Tag Archives: personal stories

Writer and Artist Warriors

sunset-190922_640My younger sister Sharon died of bone cancer at the age of thirty-seven in a hospital in Honolulu, where she lived. She was a small, delicate woman who had the will of a warrior. When a doctor came to see her as she lay in her bed, he jumped back as though he had been pushed. He said to her, “I feel your power coming out to me.” But she was dying. There was no hope. Once she had been beautiful. I prayed, “Dear God, give me her pain so she will be free of it.”

I told her that I’d had writing a book in mind for a long time, but that I was very busy running the business I had started and really had no time, and that even if I did write it, it would take years to research and more years to write, and I wasn’t sure it would ever be published—the odds were against that as they are against any book being published–and I had a wife and four children to support and couldn’t afford to take a chance. And I was afraid I wouldn’t succeed, that I didn’t have what it took. But I didn’t tell her that.

She was in such pain that even the slightest, even the lightest, touch of another person on her was agony. So when I left to fly back home, knowing I would never see her again, I couldn’t kiss her. The pressure of my lips would bring her pain. I leaned over her and rested my head next to hers on the pillow. She whispered in my ear, “Dave, you write that book. I have faith in you. Write it for me.”

I returned home and organized my work space and set to work, thinking of her “Write it for me.” I told my wife, “I’ll close the business and I’ll finish the book in one year, and during that year we will have no income.” My wife said, “I understand. Go ahead. It’s important.” Nothing could stop me. What before had been a vague dream now became a purpose to devote myself to, to write a book, a good book for my little sister. It became my wife’s purpose and my children’s too. Whenever I was discouraged that purpose made me return to the book and to work till dawn, to sleep a few hours and get back to work for a year until the book was done. While I was working on it I thought, “I’m making a book Sharon would be proud of.”

I dedicated it to her with the inscription: “In memory of my sister Sharon. Just one word—courage,” and that word meant a lot to me because in this life everyday courage is so important.

Fighting to win Amazon

My book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life came out and has been called “an underground bestseller” because with almost no advertising it swept the country and my life was changed in so many ways. The book became known in my family as FTW. It went through multiple printings, and appeared on bestseller lists; the cover price rose and rose. FTW discussion groups took shape in big cities and remote towns in America and Europe. Articles about this strange book with the Japanese symbol “spirit” on its cover appeared in scholarly journals and popular magazines alike. The book was read by generals, governors, and dancers, writers, artists, and riveters, heart surgeons, business executives, retirees, and sales clerks. It began being included on university required reading lists. It was not about Anthropology, Physics, or Botany, but about how to live. This little book is about musha-shugyo, “training in warriorship.” It teaches the skills and passes on the insights of samurai warriors adapted to everyday life.

It is an optimistic and encouraging book. That’s how I intended it. It is full of promise, full of hope. It teaches strength and makes you strong. It says we have but one life, but this one life can be changed in an instant. It can become two lives. The life before the changes and the richer, more fulfilled and stunning life after them. We can renew ourselves and start fresh at will on a new creative course, a more fruitful course, a better course any moment we wish, putting aside disappointments, discouragements, false starts, and failures and emerging as full-blown, skilled, exceptional artists or writers. Every living thing, every artist, every writer, has an urge to grow, to realize its full potential. My life tells me that. I believe it more every day.

Warrior symbol

“Warrior” by tiseb

The book teaches us to persevere, to be brave and not hide from difficulties, but to race forward to meet them so we may overcome them all the more quickly, maintaining high spirits and complete faith in ourselves. It teaches that we must never be stationary, but must be always moving at a good clip toward a better life, never slowing down because we’re too lazy, or afraid, or self-doubting, or discouraged, or have been set back by circumstances. “When you meet calamities and rough situations, it isn’t enough simply to say you’re not flustered. Whenever you meet difficult situations dash forward bravely and joyfully.”

Readers started contacting me, and I was happy to get to know them and listen to the stories they told me. In the revised E-book edition I mention a few of their stories.

A Hollywood movie director called me and said he felt that people in that aggressive film industry had been “eating him alive.” A successful opera singer wrote me and told me she had been overwhelmed by a sudden and inexplicable fear of performing. She felt helpless. She didn’t know what to do and stopped singing. They read FTW. He became more assertive, self-confident, and successful; she overcame her fear and went back on stage and resumed her career.

A newspaper was having serious financial problems. Its existence was in jeopardy. And so the publisher was going to launch a five-day intense telephone subscription sales campaign using 100 sales people. The publisher, who was also a playwright, was confident that exposure to FTW ideas would inspire them, and had me speak to them for an hour. Following the campaign, he called me and said that the campaign had been a huge success–the staff was fired up and the result was thousands of new subscriptions. He said, “You and FTW saved the paper.”

The book teaches us the samurai concept of mo chih ch’u, “going ahead without hesitation.” It’s not looking back once you have decided on your course of action. Once you can say to yourself “This is what I want to do”—“Write the novel I’ve been talking about so long;” “Rent a studio;” “Move”– then be on your way immediately, mo chih ch ’u. Why delay when life is so brief and the most important time of your entire life is this present moment?

I shouldn’t have to ask where you intend to go in your career. I should be able to tell by watching you and hearing and reading about you. Your undeviating aim should be to reach the fulfillment of the creator’s life you can envision, letting no impediments keep you from it. You know that in this life you’ve chosen rather than the other 5,000 easier lives you could have chosen, courage is a necessity, that there really is nothing to be afraid of and no reason to hold anything back in reserve, and that the whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Getting closer each day to a more fulfilled creator’s life, becoming extraordinary, your energy and strength will be boundless. Others will let go of their dreams, but you never will. You’ll draw from deeper inside and be willing to exhaust yourself for the sake of your happiness.

You must never lose the expectation that no matter what, you will succeed. Your art will work out. Your book will be published. Your skills will get better and better, equipping you for your craft in ways you haven’t dreamed of yet. Knocked down, maintain your confidence that all will go well as long as you get up. Knocked down seven times, get up eight. For that is how a better creator’s life is reached. Like a warrior, you must only “take care that your spirit is never broken.” Never let disappointment and discouragement “penetrate to the depths.” “Wear your existence light as a feather.”

