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How To Write Mesmerizing Prose

For Writers Wanting To Improve Their Craft

 

Writers can learn many important, specific, things from other writers who are more experienced, skilled, talented, and knowledgeable. The three writers described here, a taste of whose beautiful work is included below, were masterfully gifted, serious craftsmen. The drive to write superbly dominated their lives. They breathed writing. The writing they labored over provides examples of exceptional achievements that writers wishing to cast a similar mesmerizing effect in their prose may benefit from. I hope you do.

Mesmerizing prose makes us feel emotions when we read by activating and feeding our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste because the reader experiences vicariously what he or she is reading.  In mesmerizing prose, quickly, without delay, the writer sets the tone and mood; sad in the case of the first James Agee piece that’s coming up, wistful and nostalgic in the second, reflective in brilliant John Ruskin’s analysis of the unique abilities of the creative artist.

Charles Dicken’s excerpt has a different mood–satirical and bitter. The writing in all the pieces here is specific and as clear as fine glass. What other quality is as vital to good writing as clarity? No one wants to wade through prose that’s muddled. It shows a writer with a disorganized mind. Or one who has stopped at least one draft too soon.

A skilled mixture of nouns and verbs and a balance of showing and telling strengthens the text. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. The passages are brief. They could have been much longer if the author desired. There is no mistaking the author’s voice. Other than Ruskin’s philosophical piece, the pieces mix description with action. They are not static; they have zip and they move. They point out the effectiveness of an author’s ability to create word pictures, all good writers being creators of images that come out of their mind in dribs and drabs, or torrents, to lodge in the reader’s mind, ideally memorably.

Every kind of writing improves with practice, but none benefits more than descriptive writing–a skill that can be learned.  Rembrandt said, “The more pictures you paint, the better you get,” and the same goes for mesmerizing prose. The main ingredient of these three writers is fluency–the generation of numerous ideas (an ability of smart people with fertile, excitable, complex minds); the ability to “see a lot” in things,” more than lesser writers see. In the same way, a skilled painter, looking at a field of wheat or a human face perceives much more than most people with untrained eyes perceive.

Where does that ability come from? An active mind that is able to explore objects and ideas in impressive detail while always maintaining a consistent tone to express the details, pulling image after image recalled from the writer’s life from the conscious and subconscious mind where they are securely stored and always ready to be put to work in text.

 

Here’s a piece that creates a mood through simple diction and cadences reflecting the mind of the character being described. The excerpt is by James Agee (1909- 1955) from the nonfiction documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is set among Southern tenant farmers during the American Depression. Agee–novelist, poet, movie critic, essayist, and screen writer–posthumously was called “the most prodigiously talented American writer of his generation.” About combining the skills of an artist to write a nonfiction documentary, he said, “Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?”

 “I am fond of Emma, and very sorry for her, and I shall probably never see her again after a few hours from now. I want to tell you what I can about her…(W)hen Emma was sixteen she married a man her father’s age, a carpenter… She has been married to him two years; they have no children. Emma loves good times, and towns, and people her own age, and he is jealous and mean to her and suspicious of her. He has given her no pretty dresses nor the money to buy cloth to make them. Every minute he is in the house he keeps his eye right on her as if she was up to something, and when he goes out, which is  as seldom as he can, he locks her up: so that twice already she has left him and come home to stay, and then after a while he has come down begging, and crying, and swearing he will treat her good and give her anything she asks for… and she has gone back…Her husband can no longer get a living in Cherokee City. (H)e has heard of a farm on a plantation over in the red hills of Mississippi and has already gone, and taken it, and he has sent word to Emma that she is to come in a truck… and this truck is leaving tomorrow. She doesn’t want to go at all, and during the past two days she has been withdrawing into rooms with her sister and is crying a good deal, almost tearlessly and almost without voice, as if she knew no more how to cry than to take care of her life….but she is going all the same, without at all understanding why.”

You’ll find it worthwhile to read the section of In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this excerpt is taken from to see how the writing you just read came out of the feelings of affection that developed between Agee and Emma.

 

Now here is a descriptive excerpt from Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family. The novel shows the effects of his father’s sudden death on a young boy. This famous passage, set to music by Samuel Barber, is a prelude to the novel.

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee… On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, on our sides, on our backs and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”

Nothing dramatic happens on that lawn, but Agee communicates the preciousness of everyday life, and the boy’s feeling of calmness and security. But it is yet mixed with a feeling of the fragile nature of this family and the life he cherishes.  The language, almost hypnotic, conveys how every child feels, and how most every adult feels remembering pleasant days of youth.

 

Here is an ideal example of analytical nonfiction. It is John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) writing on the nature of the imaginative mind from his book Modern Painters. Ruskin was the leading art/architecture critic of the English Victorian era and the best writer among all the critics. He explored the creative process. His writing style, based so heavily on a Biblical style, and his ideas, and original insights were widely admired by artists, critics, and the general public. They influenced Marcel Proust who spent six years studying them, translating them into French, and being influenced by them before setting out to write the monumental In Search of Lost Time. Ruskin claims, as I’ve believed as long as I’ve been writing, that once having experienced something, writers don’t forget it, but rather, having memorized their life, remembers its every detail. Writers and artists can remember every blade of grass on the street where they lived when they were ten. What one writes about, the other paints.

Here’s Ruskin writing about the painters he so admired:

“Imagine that all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in a vast storehouse, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as justly fit each other; this I conceive  to be the real nature of the imaginative mind, and this, I believe, it would often be explained to us as being, by the men themselves who possess it, but that they have no idea what the state of other peoples’ minds is in comparison; they suppose everyone remembers all that he has seen in the same way, and do not understand how it happens that they alone can produce good drawings or great thoughts.”

 

Here is an extended metaphor drawing a parallel between fog and human behavior from Charles Dickens’ (1812-1879) Bleak House. Immensely gifted and inventive, Charles Dickens is generally considered the greatest Victorian novelist. In this satirical excerpt from Bleak House, fog reminds the narrator of the murky ethics and hypocrisy of the High Court of Chancery, metaphorically the Bleak House of the title.

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marsh, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships, fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of the fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds…Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which the High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.”

 

James Agee, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens. If they were a baseball team, or a soccer team, what a powerful team they would be. All writing should be interesting, but why not go further and write mesmerizing prose using them as examples to learn from?

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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The Authentic Voice of Creative People

Creatives’ On-Going Quest for an Authentic Presence

Painting of a tree with birds

Inspiration by Regina Valluzzi

We homo sapiens are marvels, aren’t we? Since the dawn of our species, through every era, among us have been extraordinarily artistically gifted people. They are blessed or burdened with an unquenchable need to express, to grow, to explore, to create, and to embellish their existence by communicating in their own voice–which is not precisely like any other voice–a presence they wish, rather urgently, to share.

The first subject our artistic forebears chose to leave behind for us to see are impressions of their hands on the walls of caves. There at that site thirty thousand years ago, a man or woman–much shorter than us, with faces different than ours, working alone as artists do–put aside chores, squatted down in darkness, and blew colored pigment through a rod onto their hand, leaving no other trace of their days and nights but that hand. Yet through that hand–that painter’s medium, that subject–we feel their presence, and with it a bond, a caring for them, a love. We hear their voice.

