rough spots on the road” appear in a creative person’s career.

Are strengthened by powerful needs to be competent and to be respected.

colorful abstract painting with yellow, red, pink, green blue, black, brown and traces of other colorsBenefit from a rare ability to focus on one object, problem, or task for extended periods without being bored or losing interest. (Facilitates completing “big jobs” like writing novels and painting murals.)

Strive to find “the one true voice” that expresses them vividly and accurately. (Doesn’t happen overnight.)

Generally find more pleasure working alone than working in groups; do not avoid, but relish, solitude.

Must quickly develop a capacity for mature self-criticism, objectivity, and judgment about their work and their abilities

Highly value authenticity, integrity, and sincerity.

large number of small jigsaw puzzle pieces in blue, orange, yellow, green, and brown piled on top of each otherFor survival must become skilled at overcoming obstacles, of which there are many in the arts.

Have a practical problem-solving intelligence; prefer difficult to easy problems.

May show minimal interest in current events, gossip, and politics–not interested in discussing them, “tune them out.”


Creative people possess many gifts, many strengths, and many imperfections. As imperfect as anyone else, they nevertheless benefit the world in innumerable ways.


© 2022 David J. Rogers

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The Moods of Artists and Writers

Moodiness is one of the characteristics of creative people. They prefer intuition and feeling; they experience high levels of excitability; they’re sensitive; they’re “inner directed,” and inside is where the moods are. They approach their work with an almost mystical intensity, and feel the pleasure and excitement that comes from meeting creative challenges. And the deep joy in producing a work that means a great deal to them. They have to learn to control and regulate their moods so they aren’t overwhelmed by them.

cloudy-211848_640Russian author Anton Chekhov observed that unhappy writers write happy stories and happy writers’ stories are unhappy. Was he right? He said, “The more fun I’m having, the more depressing my stories are.” A study of composers found that they did their most creative work when they were in the most pain and facing serious life difficulties like marital and legal problems. Gustave Flaubert told his girlfriend, “You should write more coldly. Everything should be done coldly, with poise.”

All his life, Gabriel Garcia Marquez experienced a mood that is so common among writers and artists—he was frightened at the moment he sat down to work. But fear or no fear, he won the Nobel Prize, so how debilitating could the fear have been? Writer Joan Didion speaks of dread: “I don’t want to go in there at all. It’s low dread every morning…I keep saying ‘in there’ as if it is some kind of chamber, a different atmosphere. It is, in a way. There’s almost a psychic wall. The air changes. I mean you don’t want to go through that door.” But exuberant Thomas Wolfe was fearless and found the act of writing a “wild ecstasy.”

A writer or artist in an optimistic mood with high positive expectations has the advantage of being able to generate rose-7634_640positive memories and large amounts of information. Good memories and that much information enable him/her to work creatively. A mood of boredom decreases artistic productivity. But a good mood improves a creator’ problem-finding and problem-solving abilities

It’s clear that regardless of the type of writing or painting you are doing, the act of doing it almost always improves your mood. Unless, that is, you’re working on a subject you feel no emotions about, neither positive nor negative. Then you don’t experience the uplifting emotional effects of working. The topic is bland; your mood is bland. But generally after writing or painting, sculpting, dancing, etc., creators’ moods are elevated. They may start their work in anger, for example, or depressed, but after finishing an hour’s work feel happier, more satisfied, more delighted, more joyful, and also calmer, less nervous, more relaxed and enthusiastic, serene, and peaceful. Positive mood or negative mood depends very much on how satisfied you feel with your performance. “Is the work going well or poorly?

Mood can have a profound and dangerous effect on creative people. They have a higher rate of mood disorders—a hall-212840_640fantastically higher rate—and poets, male or female, more than any other kind of creators. Poets—particularly female poets–have a high suicide rate. American poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are prominent examples. Female poets are significantly more likely to sufferer from mental illness than other types of female writers. Poets have the highest rate of depression and greatest number of suicides of all occupations. Studies consistently find that 50%-80% of creative writers studied suffered from a mood disorder.  A very high percentage of the writers on the faculty of the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop studied over a fifteen year period had bipolar or other serious mood disorders.

Another creator’s mood is envy. Envy has been called “the writer’s disease,” and I suppose it might just as well be called the painter’s, sculptor’s, actor’s, and ballerina’s disease too. Envy is based on a “scarcity mentality,” the anguish caused by the belief that there is not enough money, opportunities, fame, etc., to go around. Envy may create painful feelings of inadequacy as the writer or artist thinks so-and-so is better or more successful than they are. Although it can motivate window-407206_640you to do better than those you envy, it can also make you lose focus. But if you free yourself from comparison to others, or from any preoccupation with yourself—your fame, your wealth, your status–you’ll overcome envy and other impediments to your best work. Your focus will be on the work 100%, nothing left over for anything else. All your attention will be brought to bear on the thing to be written or painted.

