Writers and artists throughout history have feared and hated rejections of their work.
The most coveted goal of writers and artists–the end result and focus of all their education, training, efforts, and hopes–is to see their work published or mounted on display.
Artists and writers are particularly sensitive. When their work goes unaccepted and rejections occur time and again, as often happens in the sometimes cruelly competitive worlds of writers and artists, the emotions they feel are frustration, then discouragement, and then misery.
Each rejection compounds the effects of the previous rejections and can lead writers and artists from heights of blissful optimism to the total disappearance of confidence. Yet without confidence, writers and artists cannot do their work.
This post shows that writers and artists are not failures if their work is rejected. They may be passing through a phase on the way to great success. Or they may find joy and peace of mind in the act of creating without making any effort to sell or publish their creations. They may find satisfaction without an expectation or desire to be published, or they may seek alternatives. Self-publishing is currently very popular, as are blogs and newsletters.
But even for writers and artists whose goal is to have their work published or accepted, rejection does not mean failure.
I Read a Post About Rejection
A few days ago I read an article which asked how writers should respond when editors reject their work, and there it was, the questions “What is winning? Is winning the only thing that matters? Is getting published the only thing that matters? Is that the only credential that makes you a significant literary person?”
Having been involved in many intense competitions in sports, in earning a living in bitterly competitive business environments, and in the arts, I have seen that there are more enduring, valuable, and humane ways of finding success than that. I feel that my views can help writers and artists who are trying very hard, but unsuccessfully, to achieve the ultimate goal of having their work accepted
I remember once learning that a publishing house I was interested in submitting to typically received 5,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year. Less than seventy would be published. What about those thousands of disappointed writers? I’m sure they had worked very hard and had high hopes. But their hopes would be shattered. Are they to conceive of themselves as failures? Are they supposed to give up hope of ever being successful?
I think that there is a healthy response for writers and artists who submit a work and do not have it accepted, an optimistic and hopeful attitude.
Other Forms of Winning that Precede Success
If you are a writer or artist, you are not a failure if your work is rejected. You may be winning.
You are winning and not failing when you refuse to let any fear of rejection or any intimidation stop you from submitting your works. (Stung by rejections, some writers and artists grow excessively cautious about showing their work at all. They become paralyzed. Better to be bold and fearless.)
You are winning and not failing when you are persistent in spite of setbacks, are able to recover quickly, and are resilient.
You are winning when regardless of rejections, your writing and art are now better than ever before, when you are at the peak of your abilities, performing at your personal best.
You are winning and not failing when you make sure that the quality of your work (and your reputation) are always improving.
You are winning and not failing when you are mature and skilled enough to write and paint expertly. (Any person must spend thousands of hours developing an expertise in any art before they should expect to excel in it.)
You are winning when you are motivated and working hard. (Hard work will overcome many problems. Creative people have faith that effort along with talent leads to the best results; they are in love with work.)
You are winning when the work you submit is absolutely finished, polished like a precious jewel, and as high quality as it can be.
You are winning and not failing when you are knowledgeable–about the subject, about your craft, about what the client is looking for, about everything you should know. (To creative people ignorance is not bliss.)
You are winning also when you are true to yourself and have integrity (and are not so desperate to be successful that you compromise too much.)
You are winning when the works you produce have many strengths, like many pillars of a temple, and few weaknesses.
Those are the ways you are really winning even during those times when it feels like you are not.
In my book Fighting to Win I describe in detail Budo, the Way of the samurai warrior that proved to be of interest to many people internationally. Just as the Way of the samurai has fascinated me for decades, there is a Way of the Writer which I have long been actively involved in that I would like to describe here as I conceive of it.
A Way is more than a discipline. It is a style of practicing a skill or art that embraces the heart, spirit, and mind of the practitioners of the Way–the beginners who devote themselves to the Way and become masters.
Developing into a Writer Following a Way
A writer begins with a talent. Talent is the raw material from which a writer’s career is shaped. Doing well what others find difficult is talent. It is not possible to describe the complete, complex structure of knowledge and skills the talented writer has acquired. The best predictor of future success isn’t just time spent writing, but the amount of time devoted to improving not just this skill or that skill, but the specific skills which are the most essential if a person is to become excellent--those ten or so necessary abilities they must possess if they hope to excel. Developing those skills is the first focus of a person on the Writer’s Way. Skills are taught–by a teacher, or a mentor, or they are self-taught. Many of the most successful and distinguished writers taught themselves.
You read about writing and famous writers and may take classes and may belong to writers’ groups. You may go to writers’ retreats and find contentment. “There is a blessed peace in a retreat that happens to suit my fraught nature…I arrive in a heaven…and I sink immediately in a sort of peace from life that I don’t seem to be able to find anywhere else” (Lynn Freed).
Someone mentors you or singles you out and offers help. You apply yourself and develop a solid foundation in the mechanics of writing, and branch out into in your specialty and learn its mechanics and then range far beyond the mechanics, becoming a proficient writer, then excellent, then superb, masterful.
You may be a natural-born novelist, or essayist, playwright, poet, or screen writer, or you may begin writing no more promising than anyone else. But at some point—it could be at the age of seven or forty or sixty five or at a bleak crisis or turning point or epiphany in your life–if you are on the first steps of the Writer’s Way, you begin to write more purposefully, mindfully, self-consciously, and ambitiously. Your goals grow higher, your future path a little less faint.
Then, possibly without being aware of how it happened, out of the act of writing more frequently, acquiring knowledge of effective writing, involving yourself in the writing world, enduring at times frustration, suffering, and pain you wouldn’t have had were you not a writer, and growing in confidence, your writer’s style and voice growing clearer, you are “taken” by the craft of writing fully and completely–unequivocally.
You find yourself a practitioner of the Way of the Writer. As a writer involved in a Way you are willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of writing because for you writing is satisfying in a way few if any other things are. It is not so much the content of the writing you do that accounts for your pleasure, but the process of writing that brings joy in and of itself. The biographies of great artists make it clear that the creative urge often “yokes everything to the service of the work” (Carl Gustave Jung). For most serious writers, to write itself is more rewarding than the acclaim they receive.
What It Feels Like If You Are On the Way of the Writer
Writing as a Way opens up new facets of your being that you might not be aware of. You write regularly over an extended period of time–one year, five, ten, thirty, or fifty. It’s writing that you think most about and talk with other writers about and possibly bore your loved ones speaking about. Writing as a Way becomes an indispensable part of your daily and weekly life.
At times writers on a Way write night and day, revision upon revision, embellishing, reworking, cutting, shaping and reshaping, and finally deciding if the work is done and ready “to go out.” Although writing is often grueling, tedious, and not easy but difficult to master, few other things matter as much to practitioners of any of the arts as sweat and work. When you’re away from writing, you crave it. If you’re away too long, you become edgy, nervous, and irritable. The only relief is to get back to the writer’s work you adore. You try to write at least one hour every twenty-four. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.
Something you find essential in the act of writing keeps you going and makes you return to it again and again in spite of the setbacks and deep disappointments every writer knows well. There is “just something about” putting words together, of experimenting with ideas, of holding them in your mind as you would analogously hold a ball in your hand, and of the emotional release of “losing” yourself in the work, of having a penchant for detail because writing is an art of detail.
When you’re writing, you’re focused. Your mind is sharp, crisp. Your thoughts don’t wander. You’re not thinking of anything else. A headache disappears. Worry about the rent dissolves. You forget about yourself, almost as though you’ve stopped existing except in the words you’re putting so carefully on the screen before you. You may be working on four, five, or six projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, each project requiring different talents. When people don’t recognize the value and quality of your writing, your faith in yourself helps you persist. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”
The joy and exhilaration you receive on the Writer’s Way even from the physical act of sitting at the computer, taking a first breath of your work day, getting ready to write, and touching the keyboard with your fingertips, or the thrill at the design of the text on the computer screen is beyond the experience and comprehension of non-writers. Those aspects of the writer’s life add up to an experience which is often as necessary to the writer’s wellbeing as loving and being loved.
The most distinguishing quality of creative people is a persistent and enthusiastic absorption in their work, in spite of any frustration and suffering they may endure. Creative talent is indistinguishable from passion and intensity. You can hardly call yourself creative without them. One reason writers who are experts are more accomplished than writers who are very good but not great is that experts are more passionate about writing and spend more hours at it, working six hours while less capable writers work two hours. The only way you could keep some people from writing would be to break their fingers.