Blue waves with pink and blue sky

Rose Dusk Beach by Regina Valluzzi

The late composer Marvin Hamlisch–a three-time Academy Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize winner for the composition for the play A Chorus Line–was a friend. Once I told him I’d been watching a movie and a few bars into the music, I knew he had written it.  He said, “Is that true?” I said yes, every distinctive piece of music, writing, art, acting, and composing is marked by the recognizable voice of the person who created it.

Pink and white thread-like flowers on a branch

Alive by Regina Valluzzi

It is often because of that clear voice that we go on reading the poem, or viewing the painting, or listening to the actor or to the music, and are attentive and respectful. It’s only inferior work that doesn’t take us back to an interesting, stimulating, flexible, and complex mind of the person behind the work.  Who a creative is intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually radiates from the creative’s presence in the work and cannot be hidden. Many creatives have recognizable voices because they return again and again to painting or writing about a particular subject matter.  Some creatives, such as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, discovered their authentic voice when they were young; others, such as self-taught American poet Walt Whitman, not until later in life.

So if we’re looking for prescriptions to the creative for finding or authentic voice and presence, the first would be: “Reveal yourself. Let your true identity permeate the work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality, abilities, and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it’s that, above and beyond the other content that your audience will be attracted  to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.

 

Learning to Write In a More Satisfying Voice

Painting of plue water with brown sand

Rhapsody on the Sea by Regina Valluzzi

American novelist John Hersey said, “The voice is the element over which you have no control.”

Contrary to Hersey’s belief that writers have no control over their voice, they definitely do. Yet many writers have searched their texts for their authentic voice and can’t find it. So they sometimes conclude that while there may be such a thing as a voice, they do not have one, or they might have one but they don’t know what it is, and couldn’t describe it if they were asked to. But their voice is right there in the text, or the right voice can be added to the text. Always be thinking of the voice you want your work to project.

Misty pastel hills

Hills and Fog by Regina Valluzzi

A writer was dissatisfied with the voices she found in her writing. They didn’t seem to be “her.” They were different from what she felt should be the voice of a mature, thirty-five year old mother of two, an assertive, experienced writer of essays and short stories. A few of her stories had been published in a local literary magazine. She hoped to continue writing and seeing her work appear in better magazines. She didn’t like the syntax in her writing. She thought the writing was too formal and stilted, too cold, humorless, bland, business-like, academic, dull, lifeless, and not inviting for readers.

If you have a similar problem, here is an approach you might find helpful: ask experienced writer friends to look through a piece you’ve written. Ask them to identify sentences or passages that sound most like you. Then analyze what they think sounds most like you and identify the salient elements that gave them that impression-when they say, “Right there you were doing something very good. You should get more of that into your writing, you may be onto something.”

Then write a piece in that voice. Then show a draft of the piece to a supportive writer. Ask them what they think. Does it work? If it doesn’t work, write the piece again. If it does sound like you, you’ll be encouraged.

Twisted brown trees with aqua sky

Undulating Wood by Regina Valluzzi

If in your craft you are trying to communicate a particular voice or to avoid communicating another one, you might tell your friends what you would like them to look for as they look at your work. Once when I was working on a book, I left some pages on my desk and went to bed. The next day I noticed my teenage daughter had circled a couple of sentences and written, “Write more like this, Dad. Sounds like you,” and it was my voice loud and clear.

Avoid steering their perceptions in a particular direction, as saying to them, for example, “Is my writing dull?” “Is it too complicated and unclear?” Leave them alone to make their own observations. Be sure to tell them that you want their opinions and that you are giving them your permission to be honest and open.

A competent writer should be able to write in more than one voice, as required by the work at hand, a competent painter to paint in more than one. Who could paint in as many voices as Picasso? But in the creatives’ way of producing works there is one voice that is the most powerful, natural, and suitable to what creatives are trying to accomplish, what author Peter Elbow calls the “juice.” When the quest for an authentic voice is successful, creatives come into their own and do their art better than ever before.

I can’t think of better teachers of voice than writers who have the kind of voice that appeals to you and you would like to learn from.  I find the voices of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, some passages of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With a Dog,”  full of instruction for me as I look for the voice I want, thinking, “I’d like my writing to sound that way consistently.” To better understand how Hemingway created the effects he did, I analyzed his work and read what critics and teachers had to say about it, then wrote an essay on techniques he employed to create his voice. It is a voice that in the 1920s marked the start of the “Hemingway Voice” that revolutionized how, ever since, Americans have written and spoken. Whose voices do you admire most?

Branches with blossoms and birds leaning toward each other

The Sentries by Regina Valluzzi

The lovely art featured in this post is by Regina Valluzzi, a trained scientist and researcher in the Chemical , Physical, and Biological Sciences. The influence of her scientific experience permeates her approach to painting as both an art and a science, and gives her a unique voice. The pieces she has kindly allowed me to display here, she has informed me, “feature mixed media and a combination of “classic” painting techniques, controlled fluid pouring techniques and acrylic extrusion using cake decorating tools to control the three dimensional line shape and forms.  In most cases [she has] developed [her] own techniques or versions of techniques through a variety of controlled experiments.”

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Acquiring Creator’s Survival Skills

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 Young boy painting at an easelenough. 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.

Horizon and sunset seen through branchesThey 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.

Three Stages

Stage I: At the start of their careers, would-be serious creators work Number 1as 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 Number 2coherent, 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 Number 3needs 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.

cog wheels of goldTechnique 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 To Win 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?”

© 2018 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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The Self-Concept: Freeing Up Your Creator’s Mind and Personality

In those happy days when I was starting out and writing books during the night while my wife and children slept, I was a business consultant during the day. One client was an anal-type organization–lots of rules, very little freedom, business workers in office cubiclesdictatorial–and many disgruntled employees. You might have worked in an organization like that. You may be working in one now.

One rule was that no one from one unit was to visit another unit during working hours. They were serious. Wherever you went you heard people saying, “Don’t get caught out of your unit.”

Your creator’s self-concept–self-image, self-estimate–is your internal, private opinion of the kind of creator you are and of the actions you are or are not capable of performing as a creator. It directly controls how successful you are in your creative endeavors and how full and satisfying your creative life will be. Like that nutty rule, your creator’s self-concept says, “Whatever you do, don’t get caught out of your self-concept.”

Your behavior has absolute trust in your creator’s self-concept and believes it and obeys it. You may have decided after five years writing that you’re a pretty average poet, so you work only hard enough to write average poems, never expecting to do any better. Your self-concept is perfectly content with mediocrity although you may have the potential for greatness. It is continually telling you to stay inside its definition of the kind of person you are: “You’re a decent painter but let’s face it, you’ll will never be much more than that.”

Many people I’ve met and you’ve met tell themselves they’re not creative. They realize that creativity could make them happier, but they claim they just don’t have it. Many people think, “Oh, a painter is creative, or a novelist or an architect. But I’m not a bit creative.” Yet researchers have demonstrated that the self-concept is so powerful and yet so malleable and so easy to change that the moment–the moment–people start thinking “I am creative” instead of “I’m not creative,” creativity increases. They can write and paint and perform dramatic roles passably well.  Now they have a creator’s self-concept.

Disappointments lead some creators to think, “I can’t produce really superb art work. . .sell my stories to magazines…make a lot of money…place my paintings in the best galleries…get in a good show… compete with young creators…” and so on.