Many would-be writers and artists wait for the “right” mood before they begin. My father was a machinist and often wasn’t in the mood to go in to work. But he never missed a day. I don’t see what’s so special about writers and artists that they can’t do the same. Whether you are a machinist or a creator of great works, there is no such thing as being perfectly ready to work; there is just work that should be done whether you feel in the mood or not. To Norman Mailer, that was the difference between professional writers and amateurs. He said, “By professionalism I mean the ability to work on a bad day.”

And remember that whatever mood you’re in when you begin working, when you quit for the day you’ll probably feel terrific.


© 2015 David J. Rogers

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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:


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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Steps to Becoming a Successful Artist and Writer

You can develop as an artist any way you wish. This post lays out a process of development that is generally, in one way or another, followed by successful artists. The steps are not necessarily linear, occurring one after another in a strict order, but they are usually present in the lives of writers and artists of all kinds. I’ll be curious to hear from you about your own development. Did it follow a direct path or was it roundabout? What steps were involved? How difficult was it? What did you learn from it?

My life of devotion to writing and studying the arts and the artist’s life—setting writing as a high priority in my life; thinking of it all the time; sacrificing for it—were shaped by these experiences:

classroom-510228_640In the third grade the teacher read to the class my theme in which I’d used poetic language (I’d written a simile), and I decided I would become a writer and write similes as often as I wanted the rest of my life.

At eight or nine I saw Laurence Olivier, the world’s greatest actor, in a movie on TV and decided that I wanted one day to be able to affect people the way his performance had affected me—he had made me gasp. Even as children we are able to recognize art at its highest and wish to know more about it and about artists who are such extraordinarily talented beings.

A major event for me in college involved another teacher, a well-known teacher of writing who one day read to the class a piece I’d written about my childhood. When she finished reading, she said, “A teacher waits her entire career for a student who can write like this.”

Very quickly after that, while still in college, I wrote a story that was published in a prestigious literary journal.

Then came the education, the writing jobs, the artistic friends, the teachers, the ambitions and goals, the teaching of others, and the hard work.

I entered the writer’s milieu—publishers, agents, best seller lists, book tours, foreign editions, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, reviews, public recognition—success.

Then I took off years reading, researching, and experimenting.

Next, while continuing to research especially on artists, I began writing blog posts.

At every turn there was positive feedback, reinforcement, and encouragement.


stairs-315952_640I’ve talked to many artists of all kinds and studied the lives of artists of every variety looking for patterns in their development: how did they become artists? In most instances the process of developing and perfecting an artist’s talent involves:

First signs of talent and interest: It may happen at any age–prodigies at three; painter Grandma Moses in her eighties. A child’s interest often follows an interest of a parent, and that parent often followed an interest of their parent. What is most amazing about young prodigies is that they are “pretuned”—they know the rules of their area of talent before being taught them. Few artists are prodigies, and in the overwhelming majority of cases later in life the artist who was not a prodigy–and often showed no particular talent in youth–surpasses the prodigy in achievements.

Some artists take to the art as a second career that may become a primary career, or they excel in both careers. Composer Charles Ives and poet Wallace Stevens were both also successful insurance executives. Award-winning American poet William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Prolific novelist Anthony Trollope was a British post office employee. Painter Henri Rousseau was a tax collector in Paris.

Interest aroused: There is almost always a moment in a talented person’s life when he/she became enamored of a particular art. There was a connection, a suitability, a symbiosis: the to-be-composer George Gershwin as a boy sitting on the curb outside his friend’s lower east side New York apartment and hearing him play the piano.

Trying it out/taking a stab: This often has a lasting effect, overcoming hesitation, shyness, reluctance, embarrassment, and fear.

Tentative commitment: “Okay, Mom, I’ll take lessons. I’ll see if I like it.”

crystal-439297_640A crystallizing experience: Often a moment occurs when the person’s existence seems to be organized and focused toward the art, a premonition that from that point forward the art will be prominent in his/her life.

Discovery of aptitude, Inclination, potential: Reinforcement comes from the outside–approval/ support/ applause/ a successful recital or performance in a play. You will not go terribly far in the art if your personality and skills are not synchronized, harmonized, and matched with those required to excel in the art.