The samurai warrior spoke of internal “dragons” and “striking through the dragon’s mask.” The samurai was taught what we should take to heart: “When all psychological blocks are removed the swordsman will move without conscious effort.” When your blocks are removed you will write, paint, sculpt, or perform without conscious effort. “Success will always come if your heart is without disturbance.”The meaning of all things is within, in your mind, not something that exists ‘out there.’” After reading the book people ask themselves, or ask their friends, “What is holding me back? What are my dragons? How can I overcome them?”

dragon-149393_150Ask any small child what a dragon is and you’ll get an earful of terror and horror. You and I both believed in fire-breathing dragons until we discovered that the only place they existed was in our minds, that they were merely products of our imagination. They only “lived” and had the power to frighten us because we granted them license to. They died and no longer troubled us when we revoked their license. All obstacles inside us—in our minds–are dragons. They are no longer of the fire-breathing variety. They are now a different species entirely. But the effect of scaring us and making us draw back in horror is precisely the same. The goal of the warrior writer and artist is to strike through dragon’s masks and free himself/herself of obstacles so the mind is “free to function according to its own true nature.”

The five most powerful dragons samurai—there were women samurai too–were trained to strike through, and artists, writers and performers must train themselves to strike through, are any kind of fear, the fear of taking risks, thinking too much of what might go wrong, doubting yourself, and hesitating, particularly when that golden but fleeting opportunity appears. If the samurai was afraid, didn’t take risks, thought too much, doubted himself, or hesitated, he would lose—possibly his life–because of fear most of all. A creative person must be bold; fear cripples her: “Fear is the true enemy, the only enemy. Overcome fear and nothing can stop you.”

The one constant factor in warfare as well as a writer’s and artist’s life is uncertainty. Half the things you try to accomplish are obscured by it. Risk and danger and fear and self-doubt are always partners. You do not go into the arts if you want a secure, uneventful life of ease. In samurai swordsmanship there is a move that requires you to take two leaping steps forward and to come within a hairsbreadth of your opponent’s sword. It is not a difficult move and can bring quick and total victory, but it is rarely used. Why? Because taking the risk of coming so close to the foes blade terrifies most swordsmen. In a creator’s life, as with that sword move, it is only by edging yourself in close to danger and living more dangerously that you approach great success. Who are those artists and writers who are least satisfied with their lives? Precisely those gloomy writers and artists—and actors and dancers– who regret, now when it’s too late, being timid and playing it safe all their lives.

bird-226700_640As an artist or writer, you must have an immovable mind—a mind totally committed to facing with calmness and composure any fate, circumstance, or challenge a creator’s life throws at you. An artist’s or writer’s life is often filled with troubles. But you must never let them disable you: “Forget about death, forget about the enemy, forget about yourself, keep your thoughts motionless.” Then you will “flow with whatever may happen.” Then your craft will blossom and you will reach your destiny.

Unless you have mastered your mind and body, you cannot beat your enemies on the battlefield.” Take up one idea. Make that idea your life, recalling,  “No matter what it is, there is no hardship you can’t overcome.” Like a warrior “When crossing marshes, your only concern should be to get over them quickly.”

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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


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

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Blocks to Action, Boldness, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Eastern Philosophy, Goals and Purposes, Motivation, Personal Stories, Samurai Techniques, Success, Warriors, Work Production, Writers

Patience: A Path to Creative Success

This is a post about the importance of CREATIVE WAITING and shows a specific scientifically-tested method for improving the quality of your artistic work and at the same time reaching a higher level of lasting success.


woman-716592_640For five or six years I’ve been thinking about a story I’m sure I’ll write eventually. It’ll be called “Darby” after the main character, a lonely woman who doesn’t love her husband and probably never has and is looking for a man to be in love with. When I write “Darby” I’ll be influenced by four particular stories: Chekov’s “About Love,” “Three Years,” and “The Lady and the Dog,” and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” And of course coming into the mix is, “Does this fit the real Darby, the actual woman I’m thinking about?” I’m not one to range very far from the truth of what really happened.

Chekov and Joyce often wrote about people who want to escape but can’t. In “Darby” there will be images of being in a box, being trapped, like a woman I’ve written about before. It will end with an ironic twist. I have a file called “Darby” to which I add notes that come to mind from time to time—just a word or phrase here and there. The last sentence of “Darby” will be, “A very good looking older man.” I’m confident it will be a very good story, but it’s not ready to be written, and so although I’m dying to write it, I’ll have to be patient and wait till I get a fix on it that I’m convinced will lead me in the most fruitful direction.

Thirty-One Artists and Twenty-Seven Objects

Thirty-one graduate students in a prestigious art school in the United States were asked to participate in an experiment to look in a systematic way at how a work of art is produced. Twenty-seven objects of the sort artists use to construct a still-life were placed on one table, among them a small manikin, a bunch of grapes, a steel gearshift, a woman’s velvet hat, a brass horn, an antique book, and a glass prism. A second table was empty except for art materials the students would use to draw. The students were told to choose objects from the table they would use to stimulate their imagination and arrange them in any way that pleased them on the second table. They could choose as many objects as they wanted and spend as much time as they wanted selecting the objects and making a drawing from them. They were told, “The important thing is that the drawing should be pleasing to you. You may take five minutes or five hours, as long as the result is pleasing to you.” (In Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem-Finding in Art.)

butterfly-744115_640When the students were ready, an observer began to keep a record of their behavior such as the number, kind, and sequence of objects handled or manipulated (e.g. feeling the texture and weight of the of the objects, moving their parts, changing their shape, etc.); the number and kinds of objects finally selected; procedures used in organizing the selected objects; behavior during drawing (e.g. changes in the type of media, rearrangement of objects, etc.); and the amount of time everything took. In addition, photos were taken three, six, and nine minutes after drawing was begun and at six minute intervals thereafter until the drawing was completed. The photos would reveal how the drawing was progressing.

