Tag Archives: talent

Devotion to a Particular Creative Subject Matter

The work of two good blog friends of mine, artists Michelle Endersby and Janet Weight Reed, fascinates me. Michelle paints roses, lovely roses, different varieties of roses, every color of rose, and travels her native Australia and elsewhere to study roses, always searching for a new rose to paint. Then she paints them and then they appear on her blog and in homes and galleries for us to enjoy.  My English blog friend Janet paints masterful landscapes, portraits, and bright, colorful hummingbirds, and it’s apparent to me that she studies hummingbirds—how they fly, how they flutter, how they cling to trees. She is a wonderful colorist, and her colors you don’t forget. Every rose and hummingbird they paint is different and unique. I have to realize that when they look at roses and hummingbirds, they are seeing much more than I am able to see.

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Ingrid Bergman Rose by Michelle Endersby

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Hummingbird by Janet Weight Reed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. To me, it has been the sea…In painting the sea coast I have tried to acquire as much objective knowledge of the subject as I possibly could.” He studied the fishermen, fishing gear, their boats and assorted paraphernalia.

Another artist I know specializes in painting clouds and another paints skies exclusively. American impressionist Mary Cassatt came into her own when she began specializing in the personal lives of women and painting mothers with their children. That’s because the most creative minds are drawn to explore and write or paint about—or take photographs of or make movies about–specific material in one segment of their experience.

They look at something that takes their fancy and feel an excitement within them, a yearning, a hunch, a hard to define but easy to recognize intuition that there is something there in that familiar subject that’s worth pursuing further. They then work with a devotion to that specific sort of material, possibly for their entire careers. It is their most creative world, their signature, what we know them by.

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 creative woman or man. Ernest Hemingway and before him American novelist Stephen Crane were drawn to writing about men under extreme pressure such as warfare and shipwrecks where the best way out was through having courage. Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner wrote a fictionalized version of his home town.  Like me, many writers write mainly about growing up.

Speaking of creative people, 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.” I think the great difference intellectually between one painter or writer or one actor or director and another is simply the number of things they can see and feel in a square yard of their particular world of creation.

Creative people create because what they create and the act of creating it please them. Unless they please themselves, they will please no one. They function best when, while at work, they are thinking of nobody’s liking and standards but their own: “I alone here, on my inch of earth, paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself…Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it” (John Ruskin).

They are at their best when they are immersed in their own individual creative segment of the world—Michelle with her roses, Janet with hummingbirds, Mary Cassatt with her women and their children, Hemingway and Crane with men of courage, Faulkner walking the streets of Oxford, Mississippi.

In what “subdivision of nature or experience” do you see more and feel more and are more at home and have more knowledge than other people? What subject allows you your most powerful creative release? Once you’ve defined it and have the voice to express it, then you become immersed in it and its details and you make it your own.

Then you tell us all about it and we find pleasure in it too.

© 2017 David J. Rogers

 

 

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Why Do Creative People Write Blogs?

Until I started writing a blog I’d never read one. And one thing that surprised me right away was how so many talented, creative people writing them were woman-865111_640talking so freely, so honestly, and so candidly—so confidentially–about their work in progress. And knowing that hardly anyone does anything without expecting something in return, I wondered why they were doing that. What were they gaining? And were they losing something by doing it as I had been led to believe a creator who did that would? Now I can see that they are gaining something of immeasurable benefit.

I cannot imagine myself showing work in progress I’m serious about or discussing it with anyone until I think it’s finished and that I’ve done the best I can. To get that feeling about the work I’m serious about such as a book or a literary sketch, I might make major changes in it 70 or 75 times before anyone else knows about it. When I was writing what was to become my most popular book, an award-winning poet/professor of literature friend and I would get together every two or three weeks and talk  intensely for hours about writers and writing (and jazz, and the price of apples—that kind of thing–etc.).

And for two years I never once mentioned the book I was spending 18 or 20 hours a day writing. I told him about it when I gave him the date it would be typing-849807_640hitting the book stores.  He said “What the hell?” I didn’t show him. I didn’t show my wife. I didn’t show other friends. I didn’t show anyone because I didn’t want to hear anything that might affect my vision of the work, my plans for it, or my enthusiasm for it. And I believed that if you talked about your work in progress you’d dissipate the drive and energy you should be using to write it. I was very happy with my editor who didn’t give me a word of advice except to say, “An introduction would be a good idea,” and then as I turned chapters in said simply, “It’s really very good.”

But once the work in my mind is done I want to hear the frankest and most direct criticism, the kind a creator gains the most from—if it’s from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  A teacher in college said to me, “A good friend is one who’ll kick you in the teeth constructively” and that has always stayed with me. Without adequate feedback, effective learning is impossible and performance improvements only minimal, even for the most highly gifted artists or writers.

You need to have a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a creator. Often the best route to that kind of self-understanding is via constructive feedback and help from other people who won’t know about you unless you tell them the way bloggers tell you, “Here I am in England, Russia, Paraguay, Australia, Oman, etc., and I’m working hard.”

Getting help, support, and feedback is a major strategy for reaching creative excellence.  Without any doubt at all, performance feedback, support, high blogging-15968_640motivation, and writing success go hand in hand despite what anyone says to the contrary. Being deprived of support and positive feedback is a big reason why so many thousands of creators give up their craft altogether and   turn to other pursuits, hoping to find fulfillment there. And maybe finding it, maybe not.

I suppose I was thinking along the lines of William Faulkner who said, “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.”  Or Truman Capote who said, “I never show anybody a single thing I write…I write it and finish it and this is the way it’s going to be.” Or Hans Koning, author of 40 books who wrote, “You don’t worry about what editors or reviewers may like or not like. (That comes afterward.) You don’t write…in order to get an independent judgment. Your own judgment is independent. You don’t accept any suggested changes except where you made a factual or grammatical mistake. My motto has been through all these years: Not a comma.” (And I once had an editor who told me she was so depressed because she’d argued for an hour with a writer about a comma.)