Awakening of desire: “This is the right thing for me to do. I like this. I’m good at it. I want more of this. I will work at this.”

Establishment of “themes” important to the artist: Personal motifs begun earlier in life, often childhood, stay with the artist throughout life and are reflected again and again in everything the artist produces. These themes cannot be avoided; they are the artist’s “fingerprints.” 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/her preoccupations are everywhere in the work.

Increased effort: Willingness to devote more energy to the art develops. What is often so impressive is how quickly some artists move from a first exposure to this level.

Self-confidence builds: The desire to succeed and the confidence that they can—along with skill and resilience—bring artists success. Those who are sure of themselves intensify their efforts when they don’t reach their goal and persist until they reach it.

Jelling: Everything starts to come together–ambitions, skills, progress, and success.

Deepening of desire: Stronger feelings toward the art increase; ambitions are raised.

Instruction, learning, knowledge, talent development: The specialized knowledge you accumulate through practicing your craft and receiving instruction, including self-instruction, is the most important factor in reaching exceptionally high levels of skills, possibly of greater importance than talent. The excellent writer or artist has acquired more sheer knowledge of the art and how to create it than the less excellent writer or artist.

All artists are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly; they are teachable. The need is for effective teachers. A poor teacher is as harmful, or is more harmful, than no teacher; the student of a bad teacher acquires bad habits. Being a stellar student in school is certainly not a prerequisite for artists. However, specialized training in certain arts such as painting and composing is often crucial.

Mentoring, coaching, modeling, guiding: No artists—no human beings–reach their goals and achieve success without help. The older generation passes on knowledge, styles, and techniques to the younger who emulate the older. Mentoring often plays an inestimable role in artistic development, as the mentoring that Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound provided to a young Ernest Hemingway, helping to shape his revolutionary writing style, or that Sherwood Anderson gave William Faulkner, starting him off on his professional literary career, by asking his own publisher if they would publish his protégé’s first novel.

Close personal support, encouragement: Many benefit from connectedness to others such as writers’ or artists’ groups and at times in the relationship with one other person as lovers, husbands and wives, siblings, or close friends: Frederick Chopin/George Sand, Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner, Jean Paul Sartre/Simone De Beauvoir, Henry Miller/Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf/Leonard Woolf, Salvador Dali/Gala, Thomas Wolfe/Maxwell Perkins, George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin. Most artists form a set of personal and professional relationships in the field that support them, find them opportunities, and rally them when they’re discouraged. The partner/mate of the artist often takes pressure off the artist, freeing him to focus on his work, as with novelist Joseph Conrad and his wife Jessie George.

piano-233715_640Sustained deliberate practice: Months and years of work and improvements pass. The “ten year rule” (although it has notable exceptions) states that to progress from a novice to high expertise requires ten years of focused effort. That involves developing skills through intensive—often lonely–practice leading to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. Even this process—tedious, boring, demanding—is a pleasure to the artist. Long periods of dogged hard work are nearly always the reason for superior artistic performance.

More focused effort: Realizing that artistic success is feasible, the artist buckles down with stronger motivation, drive, persistence, perseverance. Expectations rise. Picasso said, “Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring more to bear in one thing only: my painting, and everything else is sacrificed to it…myself included.” Some ballet dancers with an eye to excellence practice until their feet bleed.

Experimentation: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Eugene O’Neill began as poets, then switched to short stories and novels, or plays. Later in life short story master Anton Chekhov (the best there has ever been) began writing plays as well and discovered he could write masterpieces. A multi-talented man, Chekhov was also a practicing physician.

Narrowing down, specialization, development of a dominant style: As a result of experimentation and the clearer understanding of his strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, the artist defines himself more specifically: “I am a portrait painter.” “I paint skies.” A distinctive style (that develops over time) is the first sign of an artist’s high expertise. When I told that to the late composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, the composer of “The Way We Were,” and A Chorus Line, he asked, “Is that true?” and I said, “Marvin, you can’t write anything without my knowing it’s you.”

Breakthroughs: Often there are “years of silence” when the artist is working hard but has no tangible successes to show until the first successes which often then come in a flurry—novelists Jack London and William Saroyan received hundreds of rejections before their first success. Thereafter, everything they wrote was published.

Application, Working Harder: The taste of success creates a hunger for more success, which inspires more rigorous application and harder work.

Self-Education, self-determination: Every artist to one extent or another is an autodidact, a self-teacher. Some, like painter Vincent van Gogh and American poet Walt Whitman, were almost completely self-taught. Other famous painters studied with masters, but van Gogh and Henri Rousseau were exceptions. Writers are more likely than other artists to be self-taught. Most composers are taught by masters, and must have high potential to even be accepted as a student by the master. But classical composers Russian Alexander Borodin (also a chemist and physician) and Englishman Edward Elgar were essentially self-taught.