Many creators have such narrow self-concepts they’re living in a unit that’s only a fraction of the size of their true creative ability. They possess the capacity to accomplish high creative goals but they don’t realize they do. Other creators have wide and expansive self-concepts. Their actions are bolder. They are self-confident. They expect to excel and often do.

What’s holding narrow self-concept creators back? Don’t look at me. I’m not holding them back. You’re not holding them back. They are holding themselves back. Some creators—maybe you know a few of them—have self-concepts so narrow and confining that they have made themselves incapable of doing anything significant. Often they don’t even try.

Many of you reading this are fiction writers. But we are all fiction writers. ALL SELF-CONCEPTS ARE FICTIONS; THEY ARE ALL MADE UP.  They are not real in the way a flower pot is real or a desk is. They are merely ways you have chosen to view yourself. From this insight it’s a short, leaping step to the next: “Hey, since I made up this damned self-concept and I’m not happy with it, and it’s holding me back, all I have to do to increase my possibilities and free up my creator’s mind and personality is to create another one and act accordingly,” or “Do I need a self-concept at all?” If your self-concept is right for you—if you’re happy with it—by all means keep it. But if it’s bringing you creative disappointment after disappointment and discouragement and you’re dissatisfied with it, you’d better, I think: (1) change it, or (2) operate without it.

I want to tell you two stories:

Story One: “The Storekeeper and the Thief”

In Japan in the nineteenth century, storekeepers were considered lily-livered weaklings. One storekeeper became sick and tired of this reputation. To prove that it was totally false he took lessons at a martial arts dojo. He devoted himself religiously and after some years he became an expert. After closing his shop late one night, the storekeeper and his wife started home down the dark streets carrying the day’s receipts. They had just turned the corner when a man holding a knife stepped out of the shadows and ordered the storekeeper to hand over his money.

At first he refused, but when the thief charged him, growling, “You miserable merchant, I’ll cut you to pieces,” the storekeeper lost his courage, fell to his knees, and began to tremble with fear. Suddenly his wife cried out, “You’re not a storekeeper, you’re a master of the martial arts.”

The storekeeper turned his head and looked at his wife. “Yes,” he said, “I am.” He stood, a warrior now, totally fearless, completely calm. He let out a powerful katzu, “battle shout,” and leaped at the thief. He defeated him easily.

Story Two: “The Teaman and the Ronin

In feudal Japan, a servant, a poor practitioner of chado, the Way of tea, unwittingly insulted a ronin, a masterless samurai. Outraged, the ronin challenged the servant to a duel. “I’m not a warrior,” the teaman said, “and I’m very sorry if I offended you. I certainly didn’t mean to. Please accept my apology. ”But the ronin would have none of it. “We meet at dawn tomorrow,” he said, and as was customary, he handed the terrified teaman a sword. “Go practice,” said the ronin.

The servant ran to the home of a famous sword master and told him the terrible thing that had happened. “A unique situation,” the sword master said. “For you will surely die. The thing I might be able to help you with is isagi-yoku, the art of dying well.”

While they talked, the teaman prepared and poured tea. The masterful way he did it caught the eye of the sword master. He slapped his knee and said, “Forget what I just told you. Put yourself into the state of mind you were in as you prepared the tea and you can win this fight.” The teaman was shocked. The sword the ronin had given him was the first he had ever held. “What state of mind?”

“Were you thinking ‘I’m a teaman?’ ” asked the master.

“No. I wasn’t thinking at all.”

“That’s it!” The sword master laughed. “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head, ready to cut your opponent down. Don’t think you’re a teaman or that you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”

Image of kendo {{PD-1923}} The next morning the ronin appeared on the field and the teaman immediately raised his sword overhead, his eyes on the ronin, his ears waiting for the battle cry. For long moments the ronin stared at the raised sword, and the determination in his opponent’s eyes. Finally the ronin said, “I cannot beat you.” He bowed and left the field.

The problem of these two men should seem familiar. Their predicament is one we all encounter every day. Our opponents aren’t usually thieves and they certainly aren’t wandering samurai ronin, but that’s not important. Those weren’t the main opponents anyway. The primary battle, the main event, was going on inside the storekeeper and the teaman. To win on the outside, each had to deal with a faulty, inadequate, self-defeating self-concept.

Option One: “I’m a Warrior, Not a Storekeeper.” Changing Your Self-Concept

Many creators are overlooking their creative abilities. They persist in thinking they’re storekeepers when if they just thought differently about themselves they would see what warriors they have the potential to be. Listen to the things you say about yourself and think about yourself that begin with “I am,” “I’m not,” and “I can’t.” They are your self-concept in action. And they directly control what is possible for you.

 

Robin tells herself, “I’ve been working on the thing I call ‘My Novel’ for years and can’t seem to finish it. It’s embarrassing. I have no will power.”  And because of it she has real problems getting the damn thing off to a publisher. Ariel tells herself she’s not intelligent enough to write a Hollywood screen play. She doesn’t realize that intelligence is not fixed and final in a person, but can increase with use and with it her concept of herself as an intelligent woman.

Creators are what they are because they keep telling themselves they are. If they stop telling themselves they are, they change. If creators say to you, “I just can’t talk in front of large groups,” or “I’m not the sales type,” or “I’m not a really clever person,” and then ask you if there is anything they can do about it, you might suggest that they never, never say that again. Then suggest they counter every “I’m not” or “I just can’t” with a firm “I am” or “I can.”

Saying it isn’t enough.  What is in your head doesn’t count for anything unless you translate it into action, “body knowledge.” It’s not enough to think, “Hey, I’m not just a storekeeper, I’m really a warrior after all.” To defeat the thief you have to fight, and you can because:

 All behavior is nothing more than an act, a performance.  Acting is easy. Everyone can act. We are all performers.  As soon as a public speaker realizes that she is not a lecturer but an actor, her presentations get good. To BE confident, ACT confidently.

Find a model, someone who does well what you would like to do. Watch how she does it, then do it the same way yourself. Or borrow from a number of models.

Option Two: Operating Without a Self-Concept

The sword master advised the teaman, “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head. Don’t think that you’re a teaman or you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”

In sales training sessions I gave I often used a simple role-playing exercise that’s designed to demonstrate the teaman alternative. The teaman alternative is not replacing your old, limiting self-concept with a new and improved one. It’s not thinking you’re a cowardly storekeeper or a poor teaman, but it’s not thinking you’re a warrior either. It’s not holding any self-concept in mind, but just taking action, doing something.

After everyone in the training group had played the part of a sales person making a presentation to a potential customer, I asked them to list the things that they did well during the role-play and the things they would like to improve upon. Then we discussed the “like-to-improve-upons.” Sam said he was no good at thinking on his feet. He went blank. A real salesman, Sam said, is able to handle himself smoothly.

Gerri said her problem was talking too fast. Her words came shooting out so fast she often said the wrong thing. She got flustered. She blew sales.

One by one, they all had to tell me about their “improve-upons.” Midway through every description of a problem I stopped the speaker and said something like “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I’ll tell you what: show me how you would like to be able to do it.” Then I just sat back and watched the amazing thing that almost always happened. Virtually every time, they were all able to do what they said they had trouble doing or could not do at all. Now they were acting.

Sam, for example, actually did think on his feet, and responded smoothly and quickly to the prospect’s objections. Gerri actually became a more composed, together, non-flustered and relaxed saleswoman. Shy people who wished to act more boldly and self- confidently actually did. Those who wished to improve their body language did so. And tough, defensive people who “always” argued and who wanted to be more friendly and warm succeed in acting that way.