Ernest Hemingway believed talking about your work was bad luck and that writers should work in disciplined isolation, and “should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then.” Otherwise they become “like writers in New York.” He thought that giving a public reading of your work in progress was “the lowest thing a writer can do” and was “dangerous” for the writer. If people liked the writing and said, “It’s great Ernest,” he would think, “If these bastards like it what is wrong with it?” “It made me feel sick for people to talk about my writing to my face.”

When I ask myself why I’m so private about my work until in my mind it’s finished (at that point I’d like every person on earth to read it) my theory is it’s because growing up we did not talk openly about personal things that were important to us and were taught not to blow our own horn, not to be showy in any way, and that has had a lasting effect on me. Not showing off is a value I think of all born and bred bona fide American Middle Westerners. Even now when I find myself showing off in my writing I say to myself, “Cut it out.”

I’ve often thought about there being so many women artist and writer bloggers and so few men and such strong relationships between the women. It’s kind of woman-69531_640lonely for me. But I sit back and read what creative women say to each other and just as often have thought, “There’s something very special, very wonderful going on. Look how they understand each other, how they comprehend each other’s meanings, the nuances and subtleties. And how they raise each others’ confidence.”

When I look at the comments such forthright writer and artist bloggers receive about their experiences with their works in progress, what strikes me is that what they receive mainly is not technical information. There’s very little discussion of that at all, or it’s superficial—a few positive words. No, they talk about what they’re going through—their difficulties, successes, failures, setbacks, fears, and hopes, the balance they’re trying so hard to strike between their creative life and their family and work lives. And that’s exactly what readers want more than anything to hear about and what they respond to.

Before I’d thought of writing a blog and I don’t think knew what a blog was, my son Eli, a writer himself, told me I should write one.  “Me?” I said. And he said, “Yes.” He said I was writing every day for hours and producing volumes of work, and that I should share it with other people and receive feedback from them.

How I love now to wake in the morning and still drowsy-eyed go upstairs to my work room, and there on the screen see that I’d been visited overnight by viewers from the world’s capitals and desert villages, remote South Sea and map-221210_640Atlantic islands, and African mountain kingdoms accessible only by horseback–Lesotho, Sri Lanka, Somalia–and to hear from them that they like what I’m doing and look forward to it. What a joy to hear from bloggers from everywhere who’ve become my friends, whose work I admire, to hear the stories of the lives they’re leading and to care about them and about hard they’re trying and  to think about them.

What honest bloggers receive in return for their blogging is what every creative person hungers for—companionship, friendship, kindness, generosity, and words of blessed encouragement.  To “discourage” someone is to steal their courage away from them, but to “encourage” them is to give them courage. When we’re deeply discouraged –and that is so often in the arts–our courage abandons us and one way or another we must retrieve it or we will perish creatively. The main thing a writer or artist–or actor or dancer–has to overcome is getting discouraged.

Even the smallest encouragement during difficult times bolsters a person’s spirits. Someone, anyone, saying, “Just hang in there, my friend, a little longer.”

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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Models for Peak Creative Performance

An important way to reach peak creative performance, the ultimate goal of all creators, or peak performance in riveting or cooking or anything else is by observing models—highly skilled people in the field whose work you admire, for example. For me the model for my writing without doubt is Ernest Hemingway’s writing, as it’s been for many thousands of others. He’s been called the most influential writer across the world with the most influential style in the last hundred years. I’ve read and mulled over his novel The Sun Also Rises and the short story “Indian Camp” (his best story) probably twenty times. And read many biographies and scrutinized studies of his writing.

I’ve a fondness for Hemingway’s writing that goes back to my childhood. He was born and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where my parents and their families also lived and where I spent many hours over the years. He was on the school newspaper at Oak Park High. My great uncle was on the paper too and was his best friend. Hemingway once said my uncle was a better writer. I asked my uncle if he was, and he blushed and said, “I don’t know. Ernie was damned good.” When I was in high school I told my friends one day Scribner’s, Hemingway’s publisher, would publish a book by me. I wrote a book that a number of publishers bid on. I picked Scribner’s.

Diana Voyajolu (2)

Sunset Fantasy by Diana Voyajolu

In the past I’ve written about artists’ and writers’ preoccupation with style and technique—a characteristic of most of them. I look at pieces I write and if you were curious and asked I could tell you, “See the minimal use of adjectives and adverbs. I learned that from Hemingway.” “Everything understated, nothing exaggerated, a calm style—that’s Hemingway.” And the attention to detail and my need to tell the truth. (Hemingway’s “A writer must always tell the truth.”) The simple sentences. Language pared down. A serviceable vocabulary. Never showing off. And my emphasis on high productivity. (Hemingway’s “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t.”)

When you observe a model with high standards like perfectionist Hemingway, you’re more inclined to adopt high standards yourself. It’s contagious. Modeling yourself after a successful writer or artist (pianist, ballet dancer, architect, etc.) enhances your self-confidence, which increases your persistence, which positively affects your achievements. It makes it more likely that the skills they possess will be skills you come to possess and you’ll be surer of yourself. You can see how important models can be, how related to a creator’s success they can be.

Most of what you and I have learned we’ve learned from models– observing them, reading about them, or hearing about them from parents, teachers, or peers. We copy and emulate them. When you feel you can perform a skill you’ll be more motivated to succeed, and an important way to internalize a skill and your approach to writing—the strategies you’ll use–is by observing how models performed tasks you’re interested in and comparing yourself to those models. Making changes, improving, learning.

When you learn how a writer, or painter, or actor succeeded in a difficult situation, you’re more likely to believe you can do the same. Often classes or workshops in the arts are taught by more experienced artists who discuss how they solve problems students are facing. Effective models reveal the strategies they use, provide detail, answer your questions, and clarify issues.

Who would you most like to be influenced by?

Who have you been most influenced by (Who’s your Hemingway?)

Who inspires you most? Whose work do you admire?

Who would you most like to be like?

What qualities do they (did they) have that you would like to have too?