Settling on a Working Philosophy, Work Habits/ Tempo: Everyone working at an art develops his or her own work pace and philosophy of working. Van Gogh always painted at high pressure and at a feverish pitch, gathering up the colors as though with a shovel, throwing them on the canvas with rage, globs of paint covering the length of the paint brush and sticking to his fingers. He had no hesitations and no doubts. Cezanne didn’t understand van Gogh and told him, “Your methods lead to confusion. You don’t work in the manner of our ancestors.” American novelist Thomas Wolfe, a huge man with an equally huge capacity for work, wrote in a frenzy in clouds of cigarette smoke at lightning speed. Gustave Flaubert, on the other hand, worked meticulously, agonizing over every word in every sentence. Some film directors re-shoot a scene thirty times; others rarely more than once or twice.

Noticeable Improvement, refinement of skill, maturity: An evolution often occurs when the artist finds his “voice” as a result of long experience and reflection. Novelist Henry Miller: “It was at that point…that I really began to write… Immediately I heard my own voice…the fact that I was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.”

Greater reach, sudden growth spurts: At times, almost unaccountably, an artist experiences a leap in performance. The best example is Walt Whitman. In a short period he transformed himself from a below-average scribbler to America’s greatest poet.

Setbacks, obstacles, and Impediments: Artists often lead troubled, unconventional lives. Almost all go through fallow periods when success seems unattainable, but their recuperative powers seem inexhaustible and they work on, developing the resilience to rebound from setbacks. The incidence of addictions, mental illness (particularly bi-polar disorder), and suicide is considerably higher than that of the general population. Self-destructive American painter Jackson Pollack, American writer Ernest Hemingway, and too many poets to mention are examples. That, to me, makes artists even more remarkable, for often in spite of enormous personal problems that would debilitate most people, they still manage to produce tremendous volumes of artistic work of the highest quality. It is as though when they are focused on their craft all obstacles wither and disappear. Writer, poet, and essayist D.H. Lawrence wrote, “One sheds one’s sickness in books.”

new-york-115629_640Increased satisfaction, rewards, a way of life: Artists differ from one another in a variety of ways, but are unanimous in this way: they all love what they do. Their art provides a source of challenges, fulfillments, and opportunities for self-exploration and self-expression. The artist experiences the intrinsic satisfaction of continuous enjoyment from the art and the extrinsic benefits of success—particularly respect and praise—even adoration–and material rewards.

You want to continue to make regular use of your principal artistic strengths–your main aptitudes, talents, gifts, personal qualities, and capabilities, to do so freely, without inhibition, without conflicts, and without being interfered with, and to be in a position to say every day, “Now, at this moment, I’m doing what I do especially well. I love it. It makes me happy.” Once you know you’re moving in the right artistic direction and feel strongly about it you fly through your days aflame with energy and determination. To become clear as to what your intended destiny is and to say to it, “I devote myself to you” is to feel an unstoppable drive toward its due fulfillment and to spring to life.

One after another, you overcome obstacles that are conspiring to keep you from your intended destiny, and now you are an artist.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, Motivation, Writers

A Strange and Perplexing Disorder: My Mother and Emily Dickinson

MomScan_20140825 (3)Sometimes we are oblivious to the serious problems people we know are having. And when we learn about them sometimes we’re shocked. As shocked as some people reading this post, one of my growing up memories, will be.

In high school I won an award and there was an assembly. Sitting on the stage, I looked down at the faces in the audience and there in the third row was my mother. My eyes stung with tears, I was so touched by her being there. I thought of the courage it had taken for her to come alone. Under my breath I whispered, “Good going Mom.”

When you are an agoraphobic you are one of a minuscule portion of the world’s population, and you seem terribly odd because the simple act of leaving your home alone fills you with helpless terror and requires great bravery on your part. And so you are odd, and that is no secret to you. But you try to hide the fact.

You are a person of considerable mystery. Your problem is the least talked about and least understood psychiatric disorder. And the most difficult to treat.

“You’re afraid to leave the house? What do you mean?” (They are stupefied. You really can’t mean that.)“It is very hard for me.” (You are understating.)

“Yes, a person can get hit over the head or robbed these days.”

“Those things don’t scare me in the least. I can take care of myself.”

“Then what are you afraid of?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Very much.” (Because it seems so weird to me.)

“Most of all of the space out there—the immensity of it.”