When you are a writer on a Way, when you’re writing you are in your element and are maximally effective. You have high aspirations. You’re willing to sacrifice other pleasures and have a need to do your work without being interfered with, to be free of conflicts that impede your writing goals.
At times you live with uncertainties, doubts, and tension. But over the months or years you develop strength, confidence, and faith in your abilities and judgment. If asked, you’d define yourself as creative, inventive, determined, and enthusiastic. You’ve found that you have good insights into your capabilities and are aware of those you lack. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter—if they don’t drive you away from a Writer’s Way–play a necessary part in making you stronger. There are many things you can’t do well that other people are far better at. But one thing you can do is write better than most other people.
Whatever your mood, even if grim, writing make you feel beater. Pleasure increases the more you write, partially because you work independently, isolated and self-sufficient. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, you’re no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse).
The more you write, the more automatic your writing becomes. Then it is done without the interference of thought, like a bead of dew dropping simply and directly from a leaf: “My work is done at a subterranean level and as fragments come to the surface, I record them as they come up” (Katherine Anne Porter.)
Writing Is Blissful, but Painful
Virginia Woolf referred to a writer’s “rapture.” She said, “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what, making a scene coming right, making a character come together.” That rapture is what writers often experience while writing, engaged in the Way of the Writer.
It is not unusual for writers and other artists fully absorbed in their work to be for that time in a state of ecstasy while they think, “What I am working on is essential to my fulfillment. I will be tenacious; I will persist for long periods without being diverted and try to make my work exceptional and appealing to an audience, applying all the skills of the craft I’ve labored so diligently to develop.”
But a person on a Writer’s Way is not spared emotional and physical suffering. George Orwell thought that writing a book was “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness” that writers are driven to by a demon they don’t understand but can’t resist. French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote a friend, “You have no notion what it is to sit out an entire day with your head between your hands beating your unfortunate brains for a word.” Julian Green wrote, “if only people knew what lies at the heart of my novels. What a tumult of desires these carefully written pages conceal! I sometimes have a loathing for the furious cravings that give me no peace except when I am writing.”
Following a Writers Way, You’re a Seeker and Teller of Truth.
In the arts, Anton Chekhov said, one must not lie, but must always be truthful. You’re trying to find what your truth really is and how best to express it and not deviate from it so that readers will understand it and find value in it and trust you. It is only through your writing that the truths you’ve discovered, and now believe in and strongly feel, will be expressed. How hard and how long you’ll have to work to express your truth is unimportant because every time you write it’s a coming into your own, a renewal of the best you have to offer the world.
The logical end of the Writer’s Way is to become a capital W writer, a Real Writer–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, and readers, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about writing.” Juvenal expressed the truth that “The incurable itch of writing possesses many.” Why across the world in every hemisphere and country is that true?
Through writing you’re drawing out of yourself all that is in you–all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, what your emotions are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. You gain meaning in life and a better understanding of who you are through performing writing. You have the sense that you are a person who is able to reveal important things. Delving deeply, expressing to the world what treasures you have found, you are now an artist, a remarkable status you have achieved by following the Way of the Writer.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know a primary interest of mine is in the inner skills needed to achieve success, especially for those in the arts. Even the most superb techniques of craft will take you only so far without additional skills. I’m talking about inner skills of the heart and spirit, including persistence, confidence, durability, patience, courage, vitality, intensity, flexibility, and so on. What follows are some insights into those inner skills.
Run Through the Tape
Why what I’m going to say now is true, no one has been able to figure out, but almost all people relax their efforts when they get close to achieving even their most important goals. They struggle and struggle and then seem to get lazy and disinterested. They are like a sprinter who runs fast to the tape and slows down or stops. But good coaches advise runners to “run through the tape.” Whatever you do, don’t relax just when you’re getting close to success, but persist in applying your utmost energy
Talk to Yourself: Increase Your Drive
When you’re facing difficulties or your motivation is faltering and you’re losing interest, talk to yourself about your need to work on and reach the goal. Whether you are an amateur or professional, a novice or expert, tell yourself that it’s important that you complete the tasks and get to the goals: “I’m feeling a little tired and want to quit for the day, but it’s important to me that I finish writing this article, so I will just continue working.”
Value Failure: Don’t Be Afraid of It
Why are you and I so afraid of failure? Many people live in terror of it and feel they must never fail, but always succeed, trailing clouds of glory. Yet failure can be a blessed life-changing event. If you experience only successes, you come to expect quick and easy results, and your sense of confidence is easily undermined if you suffer a setback. Setbacks and failures serve two useful purposes: Not only do they show us that we need to make changes and adjustments in order to gain the success we are seeking, but also they teach us that success usually requires confident, persistent, skilled, focused effort sustained over time. Once you set failures aside and become convinced that you have what it takes to succeed, you quickly rebound from failures. By having courage and sticking it out through tough times, you come out on the far side of failures with even greater confidence and commitment.
Seek Feedback, Not Crticism
The effect of feedback depends both on its source and on the way the creative person interprets it. If an expert judges the value of a beginner’s work based on the expert’s standards or tells the beginner what he or she should be doing, the feedback may be seen as controlling. That kind of feedback negatively affects creative performance. Useful feedback is empowering rather than controlling and doesn’t have a negative effect because it is viewed as usefulinformation–not criticism. Feedback designed to evaluate reduces creativity and motivation, but informative feedback increases them. Both the person giving the feedback and the person receiving and interpreting it play a role in making it informative, and thus useful.
Get Feedback Addressed to Your Needs
Tell the person whose feedback you are seeking what you’re trying to accomplish and what kind of help you need from them. For example, an artist might ask what she can do to make a figure look more three-dimensional; a writer might ask for advice on making a dialog more natural. Feedback should always focus on the work–never on the artist.
Persist, Persist, and Persist
Persist until you finish your novel, sculpture or symphony. The work that matters to creative people is finished work. Persistence is an extraordinary attribute that the majority of people do not possess. It separates writers, painters, actors, ballerinas, composers, and performers who have long, successful careers from those who disappear. Potential combined with a focused and tenacious pursuit of important goals is the hallmark of high achievement in the arts.
What it takes to persist is simply to persist, “staying with it longer than you might.” If you persist, most other success factors will automatically fall into place. Persistence is that important.
Confidence is needed if you are to be successful as an artist. Make it a point to never lose confidence. If you find yourself losing it, use affirming statements, such as “I can do this; I believe in myself.’
The higher your confidence, the higher you’ll set your goals, and the stronger your commitment to achieving them will be. And it is high, challenging goals–not easy ones–that lead to worthwhile creative achievements. You’ll feel serene, for now you can make full, free use of all your talents. You won’t be tentative because you’ll have faith in your problem-solving abilities. You’ll rework problems or you’ll be decisive in abandoning what isn’t working.
Confidence touches every aspect of your being—whether you think about your prospects positively or in a self-defeating way, how strongly you motivate yourself, and whether you persist in the face of adversity and setbacks. It also reduces your susceptibility to discouragement, and enables you to make positive changes in your life.
Gertrude Stein was a writer with supreme confidence. She said to cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, “Jacques, of course you don’t know too much about English literature, but beside Shakespeare and me, who do you think there is?” She said to her friend Pablo Picasso, “There are two geniuses in art today, you in painting and I in literature.
You’ll be very reluctant to give up if you are confident. You’ll make better use of your time because confidence and energy go together: one feeds the other. You will be electric with that rarest of human qualities—INTENSITY. When you face difficult tasks, if you are confident, the challenges will excite you rather than intimidate you. You’ll be more likely to seek help and assistance to improve your performance than the less confident artists or writers who are afraid that asking for help will expose their limitations.
Make Effort a High Value
The most successful people have high career aspirations, are confident, and generally attribute their success to high effort and failure to lack of effort.
They believe that creative success comes mainly from ability combined with hard work, probably over a long period of time. If they fail, the goal becomes even more attractive to them. They get hungrier to succeed. If things don’t turn out well, they don’t believe it’s because they aren’t capable, intelligent, or gifted. It is because they didn’t work hard enough. That brings them hope. Optimism is kept high because effort is a virtually limitless resource. You can always work harder.
Work Harder, Not Less Hard
How expertise is developed in a field is a hot subject these days, including expertise in the various arts. A number of scientific studies comparing novices with experts in most fields support the common sense notion that because of their great knowledge and skill, experts are able to accomplish with almost no effort what non-experts can accomplish only with difficulty or can’t accomplish at all. But don’t be deceived: experts work harder, not less hard than non-experts.