The Skill You Need of Finding the Right Problems to Solve

The stage most important in this study was formulating a problem to work on, which they called PROBLEM-FINDING, a stage that precedes problem-solving. They wanted to find if there was a correlation between what happened during the first stage of problem-finding and the quality of the finished drawings. From the time artists begin to draw, paint, sculpt, etc., or writers begin to write the text, they are involved in the solution to the problem they have posed for themselves. When you’re a writer who is problem-solving, you have an idea how to get going and are assembling words, reviewing and evaluating how you’re progressing, and deciding what you will say next and how you’ll say it. With “Darby” I’m not there yet. I am still problem-finding—trying to define exactly what I’ll be trying to say and what I’m trying to create.

laser-737434_640Every writer, artist, and composer has to first problem-find, and what happens at that stage makes a tremendous difference because what you do before starting to paint or write determines to a large extent what will happen after you start. The painting or story may be changed later and its form altered beyond recognition, but the starting point is the selection of the material and arrangement of it made during the stage when you’re formulating the problem. I have Darby and she is trapped—that I’m certain won’t change. The problem is what I will do with those central facts.

Einstein believed and many other knowledgeable people also believe that problem-finding is a more crucial skill than problem-solving, because focusing on trying to solve the wrong problem, the inessential problem, doesn’t solve the real problem.

The problems you as an artist or writer must find and solve are unstructured, and the special difficulty with unstructured problems—as you’ve already found many times–is that the more unstructured they are the more directions you can take, and most will be the wrong direction creatively. It’s not unusual for even the greatest writers and artists to work on something for a long time only to realize that it was the wrong thing to work on. Authors have been known to complete a book only to throw it away because they had selected the wrong problem to solve. Under many painting masterpieces are other paintings the artist wasn’t satisfied with and simply painted over. I’m being careful not to have my story go off in a wrong direction.

Problem-finding is anything but restful. When you’re doing it, your mind, sorting things out, is as active, or more active, than it is when you’re executing the work.

rose-140446_640The right problem and right solutions to it often appear on their own, unfolding effortlessly, and agitate the creator until in a sudden recognition she understands them and uses her skills to shape them into expression, possibly never knowing where the problem or solution came from, and not knowing quite where she’s going and what the final work will look like until she gets there. Yet she is confident all the way through that in fact she will get there: “Undoubtedly, if I knew exactly what I was doing, things would go faster, but if I saw the whole unwritten novel stretching out before me, chapter by chapter, like a landscape, I know I would put it aside in favor of something more uncertain—material that had a natural form that it was up to me to discover.” (William Maxwell)

 The Length of Time Spent Problem-Finding Is a Key

The length of time the problem was kept open for alteration varied from artist to artist in the study. For some all the structures and elements were present after as few as six minutes. But one worked 49 minutes and it wasn’t until the 36th minute (74% of the total working time), that the final drawing was in evidence. With that artist, the problem remained open almost to the end.

Six years later there was a follow-up to see how successful the students had become in the art world. The main findings were striking and contain lessons for practicing writers and artists:

(1)Those in the study who approached their work by keeping the problem-finding stage wide open for a long time before ending it went on in their careers to produce higher quality work. Those who went on to become less successful were the same people who during the study were anxious to begin and started drawing more quickly. Apparently they never got out of that let’s-get-started habit and their work suffered. And one reason why that happens is because while effective problem-finders can live with ambiguity, poor problem-finders are uncomfortable with it and wish to put an end to it as quickly as possible.


Serious writers and artists may spend many hours or months or longer thinking, mulling over, guessing, sketching, trying this, trying that. The better artists in the study dawdled and played with the objects they were going to draw, touching them, turning them, trying this angle and that for considerable time before getting down to the final drawing, just as better writers fiddle around with their material till something clicks. Poet Denise Levertov said, “If…somewhere in the vicinity there is a poem then, no, I don’t do anything about it, I wait.” Author Anne Dillard said, “I usually get my ideas in November and I start writing in February. I’m waiting.”

(2)The best problem-finders in the study, not coincidentally, went on years later to become the most materially successful artists of the thirty-one. Some became known in the art world while many poorer problem-finders disappeared completely from it.



The skill of waiting and holding in check the urge to rush prematurely to solutions is almost always overlooked, yet it is crucial. Training yourself to acquire this skill will take you far and take your artistic work to higher excellence. Be like a surfer: wait for the perfect wave to take you in.

I’ve been thinking more about Darby. I have a hunch she might never escape, but maybe she will. I’ll have to wait and see.


© 2015 David J. Rogers

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


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

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Luck: How Artists, Writers, and Other Creative People Can Get It

In the arts here in America and everywhere else, the causes of success are ability, confidence, persistence, resilience—and good luck. A guarantee: with high ability, high confidence, high persistence, high resilience, and enough good luck, you will achieve your artistic goals, whatever they may be. Let’s have a look at luck, the most difficult cause to account for.

painting-284546_640An artist’s and writer’s career may take shape over a long period of time—ten years, fifty years–and incidence of good or bad luck occurs many, many times. In 1921, in New York, a good friend introduced William Faulkner, 24, to Elizabeth Prall, manager of the Doubleday book store, and she hired Faulkner as a clerk—a stroke of good luck for Faulkner because Prall married Sherwood Anderson, one of the most popular authors in the country. Elizabeth invited Faulkner to dinner (good luck) and he and Anderson liked each other (good luck) from the start and spent many hours together, talking and drinking, and Anderson became Faulkner’s mentor (good luck). Mrs. Anderson asked her husband if he would recommend Faulkner’s book to his publisher, and Anderson said he would (good luck) as long as he didn’t have to read it. He did, and his publisher did put out the book (good luck), and Faulkner’s career was on its way, a Nobel Prize in store for him twenty-eight years later.

Chance shapes your life throughout your life, affecting the career you settle into, who your friends are, who your life partner is, where you live, the school you attend and education your receive, your genes and personality–the very fabric and quality of your existence. Some episodes in your career were extremely lucky, but other episodes couldn’t have been unluckier. The Academy award winning actor, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, went into theatre in high school because the girls happened to be so good looking. What if they hadn’t been? Would he have become an accountant?

alexander-the-great-35767_640Gamblers speak of people who are lucky and those who aren’t, and consider luck to be in the person: “She’s lucky but he isn’t.” And so do military people. Even the most scholarly and erudite studies of warfare usually discuss luck. The Macedonian Alexander the Great referred to his good luck as a “star” that guided him to great victories. I suppose it did. He conquered most of the known world before the age of thirty.