I had prompted each of the role-players to act directly without letting their self-concept affect their performance at all. They were doing before their self-concepts had time to inform them, “You just got through saying you couldn’t do that, so it doesn’t make any sense for this guy to ask you to.”

What the role-players learned is precisely what the sword master taught the teaman: You can do what even you believed you couldn’t if you forget about your self-concept totally.

Seeing how easy and effortless it was to forget about a previous self-concept and just act, just be, just perform was exciting for everyone. It was an unforgettable life learning experience.

Man painting a pictureDo whatever you’re doing  creatively without any thought about your “I ams,” “I can’ts” and “I’m nots,” or any concern about “what bad thing will happen if I fail” or “what great thing will happen if I succeed.” You’ll be unhappy whenever your internal opinion of yourself makes you concerned with yourself instead of the creative action at hand.

The creative action at hand–the story or the painting to be crafted, the role to be played, the dance to be danced–they are all that matters, they are the main thing.  Forget about everything else. Watch what happens. Watch your creative life change.

 

Parts of this post appeared in different form in my book Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work And Life

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Fiction and Truth

I was in a writer’s group some years ago, an extraordinary group because except for me it was composed entirely of women–and they were elderly, seventy, eighty, ninety years old. At first I thought, “What am I doing with this bunch of old ladies?” But I quickly changed my tune.

They were tremendously talented and clever, sharp, and knowledgeable, and taken all together had hundreds of years of Typewriter, paper, glasses, pen, book on a wooden surfaceprofessional or amateur experience. It was a great, exciting group, the most pleasant and worthwhile I’ve known. The atmosphere every time was warm, radiant, cordial, and safe–a most productive creative environment. I often think of them fondly. At a session I read aloud a short story I’d written.  When I was reading I heard one woman–an award-winning journalist–say to her friend with a tone of discovery, “This really happened. You can tell.”

Well it had really happened. I hadn’t changed a single thing from the actual events and the actual setting and mood and people, except the names.  Even then I used their correct initials–“Wayne Collins” became “William Carruthers,” etc. In writing it I had to make everything accurate. If I wrote, “She had grey eyes,” I wouldn’t let myself get away with it. I just had to change it back to the real color, blue. Then the group turned to the question everyone seemed interested in that my reading had raised: “Can obviously autobiographical material–meaning it had really happened, the detail told you that–qualify as fiction?”

The eight people in the group were evenly divided. Four said, “Fiction is fiction and non-fiction is non-fiction. There’s a big difference.” I once asked my wife, an excellent writing teacher, “What is a short story these days,” and she replied “Currently, a short story is anything you want it to be.” That liberal view was basically the attitude of the other four members of the group, including me, so in our minds my strictly and admittedly autobiographical story more than held its own as fiction.

It goes without saying that when they are creating, all writers–all people in the arts–depend heavily on their own past experiences. But while most writers create characters and plots using their imagination as the dominant shaper of the work, some writers–such as those cited in this post–adhere slavishly to their own experiences and knowledge.

Truth is what the writer, painter, actor sincerely believes in his/her own heart. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist and for the audience. The artist is often not striving for literal truth, but is inventing too, saying to the reader, “I’m trying to convince you that if this were happening, this is how it would be. If characters were people, this is how they would feel, talk, and behave.” But some writers invent far less than remember.

In college and in graduate school I was trained in “The New Criticism” that says all that matters when studying a literary work is the work itself: the author’s personality should not enter into it. I had a knack for sticking to the text and ferreting out patterns of images and symbols.

But I am a writer of fiction and poetry and I know from my own long experience and that of many other writers that the author’s personality and experiences are everywhere present in the creative process and permeate the content of everything the writer commits to the page, every feature, major or minor. Critics may not know that or may act as though they don’t, but every writer does. A writer can look at a passage in her work and say, “That character sounds so bitter because I had a bad tooth ache that day and so I was in the perfect mood to write that dialogue.”

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

There is a long precedence for obviously autobiographical content being put into fictional form and being accepted as fiction even though it really happened. Short story master/playwright, Russian Anton Chekhov, said “Art has this one great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood…There is absolutely no lying in art,” and in a letter to his brother, “Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself.”

That’s much easier to do when you are writing about yourself because you know yourself better than you know any character you can imagine and you know better than anyone else what happened to you if you have a clear and accurate memory. Autobiographical fiction writers obviously need exceptional memories–and most have one. Their most important creative routine is to stimulate their memory. I may look at photo albums as a way of doing this.  I’ve said about myself–hopefully not bragging–that I can remember every blade of grass on the street I lived on when I was eight.

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised to “write from recollection; [but} trust more to your imagination than to your memory.” Most writers are liars–they invent. But some writers write their best fiction, poetry, drama, and screenplays when they are writing the literal truth–or almost the literal truth–and not lying.

American Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, for example, said,  “I have never written anything which did not come directly or indirectly from some event or impression of my own,” and “I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one; Is it the truth as I know it, or better still, feel it,” and “I am a dramatist. What I see everywhere in life is drama. I just set down what I feel in terms of life and let the facts speak whatever language they may to an audience,” and “Writing plays was the easiest thing in the world for me. I wasn’t making anything up.”

Some famous autobiographical authors who could be obsessive about not lying or writing about things they hadn’t experienced themselves include:

Katherine Anne Porter

Saul Bellow

Ernest Hemingway

Sherwood Anderson

Marcel Proust

Thomas Wolfe

Eugene O’ Neill

Henry Miller

Anton Chekhov

James Joyce

D.H. Lawrence

Sylvia Plath

Malcolm Lowry

Scott Fitzgerald

Raymond Carver

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, another Nobel Prize winner, could invent with the best of imaginative writers, but was obsessed with telling the truth, the importance of telling the truth, in his words, “the straight statement without moralizing or elaborating or decoration”–what “is not messed with.” He was asked what the job of the artist is, and he said it is to put down what you see and what you feel in the best and simplest way you can. What he had personally done and knew most about was what he was interested in telling about. “His standard of truth-telling remained…so high and so rigorous that he was ordinarily unwilling to admit secondary evidence…picked up from other sources than his own experience” (Carlos Baker.) Whenever I read the wonderful Hemingway short story “Indian Camp” I know that boy sitting in the rowboat was once the real Hemingway and the man with him was his real father just as in the boy in the story I read to the group was my best recollection of how I was as a boy.

Thomas Wolfe had an enormously retentive memory, as autobiographical writers generally do, and engaged in exhausting, sustained, many-hours-long periods of writing. (Research shows that the most productive writers and painters usually work in long, protracted bouts of creation and not in brief, choppy spurts. For maximum effectiveness you would preferably have or develop the ability to concentrate your attention for long periods, and if possible, find long uninterrupted, unimpeded periods of time for work.)  The artist’s highest goal is to make conflict-free, habitual use of the urge to create that dominates him or her, with no one and nothing interfering. It is not just interference that so aggravates the creator, but even the threat of interference.

Wolfe’s aspiration was to put into his writing precise descriptions of every experience and every impression and every sight and sound he had ever known. He wanted to put all the experiences in his life into written language, and had every confidence that was possible. His life had to be “looted clean.” “Everything had to be used; nothing could be implied” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature).

Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe, Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

Like many creatives whether in the arts or the sciences, Wolfe was governed almost wholly by the compulsion to work, to be as productive as he could possibly be. Words came out of him straight from his memory as water comes from a spigot–hundreds of thousands of words, thousands every night, manuscripts of a million words, his never having any concept of the requirements of a publishable book. Whenever he was deterred from working, this tall, handsome, tremendously gifted man from North Carolina would fall into a black mood. Then he would brood, drink, and pace the streets all night until he was able to work again, starting in the evening and working past the break of dawn.

Malcolm Lowry was the English author of the wonderful virtuoso-performance novel Under the Volcano. It’s generally considered one of the great works of the twentieth century. It is possibly the most accurate description of a man’s alcoholism ever written. (He wrote, “One dreaded the arrival of anyone unless they were bringing alcohol.”). Lowry almost never tried to invent characters or events because he didn’t know enough about any other person to be able to do that. His subject was himself and he could not focus on anybody outside himself. When he tried to, the writing went flat. He didn’t know anything about world events or anything else either. Everything revolved around his thoughts.

James Joyce

James Joyce

James Joyce had such a need for authenticity and accuracy that he believed he didn’t possess an imagination at all: he couldn’t make things up. When writing Ulysses he sent a letter home to Dublin asking a friend to go see if it was possible for a man in average physical condition to jump from this place to another at a specific address, or was it impossible. He had to know or he couldn’t finish the book. He was depressed when after the book was published a retired sea captain wrote him telling there was a mistake in the book in that with wind blowing the way he described, the boat wouldn’t have behaved in the way he had it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with Hemingway, is arguably the most dramatic example in American literary history of an author whose private life is reflected consciously or otherwise in virtually everything he wrote. Fitzgerald’s language, his prose, his voice, tell us what he was going through at any given moment in his career, from his early extraordinary successes through his crack-up. Saul Bellow’s fiction is strongly biographical fiction. Its focus on the workings of a brilliant mind help explain why his writings are in essence long monologues. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is also strongly autobiographical.

T.S. Eliot said, “We all have to choose whatever subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.” Literary critic Gilbert Murray wrote, “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings.” It is not a random choice, but a discriminating, highly selective instinct, a particular order of things that has an outstanding appeal to that particular writer. Painter Julian Levi said, “It seems to me that almost every artist finds some subdivision of nature or experience more congenial to his temperament than any other.” The subject matter, the subdivision of experience that all these writers mentioned here found, and that autobiographical writers today find, is not what they can imagine, but themselves and the recollection of the lives they’ve lived.

It’s generally thought among critics that Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past were the two greatest novels of the twentieth century. The subject of Proust’s book was Proust as much as the subject of Lowry’s works was Lowry. Wolfe’s subject was Wolfe, Fitzgerald’s was Fitzgerald, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, Plath’s was Plath, Hemingway’s was Hemingway, etc.

The answer to the question, “Can a true story be communicated as fiction?” is “Of course.”

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Filed under Creativity, Ernest Hemingway, Fiction, Literature, Malcom Lowry, Memory, Thomas Wolfe, Work Production, Writers, Writing

More Inspiration and Information for Creative People

Part 4 in a Series

See also Part 1 and Part 2 & 3

Drawing of hand holdng a pen

CREATORS WELCOME ALONENESS, LONELINESS

  • “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… Research shows that people are likely to come up with better ideas when they work alone.” (R. Ochse)
  • “Nothing will change the fact that I cannot produce the least thing without absolute loneliness. Once again I had the experience that I can work only in absolute solitude, and that not only conversation, but even the very presence in my house of loved and esteemed persons at once diverts my poetic nature.” (Goethe)
  • “What one bestows on private life—in conversations, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” (V.S Naipaul)
  • “Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” (Arthur Schlesinger)
  • “The most remarkable piece of research apparatus is the human brain. Some people want to buy every price of equipment known to science. They believe that with a beautiful building filled with modern equipment they have a first rate research institute. That is superstition. The greatest discoveries have been made by men working alone.” (Bernado Houssay)
  • “Originality is a form of solitude.” (Waldo Frank)
  • “Society is harmful to any achievement of the heart.” (Lord Byron)
  • “Conversation enriches the mind, but solitude is the school of genius.” (Edward Gibbon)
  • “Isolation and complete loneliness are my only consolation and my salvation.” (Richard Wagner)

 

INTERRUPTIONS, OBSTRUCTIONS, AND TROUBLE ARE A SCOURGE TO CREATORS

  • “interruption …is one of the major enemies of creative thinking.” (R. Ochse)–“interruption or the feeling that there may be an interruption at any time.” (Walter Bradford Cannon)
  • “Dreadful indeed are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again, often in vain.” (Tchaikovsky)
  • Everything I have had to do has been interfered with or cast aside. I have never in my life had so many insuperable obstacles crowded into the way of my pursuits.” (Charles Dickens)
  • “I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

 

CREATORS ARE COMPLICATED

  • “It is at bottom fairly true that a painter as a man is too much absorbed by what his eyes see, and is not sufficiently master of the rest of his life.” (Vincent van Gogh)
  • Creative people are those who are more willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, to take risks, to seek to overcome daunting obstacles, and to tolerate ambiguity even when its existence becomes psychologically painful.” (Scott Barry Kaufman and James Kaufman)
  • “The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is always in the foreground.” (Raymond Chandler)
  • “What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second their imagination, and third their industry.” (John Ruskin)
  • “The challenge of screen writing is to say much in little and then take half of the little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.” (Raymond Chandler) and Chandler: “If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have gone.” (He was nominate twice for the best screen play Academy Awards.)
  • “To create, you must have a slightly hard heart.” (Albert Camus)
  • “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” (Walter Pater)
  • “The actor appears only to practice and to perfect himself.” (Actress Maria Casares)
  • “You have to remember that nobody ever wants a new writer. You have to create your own demand.” (Doris Lessing)
  • “The moment a man sets his thoughts down on paper, however secretly, he is in a sense writing for publication.” (Raymond Chandler)

 

CREATORS BETTER ACQUIRE CONSIDERABLE KNOWLEDGE

  • “People who gain a wide range of knowledge have a relatively good chance of being creative. They will have acquired a large universe of items from which possible new combinations could be drawn.” (R. Ochse)
  • “To creators knowledge isn’t everything. But it is almost everything.” (David J. Rogers)
  • “Creativity: a type of learning process where the teacher and the pupil are located in the same individual.” (Arthur Koestler)
  • “The literary artist is of necessity a scholar.” (Walter Pater)
  • Over the long run, superior performance depends on superior learning.” (Peter Senge)
  • “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)
  • “Learning is necessary to the development of creativity of the highest order, although attendance at an academic institution is not essential.” (R. Ochse)

 

CREATORS MUST FIND THEIR AUTHENTIC STYLE, TECHNIQUE, AND VOICE

  • “In the long run, however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It plays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” (Raymond Chandler)
  • “If you’re a creator the first thing you notice about the work of an accomplished writer, painter, actor, dancer, composer, etc., is a distinctive style, It cannot be hidden.” (David J. Rogers)
  • “No matter what elevated state of inspiration you might find for yourself, you can’t write the book until you find the voice for it. As it happens there is just one voice and one voice only for a given book and you must ventriloquize until you find it.” (E.L. Doctorow)
  • “Technique is the ability to do what you want to do…You must have a certain intention, and the ability to do that is the index of your technique.” (Pianist Leon Fleisher)
  • “Don’t get alarmed if you dislike what you write. It takes years to find your real voice, your tone and the truth in your heart.” (Albert Camus)
  • “It was at this point that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those I most loved. Immediately I heard my own voice. I was enchanted: the fact that it was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad had dropped out of my vocabulary…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.” (Henry Miller)
  • “The writer’s work consists in writing with as much effort as possible; and at the end of this labor it sometimes happens that he finds what he sought for so long inside himself.” (Albert Camus)

 

THE WORK OF CREATORS IS SUBJECT TO CRITICISM, SOME FAIR, SOME UNFAIR.

