Tag Archives: Saul Bellow

Turning Points In The Lives Of Creative People

From the time I was a little boy watching mystery movies I’ve waited for the first clue. From that point on the solution is just a matter of time. All fates are sealed with that clue.  I will watch movies over and over, waiting for that definitive clue. And then I’m thrilled.  In the same way, I can’t think of any time in my life I haven’t been intrigued by those events in peoples’ lives that started them on the course that would define them as human beings—the Turning Points in their lives. The first clue.

Why were they this and then became that? What happened?  I would like to know. That’s true now of artists whose lives fascinate me—writers, painters, sculptors, actors, ballet dancers, composers, musicians. Was it a lucky break or a bad break? A triumph or a failure?  An illness? A significant man or woman?  A teacher? A lover? A walk on a beach?  A birth, a death?

If you and I were ever to meet–how nice that would be–I’d ask you about yours. I think you would tell me that after the Turning Point you knew right turning-arrowaway you’d never be the same. You were facing in a new direction. Winds picked up and caught your sails and you set out to sea. You were on a quest and were experiencing the pouring-out of floods of creative thoughts. You’re confident that your quest is still leading to something though you might not be aware yet just where it will take you. You will have to see.

American Nobel Prize dramatist EUGENE O’NEILL’S Turning Point was a life-threatening illness. The son of a rich and famous actor, he quit college after a year, worked as a deck hand on ocean-going ships, drank heavily in various ports, and dissipated his life.

Then he experienced his Turning Point: “I just drifted along till I was twenty-four and then I got a jolt and sat up and took notice. Retribution overtook me and I went down with T.B. It gave me time to think about myself and what I was doing—or, better, wasn’t doing. I got busy writing one act plays…If I hadn’t had an attack of tuberculosis, if I hadn’t been forced to look at myself, while I was in the sanitorium, harder than I had ever done before I might not have become a playwright.” He would, he said, “Become an artist or nothing.” From that point on, his life was centered on, focused on, and organized around writing plays.

Writer RAYMOND CHANDLER’S Turning Point was getting fired from a high-paying executive job. For many years he drifted from job to job. He started in silhouette-144967_640business as an accountant and rose to the ranks of the director of eight oil corporations. He was called by some the best businessman in America. He drank so heavily that he started going off on his own on binges without telling anyone for weeks at a time and eventually was fired– the worst crisis of his life.

But while driving along California’s Pacific coast to a cabin where he planned to figure out what to do now, he stopped at a gas station and picked up reading material: copies of Black Mask, a magazine of hard-boiled detective stories. Reading them, he decided that he could write stories as good as those, and that’s what he did, starting a  writing career at age 44 that saw him establish himself as probably the greatest writer in that genre.

Self-taught VINCENT VAN GOGH’S Turning Point was reading a particular book. Before deciding to devote himself to art he wrote to his brother Theo: “I quite well remember that when you spoke at the time of my becoming a painter, I thought it was very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me cease vincent-van-gogh-self-portrait-1887to doubt was my reading a clear book on perspective, Cassagne’s Guide to the ABC of Drawing and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with a stove, chair, table and window, in their place and on their legs, while before it had seemed to me witchcraft or pure chance to get depth and the right perspective in drawing. If you had only drawn one thing right, you would feel an irresistible longing to draw a thousand other things.”

Many creative people have Turning Points in childhood. They fall in love with some activity. Children who know what they are in love with and are pretty boy-paintingsure what they will be when they grow up are likely to be creative as adults.

At the age of eight Nobel writer SAUL BELLOW was hospitalized for half a year in the children’s ward. With boys and girls dying all around him he decided that his own survival was a near miracle; that he was “privileged” and that there was some form “of bookkeeping going on.”

He did his own mental bookkeeping and decided he “owed something to some entity for the privilege of surviving.” He believed he had “better make it worth the while of whoever it was that authorized all this.” In his twenties he turned to writing and went on to achieve all the highest literary awards. Until he died he thought it possible that he had “gotten away with something but that it had been by permission of some high authority.”

Short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER’S Turning Point was meeting a teacher– being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by John Gardner and pen-27043_640being affected profoundly. Carver said that whatever Gardner had to say “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously… I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”

Gardner taught Carver to be tough on himself, showing what is best about all good teachers. Through them you learn to adopt an objective critical attitude toward your work.  You learn “taste.” At that point Carver and his wife Maryann shared the goal of Raymond not selling out his writing and not have him get involved in any career but writing. Not to forget that he was put on earth to be a great writer and for no other reason.

MARY CASSATT’S Turning Point midway in her paining career was the result mary-cassatt-89730_6401of a sequence of Turning Points: living in Paris, mingling with the French Impressionists, especially Edgar Degas, and becoming an Impressionist herself. But the single most important turning point for Cassatt was finding her true subject: mothers with their children.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY’s Turning Point was deciding a college education wasn’t for him and landing a job as a journalist on the Kansas City Star.  Over the years the “Stars” editors had complied a book of 110 rules designed to force reporters to ernest-hemingway-401493_640use simple, plain, direct, cliché-free English, and those rules were strictly enforced. Hemingway’s writing style that revolutionized the way writing is done across the globe, was based on those very rules. He later called them, “the best rules I ever learned about writing.” He showed the first cable he ever wrote to fellow writer Lincoln Steffens and said, “Steffens, look at this cable: no fat, no adjectives, no adverbs…It’s a new language.”

Novelist THOMAS WOLFE’S Turning Point was submitting his first novel to Maxwell Perkins and Perkins becoming his editor. Perkins was the most acclaimed book editor of the twentieth century and thus far in the twenty-first. During the 1920s and 30s his Scribner’s writers included the greatest and most gifted working with one editor in the history of American publishing. They included, in addition to his protégé Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ring Lardner. Wolfe’s association with Perkins is the most celebrated author/editor relationship in American literature.

Wolfe was stupendously talented. But his main problems were his uncontrollable, obsessive verbosity and a chronic inability to cut that resulted in unedited manuscripts of fantastic lengths, three or four times longer than a publishable book could possibly be.

Those problems in turn were caused by Wolfe’s difficulty making any kind of vintage-typewriterindependent decisions. He didn’t know where or what to cut. He would stare for hours at the manuscript before eliminating a few sentences when his agreement with Perkins was that he would strike out tens of thousands–a hundred thousand—words. He would start by rereading the manuscript section by section, trying to find things that were unnecessary and could be omitted. But he was totally blind to them. He never in his entire career had a concept of a publishable book.

The day before Christmas, 1929 Wolfe wrote to Perkins: “One year ago I had little hope for my work, and I did not know you…. You are now mixed with my book in such a way that I can never separate the two of you. I can no longer think clearly of the time I wrote it, but rather of the time when you first talked to me about it, and when you worked upon it….You have done what I had ceased to believe that one person could do for another–you have created liberty and hope for me.” Wolfe wrote a note to Perkins: “In all my life, until I met you, I never had a friend.”

I doubt there’s ever been a great creator who after a Turning Point didn’t have a powerful sense of single-mindedness and an ability to persevere, face difficulties, and concentrate on reaching goals while resisting distractions.

And rarely, if ever, wandering off on tangents. High-powered focused attention is a result of Turning Points–the ability of the creator to be absorbed, caught up in, and wholly involved in his/her creative existence.

Do you remember your Turning Point?  Just look up from the screen now and reflect on when the first clue appeared in the mystery you call your life and you turned from this direction to that.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Stamina: The Creative Person’s Hidden Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…THE MOST INTENSELY

…FOR THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME

…OVER THE LONGEST TIME SPAN

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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