The book Creativity by psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi describes how much good luck figured in the career of a successful (and fortunate) artist “whose work sells well and hangs in the best museums and who can afford a large estate with horses and a swimming pool.” The artist “once admitted ruefully that there could be at least a thousand artists as good as he—yet they are unknown and their work is unappreciated. The one difference between him and the rest, he said, was that years back he met at a party a man with whom he had a few drinks. They hit it off and became friends. The man eventually became a successful art dealer who did his best to push his friend’s work. One thing led to another. A rich collector began to buy the artist’s work, critics started paying attention, a large museum added one of his works to its permanent collection.” His career was made.

When I wrote Fighting to Win about how people today could achieve fulfillment by applying the wisdom of ancient Japanese warriors, my timing could not have been luckier. At the precise time it came out Americans were infatuated with and trying hard to learn more about the Japanese culture, and the book took off.

In college I read Englisman Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur,” and was impressed with its beautiful language. For some reason years later (before Amazon.com and before the internet) I suddenly had the urge to read a book studying Hopkins’ imagery so that it might affect my imagery. Wherever I traveled across the world—and I did extensively–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 days before. It had hosted a conference for fire fighters–its first guests. They had left just the day before. I arrived very late at night and was given the only available room. I entered the room, 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: fifteen years after I’d read him: a full-length book on the imagery of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a lucky break, a book that helped me.

books-683901_640Another time, I’d been writing and researching fifteen or sixteen hours a day on fifteen or twenty cups of black coffee for many months to meet a book deadline, neglecting my wife, neglecting my children, concerned only with putting enough words on a page every day to satisfy me—words, words, words, words–an abstract existence. That night I’d had it; I couldn’t work another minute; couldn’t drag from my agonized brain another word. I quietly left my home at about 3:00 a.m. and walked the 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 nine-to-five job.”

It was a cool pleasant night—very dark—with a filmy mist in the air. Should I continue a writer’s life, or shouldn’t I? Should I just finish this book and then give it all up? Then I noticed ahead of me something lying on the sidewalk precisely in the middle of a pool of bright white light cast by a street lamp as though that object lying there had been placed there 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. You see: I could not get away from the written word. I took this as a sign that, like it or not, a writer’s life—imperfect, isolated, much too demanding–was my destiny and that it was futile for me to think it would ever not be at the center of my existence. That I could ever get away from it. That was another lucky break because writing and reading has brought me so much fulfillment.

lantern-451233_640I have what I call my “Research Angel” which I rely on. I am writing and researching for hours every day and have been for many years, but my research is totally unsystematic. I begin with no notion whatever of where I am going but go ahead anyway as though quite content to wander on and on in a deep forest without worrying about how—or if ever– I’ll get back home. I’m trusting my Research Angel—based completely on a confidence in good luck—to steer me to the information I’ll need. The Research Angel has never failed me, and has taken me to unexpected discoveries and new directions in my life, just as it led me to the Hopkin’s book and the book lying in that pool of white light at four that early misty morning.

In Chases, Chance and Creativity medical researcher James Austin identifies four kinds of chance that affect creative activity:

  • Blind luck that doesn’t depend on any personal characteristics of the creator
  • The good luck that follows “persistence, willingness to experiment and explore”
  • Chance that allows the creator because of his training to grasp the significance of something overlooked by everyone else.
  • Serendipity

Lucky people—lucky artists and writers, lucky actors and dancers—-follow certain principles. They:

  • Are good at creating and noticing chance opportunities. They are relaxed, not anxious, people who are aware of their surroundings. Anxiety makes you blind to opportunities. Lucky people’s perceptions are sharper than unlucky people’s. They see opportunities the unlucky person doesn’t notice.
  • Are intuitive and respect hunches. Artists are on intimate terms with intuition. Half the decisions artists and writers make are intuitive—to use that color rather than this; that word rather than another.
  • Are open-minded and flexible in their thinking. Another characteristic of creative people.
  • Have optimistic expectations. They don’t just hope to be lucky; they expect to be. They are confident they’ll be lucky again. Positive expectations create lucky events. Good things happen to people with optimistic expectations. People with optimistic expectations are happier and healthier.
  • Are extremely resilient and able to quickly recover from bad luck. They see the positive side of bad fortune: “I fell down the stairs and broke my foot. It could have been my neck.” “I failed that time and it was very painful for me, but I learned so much that helped me succeed the next time.”

Be ready to take advantage of good luck, and when your luck is bad don’t let it get the better of you, but be aware that bad luck can change to good luck, and may in the blink of an eye. Be alert, strong, and opportunistic whatever may happen. Think strategically. Be ready. Be able to say, “This now that is happening to me is good luck and it may change my life.”

fish-582695_640Create the conditions for good luck to occur—set the stage. Be like a swimming fish waving its tail and stirring up the sand at the bottom of the tank. Get out, be spontaneous, meet new people, make contacts and seek people out. Form friendships. Do things you’ve never done before. Break away from your routines. Take chances you wouldn’t usually take. Don’t resist, don’t be afraid. Be bold, not timid. Experiment, explore. Be intuitive and pro-active and look for opportunities. Let good luck happen to you. Then chase the opportunities where they lead.

On a scale of 1 to 100, how lucky a writer or artist would you say you are?

Not Lucky                                                 Pretty Lucky                                       Very Lucky

1                                                               50                                                      100

Ask yourself, “In what areas of my creative life would I like to be luckier?”

What will you do now to make yourself lucky?

I will:






Napoleon was looking for a subordinate to add to his staff. One after another his high-ranking officers described a particular candidate whom they talked glowingly about at length. Impatiently, Napoleon said, “Yes, yes, I know he is brilliant, but is he lucky?”

Yes, yes, I know you’re brilliant too, and prodigiously talented, but are you lucky? Do you behave like a lucky person? Do you foster good luck? Do you have the mind and expectations of a lucky person?


© 2015 David J. Rogers

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


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

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Order Waging Business Warfare: Lessons From the Military Masters in Achieving Competitive Superiority

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Filed under Artists, Becoming an Artist, Blocks to Action, Boldness, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Expectations, Goals and Purposes, Motivation, Success, Writers

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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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.


“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


Filed under Growing Up Stories, Personal Stories

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.