Think the World of Yourself, but Don’t Be Above Asking for Help
Creative people who are the most likely to ask for help are those with a high opinion of themselves, while those with a low opinion of themselves are the least likely, although they may be the most in need of it and would profit from it. Asking for help shows that you’re serious about reaching your goals. Useful feedback can help you evolve and reach high levels of satisfaction and achievement.
The helper may encourage and inspire you, and that may be what you need to push you toward the goal, or they may provide material support. T.S Eliot’s friends subsidized him till he established himself. Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo bankrolled him. So without reluctance say, “I would appreciate your help…” I have no problems asking for help, and all my life, I have almost always received the help I asked for and have tried never to deny it to someone who asked me for it.
Focus on Perfecting the Most Crucial Skills of Your Art
It is not possible to describe the complete, complex structure of knowledge and skills the experienced artist has acquired. It is a mistake to think that success in a creative field is attributable to one blessed aptitude such as awesome natural talent, or to three or four aptitudes. Success in the arts is attributable to a combination of many capabilities. The most prominent creatives focus harder on developing to a high level the most needed skills of their field. The best predictor of creative success isn’t just time spent working, but the kind of time–the amount of time devoted specifically to improving writing , painting, acting, etc. skills. And not just this skill or that skill, but the five or six specific skills which are the most essential if a person is to become excellent in that field.
For some artists the development time is short–almost immediate. Poets in particular, such as Dylan Thomas at nineteen, may reach high excellence with blinding speed. For others success occurs only after years of perfecting their craft. Like athletes, artists develop at different rates.
Make Sure Your Skills Match Your Goals
Of special importance to writing, painting, composing and performing success is the state in which your skills perfectly match the goals you’re aiming to achieve. The skills are exactly what’s needed to reach the goals. That’s what you should aim for—a perfect match. It’s foolish to ask yourself to try accomplish objectives you don’t have the skills to achieve, and there’s no thrill accomplishing goals that don’t challenge you. So you must focus on identifying and developing the specific skills you need to accomplish the ends and the fulfillment you aspire to.
Creatives do exceptionally well what others find difficult, and that is the definition of a talent. Talent is the distinguishing quality of creatives, usually talent in one field. Although a creative can be very talented in more than one area, as many bloggers are, as Vincent van Gogh, a wonderfully expressive writer of letters as well as painter was, the creative’s talent in one area dominates. My seven year old grandson is a much better painter than I am because he is gifted in art, and I certainly am not. (It doesn’t take long for the buds of talent to burst into bloom in a child). My talents are linguistic, and of all the arts I, who grew up in home where music filled the house, I’ve always wished I could write beautiful music–but I can’t.
I have a composer friend whose music is performed by major orchestras. He’s received many prestigious awards. But he can’t paint as well as my grandson. I can’t touch my friend in any aspect of music. He is much too talented musically for me. But he can’t write poetry or prose as well as I can. Nature specializes creatives and points them in a direction. Whether they will choose to follow that direction in the course of their life or will not is their choice. How serious they will become about developing their talent–whether refining it to a high level or ignoring it–is up to them.
When you’re making use of your main talent you’re as effective as you will ever be in any area of your life because your talent is what psychologists call your “dominant faculty.” Putting it to use habitually, day after day, to be free without being interfered with in any way, is a wish, a hope, a goal, of all serious creatives.
For the creative the quality of curiosity is extraordinary because it is so intense. Also there is a fascination with how everything works, fits together, and is useful that starts of its own accord in childhood and stays with creatives to the last day of their life. Being curious and having an aptitude for picking up knowledge here and there is important. People who have stored up a wide range of knowledge have a very good chance of being creative. Once they are serious creatives and are deeply involved in their field, they have a hunger for extensive knowledge of it: “The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, (and) amassed tremendous knowledge of it” (Geoff Colvin).
Then there is a desire, impossible to satisfy in a single lifetime, to create original things–poems, symphonies, paintings, performances–that are added to the culture, and in doing so to leave behind at career’s end a legacy, the traces of a vital human being who walked this earth, breathed, achieved, and had a personality, a name, and a reputation which will outlive the talented person by a year, or ten, or a hundred.
At a certain eventful time in creatives’ careers when they are no longer a novice and have matured as a craftsman, the need to paint or write, compose, act, or dance takes over, becomes powerful, and can’t be ignored. This is a turning point in the career of the creative, a new level of involvement with their craft. The creative may well feel as novelist Henry James did, that “It is art that makes life, makes intensity, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” The creative becomes willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of practicing an art because it is both fulfilling and challenging in a way little else is.
To practice the art may be more than adequate compensation for disappointments in other areas of life. Disappointed in love or work, if novelists they may choose to stop thinking of their hurt and turn their active minds to the task of writing a story with many characters and an intricate plot. Rather than grieving a loss, a ballerina turns to the only art she’s known since childhood and begins to warm up.
There is now something in the movements of the body and mind of creatives as they work, of muscle and thought, of experimenting with ideas, and entering the pleasant elevated mood of losing oneself in the work–some force implicit in the creative act–an urge that is more intuitive than rational, subliminal and subconscious. Those aspects of the processes of creation add up to an experience which may be so blissful that it can be as addictive as abuses of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex. But creativity is a positive addiction, not a harmful one.
As a mature creative, your thoughts are continually on how to get better. In an interview Pablo Casals, aged ninety, was asked why he, the best cellist in the world who had been practicing the cello for eighty five years, still practiced every day, and he said, “Because I think am making progress.”
You’re already excellent at your craft–you are far above average–but are not satisfied and talk about getting better. You study, you read, you learn, you discuss. You seek feedback and help because no one in the arts or sciences–no one in life–succeeds in a noteworthy way without someone advising and helping them–a teacher, a mentor, a friend, etc. You work exceptionally hard because if you are an artist you can’t help yourself and there is no other way to work, not always knowing why you do, but feeling strongly you must.
You know, and experience of the creatives who have preceded you bears out, that the more hours you work, the better you get. And your skills improve–you can see that–and your work does get recognizably better–either slowly, or moderately fast, or by leaps that may astound you. Your satisfactions, ambitions, optimism, and hopes rise as your work improves.
Creative people are models of focused human effort. Few people seem to recognize that. In my many speeches to businessmen and women I had an unusual point of view. I referred to my life-long love–artists–as the best examples of highly motivated people. I’d say, “Strive to have the soul of an artist. Learn what it’s like to create something and the value of persistence from artists. Study artists. Read biographies of artists. Let their habits filter into your behavior.”
The commitment to write (or sculpt, perform on stage, etc.) can be extreme and may surpass other of your commitments. Nobel laureate writer Saul Bellow said writing had always been more important to him than his wife and children. There are other creatives such as painter Paul Gauguin and short story master Sherwood Anderson who felt the same and abandoned their wives and children for art.
The overriding aim of creatives is very practical. It is production: to produce polished works that must be completely finished because “It is only as the work is done that the meaning of the creative act” can be understood (Brewster Ghiselin). “The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about … but simply written” (Janet Frame). 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.”
The creative sets out to answer the production question, “How can I produce the quality and quantity of work I want?” A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being at your work place ready to work repetitively the same time day after day, the power of good habits goes into effect.
If creatives are unable to work or the work doesn’t go well, they suffer. A creative must always have goals and begin every day’s work with those goals in mind: “Today I will buckle down and…” Many tremendously talented creatives aren’t nearly as successful as they have the talent to be. They are frustrated because they haven’t figured out for themselves the best work/production program that will achieve a desired level of high-quality output.
If you are a creative, if you could you would create night and day because for you there is never enough time and your talent finds resting very hard. Long before you finish one work, you’re contemplating the next. When artists work, they are seeking freedom of expression through perfect technique. Many of them are willing to sacrifice material rewards just to be able to exercise their talents and do their work without being interfered with or restrained–to make creative things free of conflicts. Many creatives choose lower paying jobs that will allow them time to do their creative work over higher paying jobs that don’t allow them to.
You may be working on 3, 5, or more projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, putting one aside and picking up another. A creative’s lively, but unsettled production-oriented mind is a cornucopia spilling over with concepts, words, techniques, methods, facts, recollections, hopes, fears, needs, problems, solutions, texts, authors, disappointments, successes, plans, possibilities, family, projects, and if a professional, finances. It rests only at bedtime. And often, not even then.