Observing what’s called a mastery model is observing someone who has mastered the skill you’re interested in acquiring, like Hemingway for me, and someone for you. Mastery models demonstrate a high level of both skill and confidence: “I’m good at this. It used to be hard for me, but now it’s easy.” Notice how persistent the model is or was as he or she solves problems. That’ll affect your persistence.

By “observing” a model I don’t necessarily mean sitting in the same room and watching, though a lot can be learned that way. You can “observe” by reading or hearing about how a writer or artist solved a problem you’re facing or learned a skill.

ernest-hemingway-401493_640Mastery models in your life should discuss ways in which their confidence in themselves helped them to achieve their desired goals, and their errors and failures they had before eventually performing at a mastery level, and the work they put in to reach success. Ideally, the mastery model will be a warm, enthusiastic, and encouraging person who is trying to help someone else learn new behaviors after possible years doing things in a different, less productive way.

Observing a peer model is different. It’s watching someone who is at about the same skill level as you and who doesn’t perform the skill as expertly as the mastery model. He has difficulties and makes mistakes and has to correct them while you compare yourself with the model and learn from those difficulties and mistakes. Someone in your artists’ or writers’ group, for example.

“Think aloud” strategies involve the model describing thoughts and thought processes aloud while performing a task you’re interested in: “The reason I did that is because I think you should start everything with a strong, simple declarative sentence.” Ask the model about particular problems: “How did you handle that? What did you do first; then what did you do? What were you thinking? What decisions were you making?”

To get best results tell the model you’re asking for help:

“Say whatever’s on your mind. Don’t hold back hunches, guesses, images, and wild ideas.”

“Speak as continuously as possible.”

“Don’t worry about complete sentences and being eloquent.”

“Just say what you’re thinking and don’t think for a while and then describe your thoughts.” (D.N. Perkins, The Mind’s Best Work, p 33)

Using models will pay dividends. Simply put: people who study models perform better than “no-model” people.

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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Writing Routines and Rituals

The main goal of all creative people is to be productive: to produce works. Their work schedule and environment are artist workingdesigned to facilitate production because production is their reason for being. Everything—all your education and training, habits, dreams and hopes, and all your routines and rituals are aimed at that one central goal: getting good work out; being able to produce. If a writer or artist is being productive she’s happy. If she’s not, she’s unhappy.

I rise fully awake, my mind sharp, at 4:00 A.M. Then I turn on music and putter around in the kitchen. I’m purposely delaying starting to work so ideas will start germinating, straightening themselves out, and working themselves to my consciousness. Waking or sleeping, night or day, conscious or unconscious, writers’ and artists’ minds continue without stop to produce ideas relevant to their work.

I have a bowl of Cheerios and make my wife’s breakfast. In the winter I go out and shovel snow. (This is, after all, Chicago.) I may throw a snowball at my wife and I may load or empty the dishwasher and put in a load of laundry in the basement. I avoid knowing anything about the news, bills, problems, troubles, and other practical matters that are Cerealunrelated to my work. I kiss my wife good-bye as she goes off to work or wherever she’s going.

In my mid-twenties I was hired by a university think tank of psychologists and economists to rewrite for publication a book from a draft they had written. My main job was to translate all the pretentious academic mumbo-jumbo of their version into clear concepts and language the general reader would have no problem understanding. One day I was at the institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my feet up on a window sill, gazing out at ducks on a pond. I was paying no attention to the stacks of books, research periodicals, and reams of data surrounding me. The director of the institute poked his head in and said, nervously, “When are you going to get started, Dave? We’ve got to get the thing to the printer.” And I said, “I’ve already started. I’m working right now.” What I meant was that I was deep in what I call “Pre-Compositional Lilt.” It’s a very pleasant mental aimlessness—a lilting–that most creative people need to engage in before they tackle a project—a ritualistic, nebulous, uncertain, dream state.

In the article “Write Before Writing” Pulitzer Prize author Donald M. Murray is really talking about my lilt, and my lilt affects artists and writers as well as inventors and scientists—creators generally. He says that resistance to writing is not something to be avoided, but “is one of the great natural forces of nature. It may be called The Law of Delay: that writing which may be delayed, will be. Dawdling, going on errands, sharpening well-pointed pencils, rearranging the writing space, wandering to libraries and book stores, going for walks, and driving around serve a purpose.” Murray adds, “Teachers and writers too often consider resistance to writing evil when in fact it is necessary…There must be time for the seed of an idea to be nurtured in the mind.” Murray says writers who delay starting are trying not to think about what they are going to write so they can think subconsciously about it first. Most writers are strong believers in putting their subconscious to work.

I go upstairs to my work room and listen to You Tube for a few songs—always the same songs, same performers—while shuffling mindlessly through my piles of notes, and checking the ten-day weather forecast, and last night’s scores, also drinking a large mug of coffee that isn’t too strong. I try never to write for an hour after eating. I don’t want brain oxygen that I save for writing to be worried about digestion.

It’s commonplace for creative people to nap at least once during the day, sometimes more, and that’s highly cat-17772_640recommended by psychologists who study creative achievement. Who was more creative than Thomas Edison (1,093 patents)? And he alternated work and naps throughout the day. He napped under a table in his lab. I take a short nap on the living room couch. All the while everything else is going on I know my mind is busy toying with a problem I set for it the night before, or a minutes before, such as, “How will I organize the section on…” or “Should I cut the last paragraph as so-and-so suggests?” Ideally writers and artists work in the same place every day, a place that is exclusively for work.

I’m now in my element, fully confident, contented, primed and ready to write. Then I plunge into work and follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice and review what I wrote the day before, editing a little, expanding, embellishing a little—a word here, a phrase there–till I get a feel for the rhythms of written words, am able to fit myself into the narrative flow, and stimulate the right vocabulary. I’ve transitioned and am now in a goal-focused state. This is when—when the actual work begins—that you mustn’t allow the Law of Delay to be in effect any longer. What do you have when the Law of Delay becomes a habit? Writers who make a career of delay, whose promise will not be fulfilled, whose talent goes to waste, whose books go unwritten.