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

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


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Writers and Other Artists and Their Audience: A Very Personal Relationship

IMG_0240_David Pic copyEvery Tuesday or Wednesday I have lunch with a friend, a professor of philosophy, at a deli near my home and everything is fair game for our talks but sports. I am interested in sports, having grown up in Chicago—the slap-happiest sports town in the world. But he grew up somewhere else and thinks a basketball is something you hit with a bat.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that very important to my wife, who teaches writing, is the relationship the author establishes with the reader. I said I agree with her that the personality of the author shines all through the words and that as you read you respond to that personality, and that it accounts for much of the value we find in the work. Just as you make judgments about the work itself, such as to answer the question, “Do I like this and should I continue reading,” you also make judgments about the author such as, “Do I like and respect the person behind the words, and do I want to spend more time with him?” That happens whatever you’re reading—novel, blog, short story, play, poem, email, essay, memo, or letter.

And something similar happens whenever you look at a work of art, or see an actor act, or a dancer dance.

My friend said, “There is no relationship. There is no personality. There are only words.” Then I said, “I was reading a book recently and the information was useful—the author knew what he was talking about– but he was so arrogant and smug and self-satisfied that I couldn’t go on reading. But now James Agee, for example, is to me so likable and gentle and right-minded and has such compassion that I always enjoy his company.”

And then I thought: There are millions of people on earth who consider themselves serious writers, and many millions more who are engaged in other arts, and to whom the relationship between themselves and their audience has to be a major concern (2.5 million people in the U.S. alone consider themselves artists); so it would be worthwhile to give that relationship the attention it deserves.

The True Center

The true center of our experience with any kind of narrative writing in any language on earth is the sense that someone with a mind, a personality, and a background of experience is talking to us. That sense accounts—if it is favorable– for much of the pleasure we derive from reading, and it is that sense that a good writer will develop in the reader, consciously or not. What a writer is intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally radiates in the work and can’t be hidden from the discriminating reader.

Herman Melville said, “No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently“ forming “some ideal image of the man and his mind. And if you look…you’ll find the author has furnished you with his own picture.” Literary critic Georges Poulet wrote, “ (As I read) “I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness, the consciousness of another opens to me, welcomes me, lets me deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels. I am thinking the thought of another, but I am thinking it as my very own.”

Energy, Sincerity, and Other Qualities

The author’s qualities we connect with are those we respond to in any person we meet face to face. They include humor, energy, vitality, seriousness, playfulness, friendliness, originality, boldness, glibness, sensitivity, sensuality, elegance, flexibility of mind, intelligence, tenderness, objectivity, flippancy, etc. We become aware of the author’s interests, preoccupations, even obsessions, and how involved the author is in the subject, including her attitude toward her characters. Even the most objective and dispassionate writing, as in the short stories of Chekov, the master of understatement, conveys the personality of the author—his control and self-restraint.

We make judgments about the degree of ability the author has, and say, “That man is so skilled that he can do anything he wants with language. He’s so self-confident that he breaks the rules whenever he wants. He has courage; he takes chances.” We look at a great actor performing or Baryshnikov leaping and we say “Their skill is breathtaking; they are very disciplined and have worked hard to develop themselves.” It’s been said that painter and tortured genius Jackson Pollock had no natural talent. He was always aware that he was an artist that could not draw. But the guts he had appears in his every work, and in painting his groundbreaking way he changed the course of western art and the definition of what we mean by art.

A Distinctive Style

The first quality we notice about a master, or a truly excellent writer—or painter, or dancer, or actor, or any other artist– is a distinctive style. All great artists are concerned not only with communicating their vision and expressing their talent, but are preoccupied with the most effective way to do that. And style, which is anything but a minor afterthought, is the artist’s signature and as individual and as much a part of the writer’s, sculptor’s, actor’s, or architect’s, etc., personality and life experience as DNA. There was only one Marlon Brando and only one Frank Lloyd Wright.

Possibly the first requirement of a good style for a writer is the ability to put the reader into what is being written about and the writer’s presence right away, from the very beginning, and all the way through the work. Using a first-person “I” voice as in Hemingway’s autobiographical novel The Sun Also Rises invites the reader to share in the writer’s and narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and can be tremendously effective. With the second person “you” the writer is addressing the reader directly, and that too, can have a strong effect.

How We Want To Be Treated

There is a sharp difference between authors who treat us as essentially their equals and those that (like political candidates) imply we’re their inferiors. That author I couldn’t stand and couldn’t go on reading had no respect for the reader. He had no concept of the fundamental truths that artists must have an understanding of their audience and what will please them, excite them, and hold their attention, and what will “lose” them, including the author’s own personality. Authors we have friendships with are those who share interests with us and respect us, never underestimating us, never talking down to us.

The Author’s Mind; the Artist’s Mind

We respond very much to the author’s mind in action, and whether we’ll go on reading or not and how attentive or respectful we’ll be depends on how interesting and stimulating we find that mind. I was reading a true story about a man who was having trouble getting to sleep, and his mind was so active trying to figure out how to do that that I just sat back and laughed and marveled at his ingenuity. We are involved with the author’s mind from the first word, and the skilled author will let you know immediately that his mind is active and sharp. Even a nice metaphor or a perfect sentence or clear writing give us the reality of entering the author’s mind.

We could just as easily be talking about the painter’s mind, or the ballet dancer’s mind, or the movie director’s mind. Whatever the art, the audience responds to that mind one way if it is interesting and another if it’s not.

Intimacy and Integrity

The particularly effective writer—the particularly effective artist of any kind—will develop a relationship that goes beyond liking and beyond friendship to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity we find in the work. Sincerity is what I sense in Agee, for example. Anyone who can write so beautifully and so sensitively, honestly, and intensely must be trying to communicate to me something that he cares deeply about. The intimate writer invites us in to his inner life and says “Here I am.” I sense utmost sincerity too in Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—a poem in which the writer actually speaks to the reader and tells us that as he is writing the poem he is thinking about us. And I find it in all the work of van Gogh, and some blogs I read. The artist is sincerely trying to connect with me and communicate something directly to me as well as he or she is able, and I respond.

Good writing has integrity—our being whole and authentic with no division between who we are and what we write, or paint, or how we perform on stage. We guarantee that we aren’t faking, or deceiving, or compromising. Hemingway referred to integrity as the built-in “bullshit detector” that every real artist possesses.