The logical end of the Creatives’ Way is to have the identity of a capital C Creative, a Real Creative–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, other creatives and lovers of the arts, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about producing creative work, and is very good at it.”
The trappings of your chosen discipline appeal to you. Great writers “loved the range of materials they used. The works’ possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and they loved them….They produced complex bodies of work that endured” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life).
When you’re away from your art you miss it. If you’re away too long you become edgy. Away from it longer, you become irritable and hard to live with. If you don’t do your art for 48 hours, your skills begin to decline. The only relief is to get back to your work as quickly as possible. You try to work at least one hour every twenty-four. If you work for four hours you are more satisfied with yourself than if you work for two hours.
Creatives are subject to the heights and depths of moods. The act of working makes you happy, makes you confident, and empowers you. However badly you might feel when you begin a day’s work, you feel better when you are working and when you finish you almost always feel good–but you need to work at least a little. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.
When you’re producing your art, you’re searching for something: authenticity. You’re trying to cut through the fakery, the tricks, the games, the insincerity, the deceit and phoniness, and the lack of conviction so that you might tell the whole truth as you see it–accurately–withholding nothing. You are modest and try to do nothing merely to make a splash because you believe that it’s only through producing work that is sincere and deeply felt that the truths you’ve discovered and now believe in and feel strongly about will be expressed.
For many serious artists, the art’s process itself is more rewarding than the product that ends the process. In this world there are many competent writers who have almost no interest in having their work published. That doesn’t excite them, but the process does. There are pianists who prefer practice to performing in public.
Patience is a necessity for creatives. Eventually after a long period of impatience you learn patience. “It’s so hard for people to be patient. It took me a very long time to get better, and a very, very long time to begin to publish. I wasn’t very patient. It’s painful….Young people are pushed so hard right out of school to get the first novel done. It takes time to write well. You have to sit with it. You have to be patient with it. You have to trust your intuition and your own material and stay with it as long as it takes” (Andrea Barrett). It’s been said that genius is nothing but an aptitude for patience.
Creatives must have a stomach for loneliness and must be able to adjust to it when it strikes. They have no choice. Pleasure increases the more you work on your art, partially because you work alone, independent, isolated, on your own, self-sufficient, and that is how most creatives enjoy working. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, they are no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse). Creatives solve many problems every day. Creatives are problem-solvers. Research on problem-solving shows that people are likely to come up with better solutions when they work alone. Poet Lord Byron said, “Society is harmful to any achievement of the heart.”
At times you live in uncertainties, doubts, tension, anxiety, and fear. But over the years you develop the strength to resist them. You acquire confidence and faith in your abilities and judgment. You fear fewer things. You grow less anxious and have a much fuller and more accurate understanding of yourself. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter play a necessary part in making you stronger. Your strong faith in yourself helps you persist through obstacles, psychological blocks, and setbacks. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”
Through your art you’re drawing out of yourself the end result of the entirety of your being–100 percent of yourself from your toes to the top of your head. That includes all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, good and bad, happy or painful, what your emotions are and the breadth and depths of feeling they are capable of because art depends so heavily on feelings, how courageous you are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. Then, self-aware, you have a clearer understanding of who you truly are, and how high the talent you possess that is growing stronger and more apparent might take you, and what new pleasures your talent may open for you.
The beautiful paintings featured on this post are by Australian artist Richard Claremont. He says, “A successful artist knows that we do art because we have to. We would do it even if no one ever got to see it. What really matters is our commitment to our own vision, painting from our heart, creating work that matters.”
Whether they are five or seventy-five, beginning creators don’t know the first thing about their craft, but don’t know they don’t know. They’re playing, experimenting, discovering, having fun, and are thrilled to be creating, and that’s enough. Then in time, if they are to become more skilled writers, artists, actors, dancers, and so forth, they will realize they don’t know enough about the craft they’ve now become attracted to more seriously.
They want to get better and be more accomplished and have success. So they strive to learn as much as they can about their craft. That drive to get better and better still, to find their one true voice that activates even their deepest creative potentials, to learn, to reach consistent excellence over a long period of time dominates true creators as long as they live.
The more skillfully advanced creators know a tremendous amount about their craft and at times are capable of unique and extraordinary creative feats that make you gasp. Yet, they are incomplete. They realize there are many other things of a non-technical nature to know, having to do with surviving a creator’s sometimes intense, demanding, troubled, uneasy, or tragic existence. Preparation is the key to creative success, whatever the field. Without survival skills the creator is not fully prepared for a creator’s life.
They acquire survival skills or they do not survive: their career ends prematurely, or they crack up, or their talent abandons them, or the production of work grows increasingly difficult, the ease and effortlessness of the master disappears, leaving in its wake frustration and regret. Horace said that painters and poets alike have always had license to dare anything, but when they lose confidence they become afraid.
Stage I: At the start of their careers, would-be serious creators work as though technique and mechanics aren’t especially important. They have a story to tell, a message to communicate, a vision, and that’s all that counts. They start out full of naïve optimism. Unless they are creative geniuses who have powerful creative intuition that more than compensates for technical shortcomings the result is that the work they produce suffers from creative ailments.
The execution of the work may be dull, awkward, muddled, and show almost no regard for the audience—a failure of craftsmanship. Successes are few. Possibly there are no successes at all. Creators get depressed and doubt their talent: are they good enough or are they fooling themselves that they can produce work that will please them and please an audience? The root difficulty is being blind and deaf to the need for technical abilities. In time that becomes very clear to creators who may come to realize their technique stinks and needs many improvements.
Stage II: Intelligent creators now turn their attention to acquiring techniques so that their work becomes more coherent, less obscure, and less naïve. Technical abilities take over from inspiration. Creators become preoccupied with acquiring technical knowledge about their craft and the mechanics of producing quality work. They study to ferret out the secrets of the best in the field, read articles, books, and blogs. They take classes, educate themselves (the principal source of a creator’s expertise), find a mentor, locate good teachers, get involved in a writer’s, artist’s, or actor’s milieu, and may go to workshops, conferences, and retreats. They work hard. Their technical skills do improve. They are better creator this year than they were last year.
Stage III: Then creators realize that technique and mechanics are insufficient–that there are many creator’s survival needs they didn’t anticipate, and are unprepared for, and a whole set of little-discussed survival skills directly related to success and fulfillment that technique can’t help them with. Serious creators’ lives are full of pressures, strains, dilemmas, quandaries, and problems. Bonnie Feldman was of the same mind when she said in Writing Past Dark: “The bookstores shelves sagged with volumes on technique. A hundred authors explained how to show don’t tell, and why a story needs a conflict. Why hadn’t anyone written a book that would help me?”
What Technique Can’t Help You With
Creator-survivors must be natural, less controlled, less inhibited, less blocked with punishing self-criticism, more expressive and spontaneous. They must be balanced, flexibly-minded, less strained, less anxious–carefree, focused on their work, not themselves –manifestations of good mental health. How otherwise will they ever be able to “snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic?” Technique will not teach creators those things, yet they are crucial to the writer’s, artist’s, actor’s, and performers’s well-being and productivity.
Technique will not teach you the single greatest survival quality of any successful creative enterprise: a desire to excel that dominates the creator, a need so strong that not much else matters as much. That is an empowering survival skill major creators possess without exception. Do you possess it?
Technique won’t help you overcome the miseries of self-doubt and discouragement—the creator’s main inner obstacles to success–that dreariness that has ruined tens of thousands of creator’s careers. Technique is terribly important, but it will not teach you the survival quality of simple, unadulterated courage in the face of hurtful setbacks, cruel criticism, and heart-breaking adversity.
Nor will it teach you the necessity of creator’s taking calculated risks, normally the only path to success. It will not teach you the survivor’s drive, high focus, and persistence which may be a more important success factors than brilliant intelligence. These are qualities creators must possess to survive.
Technique will not teach you the daily-needed psychological skills of optimism, powerful motivation, and stamina. Technique will not teach you a single one of psychological and spiritual survival skills that you need to supplement the creative techniques you’ve acquired.
Preparing For Survival
Creators should learn to dialogue among themselves freely, unabashedly, happily in their everyday creative lives about such needed Stage III creator’s inner survival qualities as strength, persistence, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, discipline, good creative moods. And ideal creative moods, resilience, enthusiasm, guts, energy and sweat, passion, sacrificing for the sake of your craft, and boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, patience, maintaining at all times a confidence of succeeding, and other dimensions of you, the creator. These inputs will make you a better-prepared.