  • “Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.” (Raymond Chandler)
  • “Most critical writing is drivel and half of it is dishonest.” (Raymond Chandler)

 

CREATORS FOCUS AND WORK HARD

  • “The inventor, whether artist or thinker, creates the structure of his psychic life by means of his work…It is only as the work is done that the meaning of the creative effort can appear and that the development of the artist brought about by it is attained.” (Brewster Ghiselin)
  • “Creation is not a joy in the vulgar sense of the term. It is a servitude, a terrible voluntary slavery.” (Albert Camus)
  • “With the piano, there’s no way of getting around hours at the piano if you practice to play correctly. It is what it does for your control of sound…The more time you spend at the piano, the more control you have.” (Pianist Andre-Michel Schub)
  • “Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience.” (French biologist Boffer)
  • ”For the artist work is the main thing and always comes first.” (Saul Bellow)
  • “I have had to work hard; anyone who works just as hard will get just as far.” (Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • “Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring more to bear in one thing only: my painting, and everything else is sacrificed to it…myself included.” (Pablo Picasso)

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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

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Something Has Gone Out of Publishing

In my oh-so-very-pleasant work room upstairs, where I spend so much time hacking away at this machine whose letters on keys are disappearing fast from overuse, and my wife Diana leaves me alone to bleed and brood when the thinking and writing aren’t going well and to be stricken with ecstasy when they are, I am surrounded by books–many volumes about the arts and the immensely gifted people in them.

This morning I had a busy schedule of things to do that I’ve wanted to do for weeks but haven’t. I’m Chicago born and bred, Spartan tough, so I told myself that today was “time to get serious, buster. Enough of this uncharacteristic self-indulgence.” Today would be different; I’d “dig in,” “put a dent in things,” “make progress,” “do my thing.” I checked over my list of current projects, every single one of which oddly is “top priority.”

Old booksI was eager to start, but then I made the mistake of looking over my left shoulder and having my eye caught by an old “Advance Uncorrected Proofs–Not for Sale” copy of a biography of William Golding. “Who?” you say. Golding was a prolific English novelist, essayist, and playwright, author of Lord of the Flies, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who was knighted for his achievements.

I ask literate people, “Who was William Golding?” and they don’t know. I ask, “Have you read Lord of the Flies, and they say, “Three times.” Far, far more people have read or heard about Lord of the Flies than remember the name of its author.  I see Golding as representative of a breed of artists and writers who were once acclaimed and now are forgotten.

The biography I’m looking at has an attractive, cheap light green paper cover, and I like the print. So I think of what I know about Golding, and the impression I come up with is that he was an odd bird, though I don’t know where I got that impression, and that his Nobel Prize was controversial.

Obviously, I had no choice but to ditch everything else immediately and start reading the book to try to understand Golding’s story as told in John Carey’s William Golding: A Life.

Golding was a strange, shy, private, reclusive depressive who didn’t want publicity or a biography written in his lifetime, and a virtuoso pianist in his early years. He was a victim of many fears and phobias, a World War II Royal Navy officer who participated in the D-Day invasion and other famous battles. During the war he discovered that the only way he could control his fear was by grinning. The men who served with him misinterpreted that as a love of violence. For many years he was a bored school teacher who was so inept and uninterested that he had no business teaching. He said he never knew what education was about.

He had trouble getting published. He wrote three books during his lunch hours, breaks, and holidays. No publisher was interested in them. Then he started the one that would change his life and enter the lives of millions of us: Lord of the Flies. The books he and his wife Ann read to their little son and daughter, such as Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, were often about islands. One night when Golding and Ann were resting after putting the children to bed, he had a brainchild. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I wrote a book about children who behave in the way children really would behave?” Ann was a formidable person, strong-willed, forceful, tough, and determined. So it made sense that she said, “Get on with it.” Golding said once he began working on the book, “It came very easily.”

He felt as if his three unsuccessful books that were circulating in the English publishing world and regularly being returned to him with rejection letters were “written by other people.” But he saw right away that the book about boys on an island was his book.

The manuscript of the book that eventually was given the title Lord of the Flies by an editor was originally panned by publisher Faber and Faber, Britain’s leading publisher, a reader calling it “absurd and uninteresting.” But it was rescued by a Faber editor who had been with the publisher for less than a month–Charles Monteith. Golding was Monteith’s first catch. Monteith would have many more. He was handsome, refined, polished, and sophisticated–qualities that were not true of Golding. That was the start of a lifelong association, with Monteith his editor, adviser, confidant, and friend.

The manuscript had made the rounds and been submitted to many publishers unsuccessfully. It was dog-eared, shop worn, and had pages yellowed at their edges, showing that it had been read and rejected countless times.

The book started out strangely, but Monteith was gripped as he continued reading. He took it home to finish. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. It had many flaws, some of them serious, but at the next meeting of the Faber Book Committee he said he thought the book was “odd and imperfect, but potentially very powerful,” and that he would like to discuss it with the author.” But the Sales Director, W.J. Crawley, whose judgment about if a book would sell was considered infallible, said the book was unpublishable. An argument ensued. When things calmed down, it was decided that since Monteith was very junior, others in the firm should read the manuscript before anything was decided.

Monteith then wrote to Golding, apologizing for keeping the manuscript for “rather a long time,” explaining that while they were interested, they had not made a decision. That was the most encouraging letter Golding had ever received from a publisher. He wrote back, saying he was glad they were interested and hoped they would publish the book.  Other Faber editors read the book, agreed with Monteith, and shared his enthusiasm.

The Faber chairman Geoffrey Faber read the book and liked it, but had doubts. But he didn’t wish to dampen a new young editor’s enthusiasm, and it was decided that Monteith would meet Golding and discuss possible changes but make no promises about publishing the book. At the meeting over lunch at a restaurant, both men were nervous. Because of the book’s religious content Monteith thought the author would be a clergyman, but then thought, “a teacher of children! Of course!” Changes were discussed. Golding would go home and consider them.

The changes Golding made quickly and sent to Monteith were even better than Monteith had hoped for. What Monteith had wanted shortened, Golding had completely eliminated, improving the book. The two men worked hand in hand on the book. On January 10, 1954, Golding submitted a complete draft. He had pieced together all the separate sections the now-friends had sweated over. Golding said now that the book was finished, he could hardly bear to look at it mainly because of the effort of “patching, so much more wearing than bashing straight ahead at a story.”

On February 11 Faber announced that it was prepared to publish the novel. The book went into production in March. Golding read the proofs and could see that Monteith’s “patching” had improved the book considerably.  Golding wrote to Monteith, “I think you have done a very clever and helpful piece of work…The novel is swift now, with a measure of subtlety and tautness. If it achieves any measure of success now it will be due to your severe but healthy pruning.”