No Place to Hide

It is futile to think we can hide ourselves from an audience for very long or fool it into believing we’re something we’re not. The voice that comes through is not something that is imposed artificially from the outside, but is the genuine, the authentic, the true, the real person. Even when we write about a character that is nothing like us, the person we are—with our history and our points of view and our opinions comes through clearly. The very images we use and the very vocabulary tell a great deal about us.

Addition by Subtraction

An authentic voice is not achieved by adding something, but by the opposite process—by subtracting what is pretentious or not genuine. Every artist is unique and different from every other. There are no duplicates. But whatever she is like, we are trying to locate her and understand her.

Coming Out of the Shadows

So if we are looking for prescriptions, the first would be: “Whatever your art, come out of the shadows and reveal yourself. Let your true personality permeate all through your work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it is that, above and beyond the other content, that your audience will respond to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Personal Stories

Days End: A Story of Courage and Love

sunset-190922_640Far below me, a woman as tan as tree bark lay on her back on the sand. White-tipped frothing waves came in from the ocean, and life went on down there.

I was looking down from the high balcony of my sister Sharon’s hospital room. Sharon was in bed in the room behind me–not asleep, yet not fully awake, but in a dazed state between because of the morphine they gave her all through the day and when she called for it at night. Her pain was very bad.

I watched as a few hundred feet away people in white outfits played tennis on green courts on the roof of a tall pink hotel. I knew they should not be blamed for their happiness, any more than Sharon for her misery. But I was thinking that somehow it was unfair that they were running so, graceful and strong, close enough to wave and smile at me while her disease had spread through everything. Everything was gone.

I had seen on the floor of her kitchen the scale that was there to measure the dwindling of her existence, and sheets of paper on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the wall that recorded it: ninety-eight pounds, ninety, eighty-eight…, and a calendar that had Xs on days she wasn’t healthy enough to work that in recent months had become all Xs. Against a wall was a full-length gold-framed mirror that had once held her face and her shape as she turned to adjust a blouse or straighten a skirt. The mirror was dusty.

All that remained now was the steady withering of her small, faltering body, the daily indignities, the terror and inconceivable loneliness of dying, the sorrow of leaving this world. When I stood over her bed that late afternoon she looked at me with shamed eyes and said, “I’m a mess aren’t I,” and my heart broke. What could I do but tell her she was still beautiful? How will I ever remember without pain her looking up at me so gratefully and saying “Thank you brother,” as I handed her a glass of water?

Her mind was in a tangle because of the morphine–sensations and floating dreams blended together like a band of swallows swooping and falling and words from the voices of people slipping in sideways, echoes of words, as words spoken in a museum closed for the night might sound, or a murmur, or just splinters of sound descending like coins in a pool. Images were loose in her mind of such memories as that of an ironing board, a dress with a faded floral pattern, a photograph of her sitting at a desk smiling, then the suddenly remembered sensation in her finger tips of peeling an orange or pulling strands of hair out of a brush. And all the while she was a sponge soaked with emotion: love and despair and courage and fear.

At times she felt she was merely a body beyond repair, but there were moments of great clarity when she realized she was truly a person. Then she became suddenly proud and triumphant: “I am alive. I am a human being. I am still of value.” And then shortly the dreaded thought returned: It will end; soon it’ll end. It was all so sad, she thought: the sun would last, the earth would last, and there would always be stars, but not she. She was greedy for life–another day, another hour–but didn’t a person so young have a right to be? Only thirty-seven. There should be more shouldn’t there? Above all she mustn’t lapse into self-pity, mustn’t wail, “Help me please, I am suffering.” That was all there was to it, she thought, the only victory, as outside in the priceless world flamingo clouds drifted by.

The room was regaled in yellow chrysanthemums. Sunlight spread across the balcony and the warm breeze thronged in as visitors arrived to pay their respects. Sharon wasn’t resentful or jealous of their good health, that irresistible glow they had, that incandescence, and looked forward very much to their bringing their good cheer and love, smiling like children, she knew, to keep her spirits up. Someone told a joke that was followed by laughter. How hungrily a person’s thoughts swarm over joy among sorrow.

When visitors were talking among themselves she lay back, listened, and felt one of those hundreds of emotions for which there are no words. She knew some people thought compassion was a useless emotion, but she thought it the kindest. It didn’t alter the fact that soon her life would end, but yet there were glimmers of light just knowing that one person could care so much for another, asking nothing in return, opening a secret door and entering on the private island on which the other person lived, and then you and they weren’t so lonely, if only for that time. A nurse slid a thermometer between Sharon’s lips business-like, glanced at her briefly and impersonally and with cold, gray, restless eyes gazed out at the sky while she waited for the thermometer, took it out, looked at it, and said, “One o one, not bad at all.”

How do you explain life? What does a person live for? Sharon wondered as she was turned over, grimaced, and was sponged. You expected the answer to become clear if you lived long enough, and to be profound: the meaning of life was X or Y, perhaps Z. It was a question worth asking. It was probably joy. Yes, that was it all the time: the joy one feels. And she had known joy. No one could say she hadn’t known exquisite joy.

A doctor she didn’t know then came into the room to see her, and looked at her, looked at her eyes, and jumped back as though he had been punched, and said, “I feel your power coming out to me. You have a very strong will.”


It was the silence that settled as softly as pollen on the hospital room when toward evening everyone went home that I will recall. “I remember once when,” Sharon said, thumbing through her stack of memories. Suddenly she said, “Do you remember that summer day at the lake the wind was so wild and the waves were as tall as buildings, the library when I was looking for a book?”

That day when as children—she eight, I ten–we inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy, she on the sand holding my hand, laughing. Suddenly a wind picked up and into the air flew a thousand birds. Clouds raced each other headlong across the black sky, and wave upon wave –a procession of liquid walls—rose and rose and rose majestically, ascending one after another like great hills of water that then lunged and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind, shattering on the shore into a multitude of broken stars. Hills of water that seemed to pause for a long moment at their fullest height and then to crash to earth with the sound of artillery, our hearts beating with excitement, with awe, with fear, with terror. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind, but now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth– a lion of a wind, unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a bite and sting, bringing–pouring in to us–the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself, the steady hoarse roar of the foaming waves filling the air like thunder, my losing then all sense of physical existence, being liberated and free. Behind us bathers took their children’s hands and dashed for the shelter of the beach house, and strong men dragged rowboats higher up onto the beach away from the surging water, leaving behind ruts in the sand. Nothing was the same; everything in motion, everything in flux, everything changing: wind, waves, sky, everything. That same day she stood on tip-toes on a stool down the aisle in the stacks at the library, reaching for Little Women, and watching her I realized in that instant that she was irreplaceable; I could not do without her.