I take no phone calls during the day unless from a member of my immediate family, make only essential calls (as to my wife at noon), and generally skip lunch or have a small container of yogurt. If I’m being very productive—“making good progress” in my lingo–I can easily feel an excitement which can get out of control and make me lose focus and write sloppily. I try never to be so relaxed that my writing isn’t crisp, but aim for a degree of alert tension.

To “settle down” from an excited state I may take time out to whip up a salad for dinner later and tell myself, “No more coffee today.” And I may do deep abdominal relaxation breathing. Broadway composer Cole Porter had an alarm clock rigged to ring every fifty minutes when he was composing. Then he took a ten minute break. William Faulkner wrote rapidly at top speed as fast as he could type for a half hour or so and then would relax for perhaps another half hour, talking or reading, and return again and type at the same breakneck speed, sometimes picking up in mid-sentence and continuing without any hesitation. I may work the entire day without a break except the bathroom.

I try never, never to do any writing after 4:00 p.m., and certainly don’t do any after six, unless a deadline tells me I have clock-611619_640to, for if I did, words, ideas, and plans would fly through my mind like missiles and I would not—would not, absolutely would not—would not be able to sleep that night. Tell me, is it possible to be a writer without also being an insomniac?

Between four and five is “reading time,” which is essential—a hunger. The kind of reading depends on the reason for my reading: non-fiction research reading involves close concentration and taking extensive notes. For best results I must sit at the dining room table (in a particular place at the table) with notebooks and black ink Pilot G-2 07 pens. Fiction reading can be done in an easy chair or on the couch while a baseball or hockey game is played on the television screen. I read fiction more for its style than its content.

Then my wife appears and asks, “How was your day? Were you productive?”

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Two Success Stories for Creative People

Why are so many writers and artists so scared? This morning I started reading the Weekly Digests of some of the blogs I subscribe to and decided this post I’m about to laptop-820274_640write needed to be written–and fast– because so many writers and artists seem to be living in fear and intimidation, and they needn’t. There is no reason that the processes that come after the exhilarating execution of the work—dealing with “gatekeepers”– agents and publishers, clients and galleries—need be dreadful.

The gist of many of the posts written by the more experienced writers in particular to less experienced writers is: “Here’s how to get your book published. I will be your wise guide.” I will not give you any advice like that today, but only tell you about my experiences and that of a friend in breaking into “big time” publishing. My experiences were quite different from what you find described in many intimidating blogs. I hope my experiences make you confident and sure of yourself, less fearful, and less intimidated. And bolder.

I’ll be talking about writing professionally in this post because writing professionally is what I’ve been doing—and thinking about– for the last few decades. But I’m sure there are painters, sculptors, actors, dancers—artists generally—who could tell the same story of how breaking into their field wasn’t as awful as they were told it would be, and in fact found it painless, exciting fun.

I had an idea for what I thought could be a really successful nonfiction book, just as you think your idea would make a successful book. Nothing like my book had ever been written before and it had potential, so I was confident that I had something. But I knew nothing about publishing. Oh, of course I’d heard the horror stories about the tremendous odds against getting any book published. Everybody on earth knows that—especially a first book, odds of five thousand to one and so forth.

But my exact thinking went like this: “Thousands of books are being published every year and I’m betting I’m more books-535352_640skilled than most authors of them (after all, in college a famous creative writing teacher had said teachers like her wait their “entire career for someone who can write like you.” And hadn’t I had a story published in a prestigious literary journal while just a student?) So why shouldn’t my book be published?”

Then I learned that you had to write a persuasive book proposal and get an agent who would contact editors on your behalf. I had written many, many proposals in business and so I wrote a six page double-spaced book proposal—a short proposal, not a long one, a plain, simple one, not a complex, elaborate, fancy one: short and I hoped, sweet.

I hadn’t written a sample of my writing other than the proposal itself and a cover letter that talked about my unique qualifications to write the book or a refined table of contents because I hadn’t completely fleshed out the book in my mind. (In fact, I wouldn’t know what I was really trying to write until I had been working on the book for 1300 hours. Then it hit me!) I just had this good idea for what I thought would be an exciting, profitable book someone would want to publish.

Now I needed an agent to send the proposal to. I looked at a directory of agents and sent the proposal to the first name on the agent’s list. Then if he didn’t pan out I would send the proposal to the second name on the list and work my way down. I wasn’t experienced enough to know then that some writers send their proposals out in batches to twenty or thirty agents at a time. I would send off my stuff to one agent at a time and wait to see what happened. I had no idea then that the agent I sent my little proposal to was one of the most highly regarded agents in the literary world—serendipity at work. (A reminder that a good amount of luck is involved in a writer’s life and you don’t want just any agent working for you, but a good one with a reputation above reproach whose tastes and judgment of talent editors respect very highly.)

Within three days he called me on the phone to tell me he would like to handle the book—he thought it was incredibly timely and he liked the way I wrote. And he liked short, sweet proposals. So now I had an agent. He pitched the book right away (a man of action; my kind of guy) to an editor he thought could very well be interested. And in a week and a half I had a publisher who was eager to put out the book—a top quality publisher. The advance I received was a good one, much better than I’d expected. I wrote the book in twelve grueling months as I was contracted for (be sure to establish a reputation for never exceeding a deadline) and then months passed while the book was being edited and published.

The pub date came and the book was given a promotional budget but not a big one—I was “unproven.” I appeared on a newspapers-33946_640few radio and TV shows, and then two important things happened: a freelance journalist fell in love with the book—Fighting to Win— and wrote a superb and flattering full page, multi-column piece on it in The Washington Post that drew a lot of attention, and the publisher’s sales rep in Chicago fell in love with it too and promoted it with book stores in Chicago’s large, good book-buying market and with the publisher’s other sales people working in other cities and marketing staff decision-makers. And the book became a best seller in Chicago and Washington. Then in San Francisco and Las Angeles and other cities.

Other syndicated journalists liked the book and started writing about it—articles appeared everywhere. It began popping up on college reading lists, and now there were foreign editions that were doing very well. There was a buzz about the book and I was sent off to other major cities for more interviews on bigger shows. I got to enjoying publicizing the book so much that I decided I would rather promote books than write them. In fact, the publisher asked me jokingly if I would go on shows and promote other of their books too.