If you lack those internal skills of the heart and mind you must acquire them just as you acquired creative technique. You can do that. You can acquire survival skills of mindfulness, meditation, and non-attachment. You can learn to endure rejection and manage stress. You can learn to listen to your body and enjoy your work more. You can become more optimistic and resilient. You can learn tranquility and peace of mind from reading people like the master Vivekananda. You can read biographies of great creators to see how they overcame adversity. You may wish to read my Fighting ToWin which has specific strategies to help you on your path.
Be aware of where you are deficient and what your survival needs are, as “I am not a confident person now; I must work on that.” Then you can set out on a program of self-development designed to better equip you for your chosen creator’s role, your creator’s life path that you may wish to follow till the last breath of your life.
Begin the day by asking, “Am I strong today?” “Will I persist?” “Will I be confident?” “Will I stop doubting my talent?” “Will I adapt and be patient?” “Will I be enthusiastic today?” “Will I be courageous?”
My thirty-seven year old son, a school principal and YA author, and a wonderful man, has been a strong supporter of my work since he was a little boy and went with me to store after store while I autographed books. It’s he who suggested I write a blog. That’s when I said, “A what?” So three years ago that’s what, with my wife’s technical help, I started to do. I hope my blog friends are reading this post and will benefit from it. A few years ago my son called me and said, “Dad, in an internet reader’s poll Fighting To Win has been maned the best motivational book ever written.” I said, “Well, how do you like that?” Any creator knows what a joy it is to have his/her work praised. (That’s one reason we work so hard isn’t it?)
And any author knows that if he writes a book that catches on, he’ll never get rid of it. He will become identified with it the rest of his life. So here I am, the author of Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life. I’m happy to say that that prescriptive how-to-do-it self-improvement book is a classic that since it first came out thirty years ago has been widely used by people of all kinds here and in Europe and Asia as a guide to actualizing their wonderful talents that otherwise may have lain dormant and unused. It started as a book popular with people in the work world, particularly business people, but then quickly spread to people in the arts.
Over the years I’ve received thank-yous from accountants and sales people, and painters, writers, opera singers, composers, movie directors, actors, musicians, and so on–people who’ve come to realize that whatever their walk of life might be, the psychology of the warrior fits them to a T because they are thinly disguised warriors too. It’s a tribute to Fighting to Win that it Is still available as an eBook, is still being read, and is still changing lives.
I turned to the study of the samurai way of life as a result of hard times taking a terrible toll on me. I experienced far too many disappointments and was cheated in business by people I had trusted. I was looking for something that would salvage me from the kind of misery I was experiencing and in the samurai Way found strength as well as insights, strategies, and techniques I could use to pull myself out of the awful lethargy I had settled into. By way of the book, magazine articles, TV and radio, the internet, and speeches, I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful people. They have told me that they too have found solace from setbacks and gained the psychological and spiritual wherewithal to excel in their careers through samurai wisdom and what I call “the inner skills of creative people.”
The samurai of Japan were the greatest warriors who ever walked the earth. Trained to perform phenomenal feats of courage and fearlessness, they were stern, quiet, utterly serious people who devoted their lives to developing their skills, spirits, and minds to the highest possible level.
Just as all creative people face internal obstacles that interfere with their lives, so did the samurai. The bulk of his or her training (there were women samurai) was devoted to overcoming those inner obstacles that are no different than the obstacles you and I and creators of all descriptions face—anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt, hesitation, fear of taking risks, nervousness, discouragement, crippling over-analysis, depression, apprehension, impatience, anger, and more.
Japanese Character for Warrior
Creators and warriors both begin as ordinary people with the potential to be exceptional and memorable, to apply themselves and acquire impressive skills not everyone possesses, and to develop talents and excel at their chosen life path–their “Way.” Each Way is different: the Way of the painter is similar to yet totally different from the Way of the actor, which is like but different from the Way of the writer or the ballet dancer, etc. At a certain point in their training and development, they cease being ordinary anymore, but have become extraordinary. They have wholly recreated themselves.
To function superbly in their chosen role–the painter to paint, the writer to write, the performer to perform, the samurai to fight–of necessity all must be brave, be bold, take chances, and resist discouragement, fear, hesitations, and self-doubt. Ideal warrior creators have the courage of a lion, the boldness of a gambler, and yet the sensitivity of a butterfly. Critics and nay-sayers are not capable of intimidating them–nothing does. Think how liberating it is to be incapable of being bullied by agents, by publishers, by directors. They are not flustered. Now you are thinking how glorious that would be. When they are facing critical moments, their goal is to be as relaxed as a person sitting down for breakfast, and that’s possible.
I’m sure you know many creators who encounter the fear of performing their craft–that’s one of their fears. When I visited a successful painter friend of mine I saw the same unfinished painting on the easel. Nothing about it changed month after month. Not a single new brush stroke touched the canvas. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for a number of years. When we got together again I asked first thing since that was what I was the most curious about: “Whatever happened to that green pastel that was on your easel for so long?”
She said, “I never finished it.”
I said, “You were afraid.”
She said, “I was terrified of it.”
I know a singer who has had a successful professional career, but suddenly and inexplicably after five years developed a fear of performing and for two years retired because of it. She read the book, applied what she read, resumed her career, and was more successful than ever. Her ordeal of not being able to perform matured her.
Fear–there are a thousand of them–is the creator’s most formidable foe. You know that: fear of not being good enough or creative enough or smart enough or talented enough, of being rejected by an audience, of never reaching the success you dreamed of since childhood.
Some creators are afraid even to enter their work room in the morning. The creator’s fear tightens him/her up. Confidence disappears and self-punishing self-doubt takes its place. Their thoughts don’t flow as they did when they were confident. To create becomes difficult if not impossible. But once creators learn to defeat fear, their minds and spirits are immediately rejuvenated, and creativity flows out of them in torrents: the novel takes shape; the just-right color is added to the canvas. What can possibly stop them now?
Warrior creators must always be ready to overcome almost unbearable personal impediments that might stop other people and to overcome scores of obstacles of all sorts standing between them and their highest ambitions. Every year thousands of painters and thousands of writers and other creators give up and quit–just quit–and thousands more are getting ready to quit right now, possibly you. Hopefully they’ll eventually learn that adversity can’t be avoided and in fact is essential to a creator’s development. If only they had persevered a little longer. Persistence is a creator’s good and faithful friend.
When you are a warrior creator your spirit must be strong and poised, in the words of the samurai strong enough to bring down “a wall or iron.” If you are knocked down you must not lie in bed and moan and whine, but must jump up. Knocked down seven times by circumstance you must jump up eight. You must take care that your spirit is never broken, whatever happens.
Your “depths” should never be penetrated. Inside the warrior creator is a tiny core of strength that nothing can touch. You must control your breathing so that energy is released like steam from an engine because the work creators apply themselves to is unbelievably difficult. Tremendous vitality spread over a whole lifetime and put into every poem, every sculpture, and every actor’s role is needed if one wishes to create.
Like samurai, warrior creators strive to remove all psychological blocks, and learn specific techniques for doing that, and having done that to be able to function freely without conscious effort, the way do when you are your most creative. When you are at your best and well trained everything is automatic, the fluid movement of a master swordsman, the ease of the gestures of a violinist, the sure brushstroke of an experienced painter, the rhythmic typing of a writer in the zone.
The work seems to do itself, and everything is easy. The release of the arrow is the most difficult problem the archer faces. Like the inspiration of the artist, the release “should be done without thought, like a drop of dew falling from a leaf or a fruit falling when it’s ripe.” One’s every creative act should be like the release of an arrow. I’ve seen people like that and so have you.
All that warrior creators need is within, in their minds. Your mind holds all the secrets. The meaning of all things is within, not something that exists “out there.” Warrior creators “grow from within.” You should leave your mind alone and not complicate it with fruitless anxieties and jealousies so many creators experience. Only then can the mind function uninhibited, in the state of highest creativity.
The mind of the warrior creator must never get “caught” or “snagged” (toroware), or “stopped” (tomaru) on internal obstacles like a fish on a line but should always be flowing smoothly from thought to thought to thought like an unimpeded river. When warrior creators are at their best, their hearts are undisturbed and at total peace, their bodies and minds operating without conscious direction. To the master in any field, to execute their art is no more difficult than to breathe or utter their name.