How fast life goes” she whispered weakly. “It isn’t much longer than a mosquito’s life. Why does it go so fast?” The world is such a huge, well-traveled place; yet when the end of a life nears, all distances collapse and it comes to that: a little room, a little bed, a pair of eyes looking on, someone weeping.

The pain had flecked Sharon’s black hair with white and it was short from the treatment and no longer long and flowing. Her once-pretty face was gaunt, her cheeks gray, her body tired of suffering. Her long pianist’s fingers were so thin that her ring had slipped off and was lost. But there in her gray, lonely, fading beauty there was still about her that same gentleness you could ruffle with your breath, the same fury in her fierce eyes, the same poise, and the same mystical elegance.

Night came; the day was gone. Over the city shone a blue light and the chrysanthemums stood in a black vase on the table. Beyond the glass door and beyond the stars was darkness upon darkness. The faintest light lay on her face, and on that face was neither pain nor resignation nor fear nor sorrow, but peace. I placed my hand flat on her chest–she could feel pain no more–and she opened her eyes and looked into my face with a gentle sweetness. And then looked down at my hand and placed her left hand lovingly upon it.


I only regret that I was helpless to shape into words all that I was thinking of her and hoped she understood how I loved her and how I would carry with me and cherish the memories I have of her, that every year I would commemorate her birthday; that whether I am bending to tie my shoelace or asking for a fork she never leaves my thoughts. In my mind all my life I will see her long black hair flaring in the wind that day with the wild waves bursting, our lives passing, changing, and flowing like those waves; her dying young.

I felt such tenderness toward her that could I, I would have died for her and was so regretful that I could not suffer her pain for her, and was powerless to help her, and that she is now gone entirely from my life and from this world. Until I die I will feel the immense weight of grief for her and now I ask her forgiveness for any sadness I ever caused her through thoughtlessness or selfishness; and wish her somehow to know that I intended no harm and am so terribly sorry.


In the parking lot I saw Sharon’s favorite nurse and called to her and caught up with her and told her of my gratitude to her for the great gentleness and goodness she had shown my sister. I told her I would never forget her kindliness and thoughtfulness, and that I would think about her in the future and would never forget her. She told me what a good patient Sharon had been, how she had never complained and was always so nice and had good manners, and how it made her very sad to say goodbye to her.

I did not know as a boy that memories of that day at the lake, though intangible, would persist through all the successive years, nothing as real. Or that our lives would change so immeasurably as had those waves under that wind.

© 2014 David J. Rogers








Filed under Growing Up Stories, Personal Stories

Days and Nights of Youth: An evening in August, years ago

“And if I were standing in the middle of my people
Age would go from me and I would be young again.”
(Translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory)

Days and Nights pic_copyChicago’s Sheridan Road ran parallel to Lake Michigan, as it does today, and when you walked down it in those days you heard the sounds of the traffic mingling with the lapping of the waves on the beaches. From the beaches on clear days you could see on the horizon’s edge the western shore of Michigan to the east, and out on the lake low in the water turgidly-moving barges carrying loads of ore down from Minnesota to the steel mills of northern Indiana.

On certain afternoons in July and August the sun bore down on the sand so intensely that it was painful to walk on it, so men dashed to and from the tumbling waves carrying their squealing little children in their arms. One by one all the great industrialists’ mansions that lined the street were torn down and the beaches were filled in and replaced by closely-packed massive and towering apartment buildings with hundreds of verandas which were far more impressive architecturally, but far less beautiful.

Few people remember the mansions or the beaches, but most believe that the high-rises have stood there forever. Now when you walk down Sheridan Road, the traffic is so heavy and the water so far away behind the buildings that you can no longer hear the waves.

Three blocks to the west was Edgewater, a miniscule street slung like a hammock between a quiet street to the east and a busy street to the west. There I lived quite happily in a moderately dilapidated apartment which I shared with my parents, two sisters, one brother, two blue parakeets, and a dog.

Along the street stood nearly identical sturdy brown brick two and three-flats with large, clean lace-curtained windows in the front and small open porticos decorated with terra cotta flower pots of various sizes. Inside the apartments the ceilings were high and the rooms were laid out more or less the same as ours. Those buildings were interspersed with squat, frail but fearless homes of families of two, five, or eight children and were concealed from the late morning or afternoon sun by tall trees. In the back yards and on the front lawns stood shady poplars and towering American elms whose profusion of leaves, singed and curled by the blistering summer sun, hung parched and brittle, and shook like tinsel when the leaves fluttered in the wind.

The morning sun revealed rectangular lawns that, except when snow obscured them, were always closely cropped and tidily trimmed as though meticulous angels appeared every night to care for them. The hedges that hid modestly in the shadows were as neatly shorn as boys’ fresh haircuts, and the flowers in the beds were tall and brightly-colored. In late autumn the brilliant orange, crimson, and yellow leaves that had been liberated from the trees by westerly winds scampered wildly, crisply, and noisily along the pavement and adorned the lawns like jewels.

On no particular schedule—or none we were aware of—from down the alley emerged the gray rag man sitting high atop a complaining horse-drawn, creaking wagon, his voice preceding him as he called “Rags, old iron.” As the wagon neared, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic, hollow clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse whose head hung low and swayed slowly to the rhythm of its gait. Then you heard it snort as it struggled futilely with its bit, and saw its huge protruding brown eyes glazed with an expression of weariness and sorrow, and the sunlight shimmering off the sweat that coated its flanks.

In the early evenings as though all in unison, the regiments of gray, strong, working men, pensive, plain, godly men—the fathers—passed down the street in orderly array, returning to those of us whose entire universe extended no further than the ends of that block. After dinner when the weather was good the fathers–some in gaudy suspenders, to a man seeking peace–left their families and went alone outside in the yard to smoke. The glowing tips of their cigarettes or bowls of their pipes hovered like red ornaments suspended from invisible strings in the darkness. The men nodded cordially to one another, but only rarely went to their fences to speak.