I had a hit that went through ten printings. With each new printing the book’s cover price rose one dollar, so my royalties were climbing. Now I was no longer unproven and had a track record, and my proposal for my next book consisted of a total of four sentences spoken over coffee to the publisher. The advance for it was substantial. When that book was published the publisher said they would like another book from me. I asked what they wanted me to write about and they said, “Whatever you want.”

I know a man who wrote a book he thought had the potential to be published and be popular. His expectations high, he contacted a great number of agents and no one was interested in handling his book, telling him that in their judgment unfortunately it would be impossible for it to find a public. The agents’ tastes ran in other directions and based on their professional experiences over many years with many books they felt that this one just didn’t have that—that whatever it takes for people to want to buy a book.

He didn’t give up after he had exhausted his long list of agents, but contacted publisher after publisher himself, writing them, sending his manuscript, calling them up, making appointments, pitching the book on the phone and in their Being courageousoffices, expecting all the time that eventually he would succeed. He met nothing but failure—no one thought anything of the book—but he still believed in it and in himself. He still expected the book to be published and be successful. He had faith that one day he would see it in book store display windows.

Then an editor of a small specialty publisher he had contacted called him to come down and talk. When my friend entered the office his manuscript was spread out on the editor’s desk and the editor was bent over it, reading. The editor looked up and said, “Oh, good, you’re here” and with a smile on his face added, “I think your book will be the number one best seller in the country.”

That book became a publishing phenomenon—a cultural phenomenon–and sold an astonishing 25,000,000 copies in paperback alone. It became America’s—and the world’s–number one best seller. Within two months the author was famous and pretty soon he was rich. The book was When Bad Things Happen to Good People and the author was Harold Kushner.

Writers and artists who harbor deep and prolonged doubts about their capabilities are easily set back by obstacles and failures. But when confident self-directed  writers and artists encounter daunting obstacles, disappointments, and failures, they show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed.

So I’m saying what all my blogs say—be supremely confident, be non-attached and fearless. Don’t be scared. Persevere. Be indefatigable. Be committed to your work every moment of the day. Never let discouragement and negativity penetrate to your depths. No matter what happens, good fortune, bad fortune, keep your spirit light as a feather. Develop your skills to the highest possible level and become what I admire most—not just a writer, but a REAL writer; not just an artist, but a REAL artist.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Artists Aim for Perfection

Artists develop notions of something greater than competence, greater than excellence, and become intoxicated with Laurence Olivierperfection of their craft, perfection of their technique, and perfection of their repertoire of skills culminating in what they hope will one day be the perfect story, perfect poem, perfect painting, or perfect performance. Once in his career Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of the 20th century, gave what he knew and everyone knew who was present that night was a perfect performance of Hamlet. “My God,” he wondered, “How did I do it and how will I ever be able to do it again?”

All artists want to “get better” and to “get it right.” They devote their entire careers to getting better and getting it right. The development of expertise is the artist’s most crucial task. If there is one thing that all successful creative people have in common it’s that they all work hard developing their skills, the foundation of their success.

To strive to improve one’s performance continually and to more and more often get it right, requires qualities that are not common. One is self-confidence; another is an objectivity about one’s artistic and sometimes personal shortcomings and limitations—a capacity for stern, dispassionate self-criticism. If an artist shows  you his work and you don’t notice the flaws in it that are so apparent to him, he will doubt your critical judgment and may not ask you again. Tell a ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly. “

The most difficult task for artists is to find and put into their work the right voice, the presence of the artist in the work. E.L Doctorow said, “I wait until I find a narrative voice. Then I listen to that and start writing.” John Updike wrote, “I notice that as I write it comes out as a sort of Updike prose. I sit down in such different moods, wearing such different clothes, and out this comes—like a kind of handwriting. It’s always mine, and there’s no way I can seem to get around it. Isn’t it funny you have only one voice?”

cream-rose-272946_640Artists may have to spend many years finding what their proper subject matter and voice may be. When they do find it, everything suddenly comes out into the clear light of day: “Now I know how to say what I’ve been trying to say.” At times—sometimes in mid-career—they discover that what they have been doing has been all wrong. The work doesn’t express them. When halfway through her life painter Mary Cassatt discovered her true subject—mothers with their children—and the right style, she destroyed all but a few of her previous works, signifying a new beginning. In mid-career painter Georgia O’Keefe decided her art was too influenced by other people and set out in a new direction.

Every art is physically and mentally exhausting. When they finish a day’s work, artists feel they have lifted a thousand pounds. They have a compulsion to work. The reason artists, like experts in all other fields, most often cite for their enormous energy, commitment, and focus necessary to excel is their motivation to concentrate on the task and put out effort to improve their performance.

Non-artists cannot be motivated or even forced to work at an artistic task to the extent that a person with an intense interest does willingly. There has probably never been a great artist who didn’t have a strong sense of single-mindedness and an ability to persevere, overcome difficulties, and concentrate on reaching his goals while resisting distractions. An interesting question is, “Why do some people but not others possess those qualities, and why do virtually all creative people?”

The artist’s main goal is production. When they have not worked at their craft for 48 hours, or 24 hours, or one hour, they get uneasy. When they are away from their work without a brush in their hand or something to write with or dancing slippers on their feet they are completely out of their element.

You cannot distinguish between true artists and their work. They are exactly what they do. A composer is his music, a writer his language. Every molecule in their body is the molecule of an artist. A director is one who directs; an actor acts. That’s what they do and that’s all there is to it. Their work is on their mind almost every waking moment.

mountain-299009_640Artists grow accustomed to loneliness. Even as children they spent much of their time alone. The common notion that artists are different and have different points of view, habits, personalities, and preoccupations than the majority of humankind is correct. There is often a distance, a gap, between them and their neighbors, even other members of their family, even their lovers and spouses who are not involved themselves in art.

They must incorporate the other person in their work or find a way of coping with that distance, or those sharing their lives must find a way. That may not be possible. Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” Bellow was married five times.