When most productive warrior creators are confident and self-possessed, they are certain that sooner or later they will succeed. There can be no doubt about that. They are disciplined. Their egos are under control. They look squarely at reality and never flinch from it. If up ahead is something unpleasant, well, up ahead is something unpleasant, so let’s get to it right away and get it over with.
Warrior creators are always trying to improve themselves. Tomorrow they should be smarter, stronger, more knowledgeable, and better skilled than they are today. They do things mindfully, deliberately, and are fully committed. Whatever they do they have every intention of completing. They are “immovable” and don’t budge from their important goals.
Warrior creators are designed to move. They know that when things are done leisurely, seven out of ten turn out poorly. The Way of the warrior creator is action, action, and more action–getting things done, not procrastinating, not delaying, not stalling, but finishing what you start without delay and going on to the next thing. The main goal of all creators is production–to produce works, an actor to play many roles, the writer to write many stories, the lithographer to work with many plates. No creator is more able to produce voluminous works than men and women of action.
The warrior creator knows that when you encounter calamities, it isn’t enough to say you’re not upset, but it is best to “dash forward bravely and joyfully” to meet the difficult situation. What you fear the most you must get to first. Warrior creators accept whatever they are doing and flow with whatever may happen. They are taught to expect nothing but to be mentally and physically prepared for anything.
They focus: the concentration of the artist is astounding to the non-creator. Their lives are focused too, to enable them to do their work without interference. Among their affairs are many responsibilities, but no more than two or three “matters of greatest concern.” The most important time in the warrior creator’s life is the present moment: “There is only one purpose of the present moment, but a person’s whole life is just a succession of present moments.”
For the warrior creator every moment brings with it a CHOICE POINT at which one’s whole life can change: “From this point on, after this present moment ends, shall I be strong or shall I be weak, shall I commit myself to my craft or continue playing at being a painter, shall I buckle down and see what I can become at last?” These are crucial questions.
The warrior creator is to think what a frail thing life is and is reminded that every day of his/her life may be the last. There is no fear of death. So warrior creators dedicate their lives to the fulfillment of their obligations to others and to themselves. They have an obligation to their art, their craft, and to live with the energy and flexibility that go into a creator’s every work: “Never let the thought of a along life seize upon you, for then you are apt to indulge in all kinds of wasteful dissipation.”
The warrior creator turns back again and again to the creative work to be done in this much too brief life, this single blessed moment that is occurring right now.
In the lives of great creators past and present, we find many characteristics that equip them uniquely for their role, especially tremendous powers of concentration. Those same powers of concentration are readily available to you.
Concentration is the heart and soul of creative work. How to develop and sustain it is a concern of actors, painters, dancers, pianists, composers, writers, and all other creators. Unless you bring to bear all the mental and physical alertness and clear-mindedness that you have the potential for you will not be enjoying the best conditions for your creative work.
Creators who can concentrate their mind like brilliant beacons of light at will can focus anywhere and can work under any conditions, and whenever they wish. For example, even fledgling actors are able to routinely commit to memory many pages of complex dialogue in a short period because of the phenomenal ability to concentrate they’ve had to acquire if they wish to act.
Make a pact with yourself: when you do creative work let nothing interfere with the only life that exists at the moment, namely the life of an actor or dancer or sculptor, and so forth. Just kick everything else out of your mind. All your life now for this time is the role your whole being has equipped you for because you have a love of your craft. There is no separation between you and it. It is part of you as much as your arm.
Concentration is an ability most people have not developed. Their minds run wild. That people generally are so poor at concentrating is shown in the fact that patrons in an art museum look at a work on average for 1 1/2 seconds. But out of the necessity of producing a stream of tangible works of high quality, many creators have disciplined their mind to be clear and not to wander. Those creators remind me of this famous story about concentration from the samurai Way. Samurai are ideal examples of how with application a person can increase his or her mental powers substantially and turn them to practical results, how ordinary people can become extraordinary.
Centuries ago in Japan there lived a man who had devoted himself completely to kyudo, the Way of the bow. Early one evening he was walking in the mountains when suddenly he saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. It was a tiger, its back arched, ready to pounce. Without hesitation the archer nocked the arrow. Concentrating all his power in the shot, since it might be his last, he let the arrow fly. A direct hit, right in the head. Without stopping to examine the dead animal, the archer continued on his way.
The next day, though, he became curious and returned to the spot. But hard as he looked he could not find the dead animal. He was about to abandon his search when he saw his arrow, lodged in a huge boulder. It hadn’t been a tiger after all, but his concentration had been so intense and his shot so powerful that the arrow had been driven into solid rock.
From this incident came the famous maxim about concentration and power in any Way of life–business, athletics, the arts, everyday life, and more: “Ichinen iwa wo mo tosu:” “The focused mind can pierce through stone.” (From Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life.)
One-pointed, stone-piercing concentration is the ability of you, the creator, to direct your attention exclusively on the challenges of the work at hand as they appear, and being able to prevent any stray, muddling, interfering thoughts that aren’t related to solving the creative problems confronting you.
Also from the samurai Way , applicable to the Way of the creator, is the story of a contest:
The greatest archers in the land were invited to the contest. A fish was put up on a pole a great distance away. Asked by the judge if they could see the fish, one by one the archers said they could. One last contestant stepped to the line.
“Can you see the fish?” asked the judge.
The archer replied, “I’m looking at its eye.”
This was the champion.
Learn to concentrate on the fish’s eye and you’ll often find success in creative work. You will produce more works, and the work’s quality will improve.
I proved to myself the benefits of concentration in another context when I was a bodybuilder. I said, “I’m going to devote myself to this and see what happens.” It is as much a craft with high standards of performance and traditions as acting, painting, and writing. For the body builder and the writer at work a single stray thought not belonging to the performance breaks concentration. A lift is wasted, an injury is possible. The writer loses that one thought that would have conveyed exactly what the text needed. I worked hard and concentrated totally on each separate lift and every repetition with remarkable results. I had put into practice the words of champion bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger: “One lift with concentration is worth ten lifts without concentration.”
The first quality of the creator’s concentration is an alert, undivided, focused, attentive mind that has nothing left over for anything unnecessary, irrelevant, and inessential while you are creating. As much as possible you want your concentration to be uninterrupted while you work and to not be diverted from the task involved in creating, or divided for any reason. How does a creator work on developing an alert mind?
Preparation: You begin preparing your mind for the task of writing well before you sit down at the computer, on sculpting before you enter your studio. Skilled actors don’t wait until they get to the theatre, but prepare themselves for their first entrance on the stage while they are still at home. On the days they are to perform they don’t clutter their minds with all sorts of unimportant things that have nothing to do with playing their role. When they arrive at the theatre they may not stop to engage in idle chatter that takes their mind from their performance. When they are putting on their makeup in front of the mirror they are solving problems and finding inspirataion.
In the morning start the day by thinking of the novel you’re writing, or the painting, or the role you’ll play when the curtain goes up tonight, of what you want to have accomplished creatively when your work days ends. And think of it in the afternoon and before you go to bed. Think of it when you drink coffee and brush your teeth. Think about it whenever you can. Scribble notes about it on napkins when you’re having lunch. You must be a novelist, actor, painter, etc., the whole day, not just an hour or two.
Harmful emotions like anxiety, fear, envy, discouragement, and self-doubt are threats to your concentration. So you must learn to concentrate on the task and forget the emotion. As much as possible, put how you’re feeling out of the equation. Tell yourself your emotions are irrelevant at the moment; you’ll take care of them after work.
Take your mind off what you’re feeling. You can feel afraid to write, as many writers do, and still write, and you can still do what you doubt you can do if you don’t let the fear and doubt stop you from concentrating. And too, once you’re engrossed in creative work, however poorly you were feeling before, your mood almost always improves and becomes more positive, optimistic, hopeful, confident, even blissful.
While you’re working develop your attention so that no extraneous thoughts interfere with the work. Don’t worry, for instance, whether you’re at your best today or you aren’t, or think about what might happen if you succeed and produce a great work–the glory, the applause– or if you fail–or if you have the sniffles or would rather be making love. Don’t fret about bills or personal problems or what you’ll make for dinner. Again and again bring your mind back to the work because right now it is the most important thing.