On the 17h of September, 1954, Lord of the Flies was published, one year and three days after Golding had sent it to Faber. The tone of reviews that would follow was set by the first review that appeared that same day in the Daily Mail: “Most compelling–I fell under the spell of this book and so will many others,” The following day was even better. The Evening News called it “vivid and enthralling.” To the Times it was “most absorbing.” Time and Tide said, “A work of universal significance;” its author was “a truly imaginative writer who is also a deep thinker.” In the Observer poet Stevie Smith wrote, “This beautiful and desperate book, something quite out of the ordinary.”

Biographer Carey writes, “Faber and Faber were to remain Golding’s agent as well as his publisher for the rest of his life, an arrangement” of great profit to both of them, “and the achievement of this goal was entirely the result of Monteith’s understanding, patience and literary judgment. He spotted Golding’s potential when no one else did, and his faith in his extraordinary gifts did not waver.”

Books on shelvesMany Golding books followed. The Golding-Monteith symbiotic relationship between author and editor, the author with the genius and the editor with the judgment, cannot help but remind one of that same special and rare type of association between American novelist Thomas Wolfe, a physically immense man with an equally immense talent from which a torrent of gorgeous language flowed, and the editor who discovered him, Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. (Perkins was also the editor of greats Ernest Hemingway, author of The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby.) The Wolfe-Perkins combination is considered the greatest author-editor relationship in the history of literature.

No writer, painter, or performer in any age was ever given a blank check. They all had to accept certain conditions imposed from the powerful gatekeepers in the field.  But the conditions imposed on the creative center of everything in the arts–the artist himself–are harsher and more brutal today than they once were, and something has gone out of publishing, enough that it’s legitimate to ask if the publisher is the author’s friend–as the theory goes.  The author now has to supply all the this-and-thats that once were the responsibility of the publisher. That was the deal. When did the changes start and how did they happen? Were they justified and in any way equitable?

Given publishing as it is today, such a relationship is now unheard of: two supremely talented people as Golding and Monteith, experts in their own specialties, but one on the payroll of the publisher, working together with one goal of textual perfection.  Most all publisher’s editors today are acquisition “editors,” not textual editors. Authors must find their own editors, and that is an expense that authors did not have when publishers were expected to provide editors.

Most writers with one ear tuned to the stories they’ve heard of the-once-upon-a–time legendary author-editor combinations consider the loss of publisher’s textual editors and that kind of relationship unfortunate. When I was writing Waging Business Warfare for Scribner’s thirty years ago, not one, not two, but three editors at the same time in the employ of the publisher were editing my work for different things.

Red pen editing writing

Where are today’s writers to go to find someone good and capable, trustworthy and encouraging, who will give them valuable feedback and expert guidance that will refine, hone, and perfect the finished, remarkable products–the novels, the plays, the poems people will stop to admire and will never forget? Where are the Charles Monteiths to find the most talented writers to share their expertise with?

Many new gifted authors with tremendous talents are waiting to be discovered and set on the right track by someone with the solid, unwavering faith in them, the expertise, and the vision of a Charles Monteith, without whom, quite possibly, we never would have heard of William Golding.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

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How Creators Benefit from Teachers

Colorful abstract paintingIn college I had a brilliant professor of creative writing–he was dazzling. After class one day I said to him, “You know everything about literature and writing. Your analysis of works is something to behold, and you’re able to tell students how specifically to improve their work. But as far as I can tell you’ve never produced any creative writing yourself. Have you?

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have no talent.”

He didn’t have the talent his students did have, but his students didn’t have the knowledge he had, and that’s what we were there to acquire so we would have both talent and knowledge.

A painter will not automatically improve her performance by painting more. A writer’s performance won’t improve simply by further writing. To ratchet up their performance they will have to make changes designed specifically to develop it to a higher level. One major change is to acquire more knowledge.

In the arts and every other pursuit knowledge isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything.  Most often the reason a creator isn’t yet accomplished isn’t because he’s unintelligent or not gifted but because he isn’t knowledgeable enough. You need a big data base to be an accomplished creator.

Knowledge translates into new techniques and skills. New techniques and skills translate into new creative accomplishments–roles for the actor, publications for the writer, commissions for the painter and composer, greater satisfaction with your craftsmanship, and so on.

Flute lessonParticularly important in the acquisition of knowledge about your art is the instruction you receive. It may come from yourself if you are a self-taught autodidact who acquires knowledge by reading and studying the author’s ideas as many creators do, and instruction from direct in-person exposure to expert, skilled teachers. Most creators are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly. They are teachable.

Everyone who has reached the highest level of excellence in their chosen field will be found to have spent much of their lives immersed in that field pushing themselves to improve their performance, and have amassed tremendous knowledge of it. Experts have a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand. Most experts consider about 50,000 different chunks to be the foundation of their expertise. When you are learning, you are adding chunks. It is no secret to you when you are talking with masters of a domain. Knowledge seems to come out of their every pore.

If you are interested in reaching your upper limits of performance and the most effective training in reaching them, you should study experts in your field–read about them, listen to the stories about them. They have probably spent their entire creative life maximizing their performance. Lengthy, on-going, never-ending training is nearly always the reason for superior performance. All the known routes to high performance require extended training. There are no shortcuts.

Research on what enabled many people to reach high expertise reveals that very often elite performers attach themselves to teachers who give them quality feedback, and with their help engage in specifically-designed training tasks. Training tasks force the creators to solve specific problems and stretch their performance, break bad habits, acquire new skills, and often experience career-changing insights.

Often creators we’ve heard most about received a more ancient style of education rather than modern large classes and many teachers. They received at least some one-on-one personalized education, spending time with a teacher with a good reputation known for their work with students on an individual basis, engaging in give and take dialogue and questioning.

Pottery lessonWhen a student in an art studies with a role model, a master, sparks fly. The two of them immerse themselves in the world of their art. Together, they analyze the piece of work, the skills that went into producing it, and the additional skills that will be needed if the student is to go further. The student learns the importance of concentration and sheer effort, and the need to overcome self-doubt. The student is gaining independence and confidence, and learning to solve problems on her own. Then in time, she may become a master in her art.

Troubled and immensely talented American short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER was called “The American Chekhov.” A turning point in his life was being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by author John Gardner and being affected profoundly. Carver said that whatever Gardner had to say “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously… I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”

American MARY CASSATT’S emergence midway in her painting career was the result of a sequence of happy events: living in Paris, mingling with the French  Impressionists, especially mentor/teacher Edgar Degas, becoming an Impressionist herself, and finding her subject–her voice: mothers with their children. Degas was a generally unpleasant, abrasive, hard to deal with man who most other painters couldn’t stomach. But he was a good teacher, the right teacher for Cassatt.

Ernest Hemingway had a most astounding capacity for absorbing information as soon as he was exposed to it and applying it immediately. He was greedy for knowledge and went to everyone for help—and they gave it freely–Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and others.  He studied, read, and wrote, sometimes eighteen hours a day.

Expert performers and their teachers identify specific goals for improvement, particularly crucial aspects of performance. The person who is trying to improve his mastery must concentrate full attention on getting rid of shortcomings, focusing on where in his performance there’s the most room for improvement.  Not any old teacher will do; a bad teacher is worse than no teacher. The teacher must be effective and must know how to support and excite the student to go on learning. What could be more unendurable that a dull teacher?