The artist, realizing that she’s looking at the world from a vantage point that’s not available to everyone, can say, “I am different. I see things differently. I value different things.” Everyone else wants to be rich. The artist wants fulfillment.

If they are truly artists, they are especially equipped and seem to have been born with not only magical “creative stuff” but with tenacity, strength, powerful will, and patience. In the achievements of successful artists you always see gifts coupled with extraordinary application, the former meaningless without the latter. A man I know was curious and attended an art show to ask a famous sculptor if he had advice for his son John, a sculptor who was just beginning. The sculptor said, “Yes I do have advice. It’s very simple. You tell John to pick up his mallet and his chisel and make chips.” A poet who lived several hundred years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high Gods have placed sweat.” Artists are great believers in sweat and making chips.

georgia-okeefe-396957_640Who sets the standard for perfection that all artists measure themselves against? The work of everyone is compared with the virtuoso. Miles Davis in jazz. Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin. A novel by Faulkner.

French philosopher-playwright Jean Paul Sartre wrote that man exists first and only afterwards defines himself. He is what “he will have planned to be; he is what he conceives himself to be.” Artists may not talk much about being artists, preferring if they are any good, working to talking about working. But they conceive themselves to be artists. They have planned to be artists. They are creative in the grandest sense of creating themselves from scratch.

Henry David Thoreau, as great a clear-thinking artist as there ever was, wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” The Japanese say, “Irrigators guide water, fletchers straighten arrows, and as for wise people, they shape themselves.” Artists are shaping themselves from their first exposure to their art.

A cat becomes all the cat it will ever be without having to think about it. All that’s necessary is to be born a cat. But people who aspire to be artists have considerably more work to do than cats. The highest development of an artist’s capabilities to aim for and reach perfection is worth giving up almost everything for.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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The Inner Skills of Creative People

I’ve been writing blog posts for writers and artists for sixteen months and over that time have published about 120,000 words. And though I’ve been a professional writer for many years, have written national and international best-sellers, startup-594126_640 (1)been contributing editor to popular magazines, have had published non-fiction, poetry, and prose, have advanced degrees, have taught in graduate schools, and have been studying, reading, and researching about the arts all my adult life, very rarely will you find me writing anything about how to write or paint better because that is not my main interest.

I will not tell a painter how to paint because I don’t know enough about that. But even if I did I probably wouldn’t talk about good technique or good use of color except to say I recognize them when I see them. I will talk about what made great artists tick and why they’re so special. And I will say that people who do great things are great in themselves.

I know enough about writing to have taught serious writers and found great pleasure in that and discovered I have a lot to say. I’ve written about extraordinary writers—the most extraordinary ever to write. But you won’t hear from me these days anything about developing characters, scenes, conflicts, and episodes, or how to write dialogue, or generate a mood, or structure a plot, or that kind of thing. There’re plenty of books, magazines, web sites, classes, and blogs for that. People have been writing about those things for 2,000 years.

My interest—the territory I have staked out for myself—are The Inner Skills of Creative People, for there, I think, inside, in your spirit, will be found the magical difference between adequate creators and great ones.

ballerina-534356_640_copy2I write freely, unabashedly, happily of human qualities that distinguish one creative person from another such as strength (suggesting that every day it’s worth a creator asking, “Am I strong today? Will I be strong?”) And I write about courage, persistence, tenacity, will power, commitment, empowerment, sense of purpose, discipline, good writing moods and bad writing mood, and ideal writing moods. And self-resilience, enthusiasm, guts, self-motivation, energy and your capacity for work, sacrificing for the sake of your craft, boldness, doggedness, adaptability, endurance, resilience, maintaining at all times a high hope of succeeding, and other spiritual dimensions of you. I teach Buddhist and Hindu non-attachment so that the writer or artist might become selfless and dispassionate, and free himself from debilitating envy and worry that so recklessly destroy talented people.

I write about self-doubt, the creator’s curse, and I write about creator’s confidence because confidence may be the most important factor of all. Creative people fail because: (a) they lack the necessary skill, or (b) they have the skill but don’t have the confidence to use that skill well. More fail because they lack the confidence and not because they lack the skill. If you have confidence and faith in yourself you’ll reach higher levels of success than other creators of equal ability who lack them. So much of realizing your long-held hopes—possibly you’ve had them since childhood–is a result of knowing exactly what they are, wanting badly to achieve them, and believing that you can. Confidence precedes success. All great creators are confident.

A poet who lived several hundred years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high Gods have placed sweat.” No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without a lot of effort on the part of the creator, however much natural ability or how many technical skills he/she possesses. So I write about sweat.

I write about creative patience because patience makes artists and writers more successful.

martial-arts-291051_640I write about warrior artists and writers—and warrior actors and ballet dancers—because warriors know things and possess skills that enable them to go through life 18 inches off the ground and to move faster and live more intensely, with stronger commitments and greater seriousness, than everyone else.

I write about production because to produce a work—a painting a sculpture, a poem, a stage performance—is the reason for being of a creator. Everything—all the creator’s training and education, habits and routines, dreams and hopes—are aimed at that central goal: no matter what is happening around you, to get the work out. Some writers and some artists are 25 times more productive than others.

Out of the mass of experiences of a life, you (1) must somehow or other settle on the creator’s way of life, which is a distinct way of being; (2) must have the personal makeup necessary to excel as a creator; must possess the (3) knowledge, (4) persistence, (5) confidence, and (6) complement of skills necessary to excel, and must (7) minimize your weaknesses and develop your strengths.

The creator who has technical skills, but lacks these spiritual inner skills will not go as far as he could, or may not go far at all. What you are—what you are made of, what constitutes you, what you stand for—is so important.

Your technique and your spirit must be united. Creators grow from within.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

 

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Take Charge of Your Creative Life

What would you say is most significant about the writers and artists I’m going to describe?

How are you like them?

How are you different?

What might you do if you wished to be more self-directed?