It’s hard to change your concentration from low to high if the environment you’re working in isn’t comfortable. It may not be comfortable for me, but it has to be for you. For example, I am very comfortable with chaos–not in my personal life, not at all, I crave tranquility there. But in my work room chaos is welcome. To me in chaos there is order. But my wife tsk-tsks, and says, “It amazes me that you can possibly work under these conditions.” To placate her I say, “You’re right. I have to organize this mess.” But between you and me I have no intention of ever organizing the mess.
You have to find an environment in which you can flourish, or create one. Many writers work in restaurants. I see them in the Starbuck’s down the street. Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway wrote in cafes and was extremely productive. But home is best for me. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t have a comfortable work setting because of his wife Zelda’s constant interference. She would take Scott away from his work to have fun and play pranks. One night she collected all the women’s purses at a party and boiled them. Whatever the place you work you should be able to go to it, focus, and be productive.
A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being there ready to work repetitively the same time day after day after day the power of good habits goes into effect. Some creators’ work habits will strike you as strange. The poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) splashed ink on her clothes to give her a feeling of freedom when she wrote, and poet A.E. Housman rarely wrote unless he was sick.
For high quality, uninterrupted work to happen, not all, but most creators need isolation and solitude. To get rid of distractions some creative people eliminate newspapers, TV, clocks, telephone calls, emails, face book, and unnecessary conversation. One study showed that following an interruption for an email or phone call people were so distracted that 40% of the time they didn’t get back to work, but moved on to something else. If you quit 40% of the time, how long will it take you to finish your novel?
All your mental powers should be aimed in only one direction–toward the work at hand. But your creator’s imagination is always boiling over with ideas and has a playful impulse to lead you astray. To keep out even the smallest distracting sounds, the wonderful and eccentric Marcel Proust who was so focused on writing that he never learned how to open a window or boil a kettle of water wrote in a cork-lined sound-proof bedroom. “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind” (novelist Alice Walker). But some creators concentrate best when it’s noisy:–a jack hammer under their window, a baby shrieking. Which do you prefer, silence or noise?
I’m planning to publish Part Two of “Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work” in a few weeks. I hope you’ll look at it. It answers an important question every creator asks: “It’s easy to be absorbed in the creative problem if it’s interesting–that’s not hard at all. But what if it’s not interesting? What if it’s boring? (Creative work is often tedious.) You still have to solve the problem. What can you do?”
When I was a little boy about eight or nine, I was playing in front of the TV in our Chicago apartment when an old black and white English movie came on. I knew nothing about acting, though I had once played a tree in a skit. But there was one actor on the screen who I could see was remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something special right there on the screen.
What he was doing, how he was acting, the impression he was making made me feel a sensation which I now know was awe. I realized I was watching an extraordinary accomplishment I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed at the man and said, “Who is that, Mom?” She was a movie buff, so she knew. She said, “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of any art.
As I grew older I began to notice examples of supreme mastery all around me: athletes, singers (In my family were many fine singers), pianists, violinists, and auto mechanics. And then, when I went into business and became a management consultant, executives, workers in offices, factories, and plants. And then when I became a professional speaker, spell-binding orators with supreme mastery who could inform you and teach you and move you in a way other speakers didn’t dare dream of.
About the people who perform best, whether actors, dancers, accountants, physicians, executives, sales people, mothers and fathers, chefs, carpenters, athletes, novelists, poets, and playwrights, etc., there’s an ease, an effortlessness. They stand out. You notice them. You don’t forget them. They just do what they do so well and naturally, so charismatically, beautifully, confidently, and with what seems so little effort, that if you stand back and watch them, you have to marvel. You have no choice but to think, “What I am now watching is almost unreal. It is almost super-human.” They do it better and have more ability than just about anyone else you’ve ever seen—better than other actors, painters, or writers, etc.
It’s called yugen in Japanese. Yugen is the “highest principle” in Japanese art—in any country’s art, I think—and the most difficult term in Japanese aesthetics to define. It’s the creation of grace and beauty–the mark of great ability of men and women who have reached highest attainment in their art, their craft, their occupation. There is “Grace of music,” “Grace of performance,” and “Grace of the dance.” There is the grace of any of the arts.
Yugen is “the something behind the gesture” of a great craftsman. It’s described poetically as the emotion you feel watching a bird slowly crossing the moon at night, or the ease with which a flower grows, or one of my favorite sensations which you might have experienced, that of wandering on and on in a deep forest with no fear and no worry and no thought of turning back.
No element of the yugen performance is wasted or done without purpose, and it’s something to behold. You can think right now of people you’ve seen, of people you might know, possibly you yourself, and be able to say something like, “If ever a person possessed yugen mastery it was Ms. Cartwright, my fourth grade teacher,” or Jessica Lange in Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey IntoNight, or yourself, thinking, “When I directed that play,” “When I wrote that novel” “When I danced Swan Lake,” “I had it.”
Everyone is—you are, I am, my wife is, my children and grandchildren are—potentially a yugen person. Aren’t we all more extraordinary than we realize?
If you ask yugen people, they won’t be able to explain exactly what it is they do that makes them different from others in their field because after long periods of practice and development they now do it intuitively, and what is done intuitively cannot completely be communicated to another person rationally. Oh, they have an idea, but can’t quite put their finger on what makes them able to leap up consistently in performance.
Olivier once finished a stage performance which he knew was perfect. Everyone in the company knew it was perfect and when he came off stage they asked, “Larry, how did you do that?” He replied, “I wish I knew so I could do it again.”
If you have that special touch in the work you do, you would be hard put to tell someone who comes to you to be trained exactly what you put into your performance. You say, “I do the best I can.” You’re not being modest. Just honest.
What’s known for sure is that mastery doesn’t happen overnight but is the result of long practice and absorption in the craft. Every person who reaches high achievement in a field will have spent much of his time trying to get better, and better still, and will have reached highest ability via a long process of learning and application while pushing himself upward to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness.
When you’re coming into your own artistically you are discovering in all its detail your most creative self of all the selves you might have been. Sometimes a person who one day will become a writer, artist, actor, or dancer doesn’t know himself what he might do. But he feels instinctively that he’s good for something and has some reason for existing. He has a hunch that there is something important in him that’s worth pursuing further. He finds that something in art. He makes himself into a writer, for example–an expert in expressing himself via written language.
Coming into your own, you are developing your skills and yourself to their peak. You are increasing the depth and breadth of your knowledge of your chosen field. You are developing deep-felt, deeply-woven identity that everyone recognizes as the real you. You are on a creator’s Life Path. Just imagine the fulfillments the Path will lead you to.
Mastery is revealed in everything the person does, down to the smallest detail. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp said she could decide if a dancer was right for her company even by the way he came through the door of the studio and put down his bag. The opening scenes of a really skillfully-written play or the first leap of the dancer tell you right away if this artist has yugen. If so, settle back, you’re in store for something marvelous.
How confident a creator are you? The reason I’m asking is that many creative people are blessed with talent that’s astonishing and dazzling and have magnificent promise. Yet, they puzzle everyone—especially themselves–by not reaching the heights as expected because although they have all the talent they would ever need, they don’t have the confidence to make full use of it.
It isn’t a question of ability. Creators who lack the inner skill of confidence may have as much ability or more ability, or much more ability than their confident counterpart who is less gifted but much more successful. Creators who aren’t confident avoid activities which, were they confident, they might excel in. So they’ll never know how successful they might have been had they been confident.
But when a highlyconfident creator begins a project, she not only thinks she will do it well, she believes she will do it superbly, believes that her novel, painting, or stage performance will be remarkable. The higher your confidence, the higher you’ll set your goals and the stronger your commitment to achieving them will be. And it is high, challenging goals, not easy goals that lead to major achievements. When you’re confident, you work harder. But low-confidence creators facing difficulty lower their effort or stop completely.
I was asked to do a teleconference. Though it seemed I was talking about many topics in that hour, there was one that I went back to time and again. And that was the need for you, for me, for he and she to have confidence because the more thinking I do, the more I believe confidence is the single most important success factor. Whatever the field, wherever you live, it’s number one. Talent without confidence will not take a writer, artist, actor, composer, or performer—or English sales person, Swedish teacher, or French social worker far.
There is no premium on talented people—he’s talented, she’s talented. Practically everyone I know is talented. But talented people who are also confident and are making full use of their talents and reaching the successes they desire are a much rarer breed. Some degree of that stuff we call talent is just one of the requirements of the creator who stands out. But it’s naïve to think that talent without confidence is sufficient to take a creator to great heights.