“But I’ve known you for years and I’ve seen you outside your house many times.”

“But have you noticed that I’m never alone?” (My husband is with me, or my wife, or a close friend—someone I can put all my trust in.)

When you are out alone in that immensity you sweat, you worry, you feel faint, and you have difficulty breathing. At times the tension builds and you feel that any moment you will scream. All that’s being asked of you is that you go alone down the familiar street to the familiar train station and catch a familiar train and go to the doctor, and then return home again in two hours. You go over and over meticulously in your mind the details—the steps–you must carry out before you can open your front door again and set foot into the sanctuary you feel you never should have left. First walk down the street to the station, (That’s not so bad, is it?), then sit in the waiting room (Be ready; you will be afraid), then sit in the train looking out the window, then…Then on the way back, everything in reverse.

The problem is the mind. The mind is the trap. How can you master the mind when there is nothing to master it with but that same mind that is not perfectly well?

It is now time to leave. The door opens—the assault of the open air–and you mutter to yourself, Be strong. Then, hours later when you have completed the dreaded journey and are safely home again, everything in that domain welcomes you back—the refrigerator, the dining room furniture, the light fixtures.

My mother never as an adult saw the interior of a grocery store or a butcher shop, but called in the family orders item by item and had everything delivered, did not shop for clothes for herself or us except by mail order, did not take her children to doctors or dentists, but had them go alone, never walked down one flight of stairs to do the laundry in the basement, avoided crowds and never went to circuses, zoos, ballparks, libraries, playgrounds, beaches, concerts, or museums, and avoided elevators and all other enclosed places.

When you are as she, you often say after sleepless nights of anticipating opening the door and leaving, “I would give anything not to have to go. Can you please come with me?”

“NO (a stern voice), you must go alone. You have to master this thing. You have to do what you don’t want to do. That’s the only solution, the lone treatment. Do what you don’t want to do.”

I’m sure my mother never realized she was sick. My father never expected her to be any different than she was, and never all his life mentioned her affliction, nor did she ever speak of it, nor did we, her children. It was no less a part of her than her arm, and if a person’s arm is deformed, you never bring it up. When my father took her outside and stayed close to her–as though they were attached by a string–no one would have known that were he to leave her side– absentmindedly in a parking lot, for example–she would to some extent have lost her mind.

Yet, she was in love with the world–the glitter of lights and the sunsets and the dawns; the shades and shapes. Her absence from it made it all the more beautiful to her. She marveled at people; how they seemed so blasé and reckless out on the streets–as impervious as rocks.

I think to her the apartment in which she sought refuge and dwelled so happily was a garden glittering with precious stones. In it, keeping her company when everyone was gone, might just as well have been hummingbirds and blue jays and lilies of the valley and Roses of Sharon– bird baths and white columns and caterpillars. Utensils were rubies, chairs diamonds, books emeralds, toys on the floor scattered sapphires.

In that tiny domain she darted like a thrush among the five rooms, lifting, sorting, storing, repairing, pushing, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, wiping, washing, drying, folding, spreading, fluffing, rushing, straightening, puttering, submerging dishes in bubbly water–working, working, working–confident, capable, efficient, masterful–the queen of our lives. She was the center of the family about whom everything orbited and whose sweetness, gentleness, caring, affection, and kindliness she shared equally among us, and which filled every crevice of our home.

Everything she needed to exist contentedly was within reach–a tiny, perfect world—we, her family, walking through rooms, or sitting, or coming in or going out the doors. It was clear that on certain days each moment in that apartment and whatever happened therein filled her with inestimable joy. Then she might have thought:

If all the griefs I am to have
Would only come today,
I am so happy I believe
They’d laugh and run away.

If all the joys I am to have
Would only come today
They could not be so big as this
That happens to me now.

It was very near her thirtieth year that Emily Dickinson deliberately decided never willingly to leave her home again. She had been a prolific letter-writer since childhood, but letters subsequent to that year became more important to her than they are to most people because they were her “letters to the world,” and the replies she received were her sole means of escape from the imprisonment she had chosen.

She was as out-of-touch with the world as my mother. The news from “out there” came second hand to them. It was not something they experienced directly. Dickinson had no interest in the Civil War—the period of her flowering– and no interest in contemporary writers. It is doubtful she read a single poem of the other living American poetic genius, Walt Whitman. Eventually, Dickinson refused to be in the same room as visitors, her isolation now complete.

Were my mother a poet, she too might have written:

The soul selects her own society.
Then shuts the door.

© 2014 David J. Rogers














Filed under Blocks to Action, Growing Up Stories, Personal Stories