“I could…”

For the last few days before starting work I’ve been inspiring myself looking at my write-ups of artists and writers I’m Cezanne-image(1)especially drawn to—Nobel Prize playwright Eugene O’Neill, novelists Henry Miller and Raymond Chandler, and painters Paul Cezanne, Mary Cassatt, and Jackson Pollock–and have decided that they have in common not only their accomplishments and prodigious skills and the uniqueness of their personalities, but that they were all self-directed—guided by themselves, no one else.  At one time or another you’ve observed first hand, heard about, or read about self-directed writers and artists too. Textbooks, anthologies, magazines, literary journals, galleries, museums, shows, and newspapers are filled with their names. They strike out on their own, taking full responsibility for themselves, their work, their careers, and their fate.

They all possess that rarest of qualities I admire so much and most people nowadays seem to have lost—intensity, single-mindedness, a “seriousness of intent” about their work. Their art means everything. There is not a minute of their waking day when their minds are not is some way or another on their work. They are vital: alive and electric. They give off sparks. They mean business. They go about their work undeterred, unknown or famous, poor or rich, unhappy or happy, in a bad mood or good mood. The commitment of their less memorable and less serious, less intense peers peters out, but that of a real writer and real artist goes on and on.

the-song-of-first-swallow-paul-pulszartti

The Song of First Swallow by Paul Pulszartti

Nothing can compete with, nothing can replace, their joy during the act of creating– the self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-expression that satisfies their deepest needs. They so saturate themselves with their work that to paint or write—or sculpt, act, or dance– becomes as much a need as sleep. A painter perceives the world in which she finds herself in lines and planes, a dramatist thinks in dialogues and scenes. A novelist divides his life into episodes.

Production is their never-ceasing main goal–to get the work out. Their existence is centered on, focused on, and organized around that work, and their ability to produce it is staggering. Shakespeare wrote an average of two plays a year–thirty six–many of the greatest examples of literature in the world’s history. And was also a poet, an actor, a family man, and a producer who had to attend to the practical concerns of mounting the plays’ performance. Due to bad health (a nerve problem that made it impossible to hold a pencil) and wandering the world in search of a place to work—France, Switzerland, America—Eugene O’Neill lost twelve years mid-career, but still wrote 49 plays. Belgian Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms—yet all of high quality.

Their standards lead to setting high goals and high goals lead to high success. Once unknown, they become known. It may take time. Raymond Chandler didn’t start writing until his forties and published his first novel at 53, becoming an “overnight” success. Success may not be easy: Henry Miller lived the life of a homeless beggar on the streets of Paris, penniless, yet considering himself the happiest man on earth, into his late forties before his genius was recognized. Early mary-cassatt-89730_640(1)in his career, before becoming rich and the talk of the art world, Jackson Pollock was poor and couldn’t afford brushes, so he’d steal them. Mary Cassatt, the greatest woman painter of the nineteenth century, didn’t become able to buy a chateau until two things happened in mid-career: she became an Impressionist and she found her subject: mothers with their children.

They produce continually better work and expand their abilities. Over an extended period writers and artists with a minimum of natural talent who apply themselves can acquire a great talent. Writing and art teachers are generally in agreement that it’s not the best, most talented students whose names they hear about in later years. The students with the most talent but the weakest work ethic who dazzled the class, disappear into oblivion, while the hard workers often go on to excel. Poet John Berryman thought that talent was no more than 20% of a successful poet’s personality, and the same is probably true of every creative field. Every minute spent painting or writing increases your talent. High performing self-directed people in all the arts and every other field wherever on the globe they’re to be found are universally alike: over and over again they are people who believe in trying to excel, in doing one’s best, in working very hard and not wasting time. Van Gogh in particular was an artist who couldn’t waste time, starting late but producing in just over a decade 2,100 works before his death at 38.

The word “easy” never enters their mind because what’s easy isn’t worth bothering with. If they don’t meet their high standard they are dissatisfied. Then what they do is not what everyone does. They work harder than before and don’t stop until they’re satisfied that they’ve done their best. If to be superb a poem must be revised 200 times, they revise it 200 times.

If they’re self-directed they set their own work schedules, work alone, and persist over a long period of time that the majority of people cannot match. They direct their achievements by setting challenging long-range and short-range aims to develop themselves and increase their knowledge and skills, and by applying a variety of five, six, ten, fifteen pragmatic strategies, techniques, and rituals to reach those goals.

Eugene O'NeillThey’re original; they invent and innovate. Cezanne and Pollock both revolutionized painting. O’Neill single-handedly created serious American theatre.

They believe in themselves and their capabilities, and are committed to meeting the challenges of the creator’s life, which is not an easy one. They are willing to take risks and sacrifice other goals and other activities. Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung thought that the creator’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts because two forces are at war in him—on the one hand the normal human longing for happiness, satisfaction, and security, and on the other hand “a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire.”

The confidence in their abilities of self-directed people can’t be broken, and more than anything else is the most powerful source of their drive. So much of achieving goals and realizing your long-held creative hopes is a result of knowing exactly what they are, wanting badly to achieve them, and believing that you can. The more self-assured a writer and artist is, the stronger his commitment to high achievements. All great writers, artists, actors, and dancers were and are self-assured where their work is concerned.

Writers and artists—actors and performers–who harbor deep and prolonged doubts about their capabilities are easily set back by obstacles and failures. But when confident self-directed writers and artists encounter daunting obstacles, disappointments, and failures, they find a way to show courage, rally, and make a comeback, intensifying their efforts and persisting until they succeed. Among the personal qualities that cause self-direction and motivation that is strong enough to sustain success through the inevitable trials, valleys, disappointments, setbacks, and self-doubts are not luxuries but necessities for any writer or artist who is in any way serious about his craft: passion, obsessiveness, will. new-york-115629_640Very little is known about why some artists and writers give up before reaching their peak while the steady commitment of others to their goals and their doggedness in achieving them borders on the super-human.