They stood stationary and solitary in the middle of the yard gazing up at the dazzling field of glinting stars, being reminded of their own inadequacy, their own insignificance, feeling in themselves the overwhelming rapture and wonderment of being alive on this earth on this night that they would try to convey to another person, but would forever be unable to. After a little they shredded their cigarettes or tapped out their pipes on the soles of their shoes and watched the tiny embers drift to the ground. Then they went back inside where the light was bright and the rooms were noisy with happy children.

On especially sweltering summer nights one by one my family evacuated the stifling apartment and sat together in a little cluster on the wooden front stairs. There every summer evening without exception I fell under the spell of our little street. I watched the flight of night hawks circling high above chimneys and sweeping down like kites. My eyes settled too on the entwined strands of ivy on the trellis next door, on the blinking traffic lights and long beams of headlights spread like cream on Ridge Avenue, the yellow-glowing lamp lights in the windows of neighbors, and the demented boy who rode the street at nights with his little dog in a paper bag in the basket of his bicycle. And if our luck was good, down the street came what we were all wishing for: a breeze. Then the multitude of closely assembled leaves trembled on the trees that were tinged with moonlight.

The six of us were frugal with words on those evenings, parceling them out sparingly, as though they were precious things that needed protecting. When we spoke among ourselves it was not of topics momentous or memorable. Serious subjects were best saved for visits to our stairs of my father’s family–Welsh of course, with musical accents and exotic names, all of them worldly enough to speak on most any subject with some professed expertise. They always came bearing a vast stock of stories and bits of song and strong opinions that differed markedly from one another and were bickered over turbulently, but in a generally agreeable and forgiving manner. Sometimes too, other visitors came to sit with us.

Whenever anyone on those stairs spoke, I listened intently to the words, the silences, and the breaking of the silence, the short sentences and the longer, the soliloquies, the jokes, comments, stories, exaggerations and wild tales of utterly impossible events that there was an unspoken agreement to play along with but not for a minute believe. Sometimes I understood what was being discussed or commented on or observed, but often I did not. When I did not, my attention drifted and the words dissolved into a hum and became merely sounds.

Then I thought that perhaps when I was older and my time had come I would understand everything or most everything of which these people spoke, that meanings to which I, as a little child, was not privy, would then become clear to me, and I too would be able to speak fervently of them. At times the words the adults uttered came accompanied by a gravity or sadness that frightened me—talk of war and defeats and death and deepest sorrows. But soon someone usually said something that brought laughter all around, and I laughed with them, not knowing what brought them that flash of joy. But I shared in it, knowing that it was good and that when they were happy I was happy.

Too soon the deepest darkness arrived–imperceptibly, as if we had been inattentive and without our knowing it had descended stealthily from its source or risen from the earth to wrap itself around us. Street lights, old and sunken into the ground and standing precariously like drunken sentinels wearing metal caps, then lit and cast yellow cones all down the street. Swarms of flitting fireflies carrying their little lanterns behind them appeared and hovered like tiny intermittent airborne embers that speckled the night like the amber tips of matches. Once aloft on their nocturnal flight like winged magnets the fireflies drew their tormentors–my brother and other giddy children and me. Powerless against our quick hands, soon they were assembled like congregants in a glass jar which glowed like a church in the night.


The twilight sinks and the evening wanes and the intense heat cools and the street becomes warm and peaceful. Soon from our visitors emerge the end-of-evening yawns and “oh-my-goodness-how-time-flies,” and they pack up and leave for home. We say goodbye and they are gone. My family is alone now, all of us speaking in drowsy tones. We hear the nightly chants of the sleepless crickets from under the porch and in the hedges and see neighbors hurrying home. It is the end of this day.

My mother flutters her fingers and says, “Well, it’s getting late” with a sigh that conveys that she is weary, and my father says, “Now heed your mother children.” While still able to, I cast one last long look at the people who share this place with me. Somehow out of God’s grace and for reasons I will never fathom, they have been sent to dwell in this house for a time and to be the objects of my love forever. We children moan as pathetically as we can to be granted a few minutes more of wakefulness, but despite our protests we are ushered inside.

I lift the window shade slightly and see, overhead, a splinter of a moon and protective stars attending us. There with me in that bedroom is my brother sleeping, and there are my sisters sleeping. I am sheltered there in that sanctuary of my youth, safe in the protective hands of my parents and the Lord. My life will never be as free of complications and contradictions as then. There is no need yet to try to muddle through a life I do not fully understand.

It is now a time of resplendent picnics and sunny beaches, a blessed period of my life when pain is a stranger to me and I am immune from suffering. I lie remembering the day as I will remember it forever–a blistering journey to the cool of evening. And trying to peer forward into time and see how I will be as a man, I wonder what this life holds in store for me and if I will live mine creditably enough. I study my hand suspended in air like a gray and familiar bird. I whisper, “That is me, me,” and with that thought something stirs deeply in me that all my life will be inexpressible. And then I make a wish that things will never change, but will stay as they are forever.

 I am told that my mother and father are deathless, my brother and sisters are deathless, and that I am deathless too; that there really is no death and we endure everlastingly and that time is an illusion. But I know that my life as it is now will end. I know that we in my family are seeds that will be cast on separate earths, that we will be drawn apart to live our lives there to the end. And that too soon those people I intend well toward will pass away and leave no trace but in my memory. That the day will come when I will never again sit on those stairs with my beloved family on an evening in the heat of summer.

After a while the faint sounds of spoons against coffee cups and the low drone of speech floating from the kitchen cease and my parents go to bed. Of my family I think in my child’s way–they are all of them–each of them–good people, devoid of malice, and I am blessed to be among them. Why, I wonder, have I been so favored? “Dear Lord, keep these people safe, and please treat them kindly. Spare us please from pain or so apportion it so that none of us is asked to bear more than one should be required to.”

Silently I pray, as always fast, “God bless Mom and Dad and…” and I fall to sleep beseeching God. The day ends then, and I dream, and in a moment another dawn breaks.

© 2014 David J. Rogers



Filed under Growing Up Stories, Personal Stories

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