The most important quality that leads a creator to success is his motivation. A good teacher stokes the creator’s motivation through positive reinforcement and encouragement.

If a writer is weak on imagery she must write out a hundred, two hundred, three hundred effective images in practice. If she’s already a master of imagery she needn’t practice making images as much and can concentrate on what she’s not strong on.

Seal: Knowledge is PowerAdmitting shortcomings is hard for some people, but not hard at all for others. It wasn’t hard for Vincent van Gogh. His brother Theo asked if he should stop criticizing Vincent’s work in his letters. Vincent replied: “Continue writing me about my work. Do not fear to hurt me…I will take such criticism as proofs of sympathy worth a thousand times more than flattery.”

Generally speaking, writers, painters, ballet dancers, actors, and composers are quite probably the toughest-on-themselves, most self-critical creatures on this globe. Only the poorer and most naive of them are seduced by undeserved praise. If there are flaws in their work, they almost always recognize them before anyone else. Tell a prima ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will shake her head and say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly.” And if the criticism of their work is unfair and not justified, they recognize that too.

The whole reason for being of the creator is to produce fully realized, polished works that as closely as possible approximate the ideal of “The best I can do at this time. In a year I should have more knowledge and should be able to do better if I keep working and learning, and in five years, better still. But right now this is the best I am capable of.”

Until you can say that, the work isn’t finished and needs more attention. That attitude should be yours as long as you paint, as long as you write, as long as you dance, as long as you act, as long as you compose.

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

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Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work: Part Two

A heart surgeon was performing a delicate operation when large chunks of the ceiling came crashing down all around him. People in the operating room screamed, the noise was deafening. But the surgeon was so concentrated on

the surgery that he didn’t notice.  When your creator’s mind is as deeply on the act of creation as it should be when you are painting, writing, dancing, acting, like that surgeon you will be aware of nothing else. You will look up and see that your friend has been talking to you and you didn’t notice or that rain is coming in the window that has blown open while you worked. You won’t hear blaring music from the apartment next door.

Creative people often notice that if their ability to concentrate while they are working is poor, their work is also poor, but that if their concentration is good, their work is also good–cause and effect–that concentration is essential to their doing their best work.

An actor’s concentration must be total and never not total from curtain up to curtain down. The more total her concentration, the more engrossed in her performance the audience will be.  Also, the more concentrated a writer is while writing, the clearer the writing should be. And isn’t clarity the secret of supreme writing that not every writer has learned, but the best writers have? It’s obvious that to produce clear work you must be thinking clearly.

Part One of this two-part post began…

 … 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.

 … Concentration is an ability most people have not developed. Their minds run wild.

 Creators must concentrate on what they are doing in the moment, in the “now.” Then they must be able, when that “now” is finished, to move onto the next “now.” They work very hard. They should strive to develop the ability to be as little affected by distractions as possible, to brush them off and to quickly resume their performance after an interruption. Some creators avoid distractions almost completely by eliminating TV, clocks, telephone calls, Face Book, Emails, and unnecessary conversations.

Select a place where you concentrate best—for most creators that’s the same place every day. Get started (the best way to get started is to get started), keep distractions and diversions to a minimum and don’t stop for any reason until the day’s goal is reached, except for brief rest periods. Look at the prescriptions for increasing concentration in Part One of this two-part post.

Persist working and growing in the face of obstacles and inevitable setbacks. Overcoming psychological obstacles such as discouragement, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the ubiquitous creator’s fear of who knows what is another skill creators must master. You can still do great work if you don’t let the obstacle stop you from concentrating. You must also learn to pace yourself and maintain your energy and stamina over days, weeks, months, and years.

Konstantin Stanislavski was the most significant and most often quoted figure in the history of actor training. He was a pioneer attempting to define the actor’s mental, physical, intellectual, and emotional processes in a way that was comprehensive and had never been attempted before. He said, “The first step of creative art is concentration of attention…Through my system we try to achieve a state of concentrated attention.”

He said that concentration cannot be defined in a few words. But that “the thought must be fixed entirely and absolutely on one object or idea and only it, without breaking the circle of creative attention for anything else…You need all the power of your attention to dwell on each separate aspect of your task.”

How are you to know that your mind has become concentrated? What is the test? It is when the awareness of time has vanished. The more time passes unnoticed the more concentrated you are.

When I was so ill and in such pain I looked for relief. I observed that since the human mind can be on only one thing at a time, if I absorbed myself deeply in some thought or activity my mind could not be aware of my misery. Prize fighters, hockey players, football players, bullfighters, soldiers in combat, and others engaged in activities requiring intense concentration may be seriously injured but yet experience no pain whatsoever. I took seriously the Buddhist aphorism “Without mind there cannot be pain.”  When my mind was deeply engaged in working on my Growing Up Stories when I was ill the sensations of pain, so horrible usually, thankfully, didn’t trouble me.

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? You know as well as I that creative work and the slow snail’s pace process of developing your skills to a level you’re satisfied with are often drudgery. Drudgery or not you still have problems to solve before you can go on with your creative performance. What can you do? When something is not interesting the first thing you do is what you shouldn’t do: you give it less attention. But give more of your attention to something and it will become more interesting.

The famous biologist Louis Agassiz was known for turning out students with highly developed powers of observation. Many of them went on to become eminent in the field. A new student appeared and asked Agassiz to teach him. Agassiz took a fish from the jar of preservative and said, “Observe this fish carefully and when I return be ready to report to me what you noticed.”

Left alone, the student sat down to look at the fish. It was a fish just like any other. The student finished looking and sat waiting, but no teacher. Hours passed and the student grew restless. He asked himself why he had hooked up with an old man who was obviously behind the times.

With nothing else to do, the student counted the scales, then the spines of the fins, then drew a picture of the fish. In doing so, he noticed the fish had no eyelids. He continued drawing and noticing other facts that had escaped him. And he learned that a fish is interesting if you really see it. (From Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life)

You may turn to something else and return to your work later when you’re more focused. At times concentration can be so intense that it actually interferes with work and is exhausting, and so then it’s better to decrease attention.

Some people find that working when they’re tired and their mind is less sensitive to distractions is best for them. Then their work speeds up.

Your job to figure out how to focus on your work for a desired period of time. You have to learn to abandon what isn’t working and put aside problems that aren’t worth bothering with because they will lead to dead-ends.

Condition your mind. Practice concentrating on one thing at a time until you can concentrate at will. Focus on concentrating on things, on people, on ideas, on the text you’re reading. Look at your thumb. Turn it, study it and see it. Stare at your face in the mirror for ten minutes. See the blemishes; see the beauty you’d never noticed.

Fix your mind completely on one thing at a time and give it all your full attention–that one thought that it’s most important  to express in that one sentence,  that one right word that will capture exactly what the poem means, that one brushstroke, that one most-important emotion you, the actor, will communicate to the audience in Act Two. Practice keeping yourself in that state of alertness as long as you’re working.

The great Vivekananda said, “There is no limit to the powers of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on one point; that is the secret… In making money, or in worshiping God, or in doing anything, the stronger the power of concentration, the better will that thing be done.”

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

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Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work

Part One of Two Parts

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?”

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

www.mentorcoach.com/rogershttp://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

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