It’s my theme in everything I do—something I discovered a long time ago–that there’s more to everyone than they realize, more to you than even you are aware of. You are more extraordinary than you know. Being as great as you are, don’t sell yourself short. Be confident. Aim much higher. Then you must take up the idea of becoming all the writer, painter, actor, dancer, composer you can become. Make that idea part of your life. Think of it. Dream of it. Let your brain and every part of you be full of that idea. That’s the way to great success.
As a boy I was shy and had been trained by my parents to be modest and self-effacing, maybe the same as you. There was a girl in my Chicago neighborhood I had my eyes on. But after all, I was shy. I never asked her out, never talked to her. Years later she told me she wished I had.
I think I spent half my childhood and adolescence running. I loved running so much—the feel of it through my body, the joy. My first season running the 800 meters on the high school track team I did well, finishing second in the conference championship. As the second season was beginning the best senior middle distance runner sat down beside me on the bench in the locker room. We’d never spoken and I was wondering what he wanted. He said, “You’re a talented runner. I see you working harder than anyone. You’re a nice guy. But you’re not confident enough. It hasn’t sunk in yet how really good you could be. You’ll have to get over that. You have to be bold and have a concept of yourself as the best, the champion, if you hope to BE the champion.”
His doing that so selflessly, knowing I would be his main competition, meant a great deal to me and put me on the right path. I did win the championship and set a record. Like runners, all creators and all people in whatever life’s pursuit have a need if they are to reach their peak achievements for:
An empowering concept of themselves
The realization that with application and never-stopping persistence high excellence is possible.
If a creator lacks self-confidence he/she must acquire it. The most powerful and direct basis for confidence is past success. If you have some kind of proof that you have the ability to achieve what you want to achieve—the skills, motivation, and know-how–because you’ve succeeded in the past, you will try to achieve it again. If you feel that way, you’ll be confident and will not likely be stopped by self-doubt, a creator’s main psychological obstacle. Strong self-confidence helps you overcome the scourge of discouragement, that dreariness that has ended thousands and thousands of creators’ careers.
Even the most self-doubting or discouraged creator has had past successes. No one fails at everything all the time. There is always something very positive that will fuel your confidence to fasten onto during periods of doubt—prizes you’ve won, awards you’ve received, the best piece of work you’ve produced, a new skill you’ve learned, a compliment. Make them the foundation of becoming the champion you deserve to be.
We are what our thoughts have made us. Confidence says, “Never mind failures. They’ll wake you up.” Be a creator-warrior. Dwell only on success. Kick every other thought out of your mind.
When most creative people pursue their goals they imagine what it would be like to reach them (Hope of Success). And they also worry that the goal will not be reached (Fear of Failure). Those two emotions go together and are reverse sides of the same coin. That creators’ fear of failure is perfectly natural and is to be expected whenever you’re facing a difficult, challenging task, such as a writer crafting a play if she’s never written one before, or a lithographer preparing a work for an important contest.
But at times the fear of failing becomes a major psychological obstacle that keeps creators from reaching the success and satisfaction they’ve been hoping for. Creators who are dominated by the fear of not succeeding, but failing have developed—often without realizing it–characteristic tactics for protecting themselves from enduring what often is not just a fear of failing, but a much more dreadful terror of failing. Ironically, those tactics do more to contribute to failure than to prevent it. It’s worthwhile looking at those tactics that you might recognize in yourself so that something might be done about them.
Rather than enduring the misery of experiencing that terror of failing the person harried by it may:
Avoid competing with others of comparable ability. They prefer being the big fish in the little pond.
Be perfectionists. They don’t attempt things in which they won’t be able to attain perfection or near perfection. The tactic here is to carve out a very narrow area of competence in which they excel and can approximate perfection.
Prefer very easy or very difficult tasks, nothing in the middle. In contrast, most high achievers generally pursue tasks and goals they have a one in three or two in three chance of succeeding at. Not a sure thing and not an impossible thing.
Avoid displaying their abilities in public. A pianist may be able to perform beautifully in private, but shy away from performing in front of people.
Avoid attempting anything important. The more important the activity, the more they avoid it. A writer may avoid trying to get his work published even though publication is the logical outcome of the writing process.
Avoid taking risks. Most creators who become eminent experience turning points at which they take a risk which their less eminent contemporaries are too timid to take. Fear of taking chances melts in the face of a strong and urgent purpose and self-confidence (If you’ve been reading my posts you can’t have helped but notice I’m enamored with self-confidence because it, along with skill, is the antidote to most creator’s main problems, including self-doubt and discouragement).
Have trouble performing under time pressure. They panic as they approach the deadline. Even the word “deadline’ scares them. They delay. They give up. They shut down. More confident creators are challenged by a race against time and are often the most excited and highly focused and at the height of their skills when the clock is ticking. The best tactic is to forget about the deadline completely and focus totally on the task.
Prefer practice and games rather than the real thing.
Seek social support. People who fail tend to have as friends others who fail.
Have unrealistic expectations–oddly enough, on the high side. Asked to estimate how well they’ll do at achieving a goal they will say they’ll do far better than they actually will. I had an egotistical friend in college who wrote a paper for English in which he said he was brilliant, a great lover women couldn’t resist, handsome, a wonderful athlete, and a conversationalist who could charm birds out of trees. The professor returned his paper with the comment scrawled on it: “It’s a shame you can’t add a command of the English language to the list of your other accomplishments.”
Misjudge past performance. They also exaggerate how well they did in the past.
Reject the measure of a skill. For example, the student who doesn’t do well and says, “Getting good grades doesn’t mean a thing.”
Avoid measurements of their performance. They don’t want to know how well or poorly they’re doing, for if they knew they might have to admit they failed. Without contrary information they can always say, “I’m doing pretty well.” At work, they are the employees who dread performance evaluations. They might even arrange to stay home on the day of the evaluation. The best writers, best painters and actors are just the opposite. They want to know if they’re doing well or poorly. They welcome feedback, and actively seek it, feedback that is rapid, specific, and helpful. They are always asking about their work, “Well, what d’ya think of it?” Studies of highly creative people show that they accept helpful guidance and have “an openness to advice.”
Not try. A fear that dominates many creators and makes them quit trying to succeed is the fear of failing to reach financial success, or just break even. Writer Francois Voltaire and painter Claude Monet won fortunes in government lotteries and were able to devote themselves completely to their work. But Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner spent most of his writing life in virtual poverty. When his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine he couldn’t pay his electric bill of $35. He wrote: “People are afraid to find out how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.” But financial risk is part of the creator’s life style and for many writers the fear of being broke can be exhilarating, a source of creative energy. Most creators perform better under some amount of financial pressure. Sherwood Anderson’s publisher thought financial security would help him produce more and sent him a weekly stipend. But that made him less productive, and Anderson asked them not to send it anymore: “It’s no use. I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face.” In The Courage to Write Ralph Keyes says, “Knowing that there is a direct line between putting words on a page and food on the table keeps me focused.” Picasso said he was rich but tried to work as though he was poor.
Reject responsibility for their failures. If you wipe your hands of responsibility, all pressure is off and all fear of failing disappears. You might know creators who go to great lengths to avoid responsibility. They concoct elaborate excuses for their failures.
A not uncommon fear of failure among creators takes the form of “encore anxiety.” It is the fear after producing a successful first work that no matter what you do you won’t be able to produce a second work that’s as good or as successful.
To overcome fear of failure, go down the above list and develop counter-tactics. For example:
Always try; don’t not try.
Be interested in measurements of your performance; don’t avoid them.
Consider your past achievements dispassionately; put your ego aside.
Associate with other successful creators of comparable ability, not failures with less ability.
Pursue goals that aren’t easy, goals that are a little out of reach.
Open yourself up to areas in which you haven’t yet mastered perfection
Take more chances; that shouldn’t he hard because creators are attracted by risks.
Have realistic, not unrealistic, expectations.
Judge your performance as accurately as you can.
Actively seek feedback on your performance; don’t avoid it.
Have no fear of financial pressures; let them motivate you.
Don’t be intimidated by deadlines and time pressures; they help you perform better.
Don’t fear competition. It may bring out the best in you and help you reach a level of success in your craft you’ve never dreamed of.
Accept responsibility for failures.
All creators are capable of overcoming fears of failing, and when they aren’t extreme and debilitating, those fears can be positive—a push, an incentive– and have helped many creative people reach success.