They are self-aware and monitor and continually evaluate their performance, keeping track of their productivity, their working time, and their career progress. They strive to keep regular working hours, and organize their life and their environment to accommodate their commitment to their creative existence. Their names and their works are often topics of conversation. They’re published. Their works are shown. They win prizes. When they die, they’re remembered.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Self-Taught Artists and Writers

I’m guessing that very few of you reading this post graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and  many did not graduate from any graduate writing program, and possibly you were not even an English or journalism major in college. You might have had a major that was totally unrelated to writing, like Nobel novelist Saul Sorbonne634035_640Bellow, an anthropology major, or innovative French novelist/ screenwriter/essayist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an agronomist, or may not have attended college at all. Many great writers, like Nobel winner Ernest Hemingway, had no interest in attending college, and many others, like Nobel winners William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O’Neill didn’t take college seriously (well that’s probably true of 30 or 40% of all college students), and quit it because they thought it was not only not helping them, but holding them back. And I’m guessing that not more than, let’s see, two of you painters attended the Sorbonne, and some possibly never attended any art school. Yet you’re capable and have had writing and painting success. Your work has been published and art works have been shown. Some of you are professionals earning a substantial living.

The majority of you are autodidacts—mainly self-taught–and many of you autodidacts, you formally “untutored” creative people, have surpassed and achieved more success than many if not most Iowa writers, and Sorbonne painters. When most of what you know about how to paint or write creatively is a result of what you have taught yourself, of knowledge and experience you’ve acquired on your own, there is directness, freshness, and truthfulness in your work that you might not have achieved had you followed a more conventional developmental route that “everyone else” seems to be following.

French painter Henri Rousseau (1840-1910) was a self-taught autodidact too. An official with the French customs office, he began painting as a late-blooming amateur “Sunday painter” who might take his cheap paint box out into the park for an afternoon’s relaxation. He signed Rousseauhis first picture at the age of 36 and exhibited in his first show at 40. His earliest paintings were technically incorrect and unsophisticated as the work of a beginner usually is. The forms were stiff and simple; the proportions were inaccurate, and the perspectives were wrong. But in his work there was “something” that drew the attention of critics and the public—the honesty in the works, a directness that came right out of his obvious joy in the act of creation. He was an advanced autodidact and did things that other unschooled artists did not usually do, and conventionally trained painters did not do. Paint which in a run-of-the-mill painting of a beginner would be thin and dry is applied with rich body. Colors that would be anemic or muddy in the ordinary newcomer’s work were clear in Rousseau. His work continued to grow in popularity. His paintings created a world of enchantment.

This was a dangerous point for Rousseau because he had to strike a balance of learning to be more technically proficient, but not to the point that technical qualities would obliterate the originality that came to him naturally, just as I hope however technically advanced you become, you never lose your natural and authentic voice.  Rousseau had to guard his naiveté and so he created for himself a personal style based on the forms that had been spontaneous to him as a beginner—a highly cultivated style that at the same time was rooted in an untutored simplicity. And that is Rousseau’s special charm.

Although seriously technically limited by conventional standards, a painting or a story, poem, or novel, or any creative product, may be a work of art even if the work’s quality is half-accidental, as it was with Henri Rousseau.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), another thoroughly self-taught autodidact, ended his formal education at eleven. During the six years between 1849 and 1855 he turned himself from a lazy second-rate journalist and less than average creative walt-whitman-391107_640writer who couldn’t hold a job into–through a “liberation of language” never seen before on earth—one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. Prior to his first book– Leaves of Grass–he seemed to be a very untalented man. Before becoming the” father of American poetry,” he worked as a carpenter (building his own home) and as an elementary school teacher, printer, editor, shopkeeper, and in the world of newspapers, paled around with artists and sculptors, attended operas (said he learned more about writing from operas than from anything else), studied history and astronomy on his own, read voraciously, and believed in self-help and self-education. He said that during those years before Leaves of Grass when he was writing “conventional verse” he was “simmering, simmering, simmering.” This man who wrote, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am” developed in those mystical six years a vision and style that no one since has been able to duplicate. His poetry startled the literary world and started a new direction in poetry. Readers were astonished.

Living not far from Whitman at the time, and working in solitude, unknown to the literary world, was quiet, subdued poet Emily Dickinson. Do you think it is a coincidence that those two untutored autodidacts who worked alone, were unknown, taught themselves, and never met,  would become America’s finest poets and produce work the likes of which no one had ever seen before?

Most often the reason a writer, artist, composer, etc. is not yet accomplished is not because she’s unintelligent or not talented, but because she isn’t knowledgeable enough yet. In writing and every other art, every other discipline, knowledge isn’t everything, but almost everything. The more you know, the more you can achieve—the greater your reach. The self-taught creator knows that and follows an atypical but most productive route to the knowledge she needs to excel. She looks for it wherever it may be and acquires it on her own. She has high motivation and a thirst for learning about her craft that cannot be quenched.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was reading Whitman in 1886 around the time he was painting the apocalyptic “Starry Night.” If you know your Whitman that makes perfect sense. A solitary who worked outside of any school or tradition, vincent-van-gogh-89422_640van Gogh was self-made. He had only one year’s total training from instructors, but studied ceaselessly on his own, the autodidact of autodidacts. He had tremendous faith in the future of his work, and felt it was worth sacrificing everything for it. He was a harsh self-critic, considering many of his paintings now accepted as masterpieces mere studies. At the time of his death he had sold one painting and traded another for brushes, had been represented by just a few dealers, had participated in a half-dozen shows, and had dissuaded critics from writing about his work. Few artists of any kind have made themselves as knowledgeable or clear-sighted about their art, or have a more developed understanding of painting. He rarely signed his works, believing that to do so was arrogant, and that an artist should work humbly. He had a short but prodigious career, leaving behind a legacy of more than 2,000 paintings and drawings at his death at thirty-seven.

Artists and writers and people in general who don’t follow a traditional route to expertise and beyond that to excellence–who go off on their own–may produce direct, fresh, original work they might not have been able to produce had they followed a traditional path. They are original often because they see that the traditional rules don’t suit them, or they don’t know the rules and aren’t limited by them. It may take them longer. By necessity they may have to be late-bloomers like Rousseau, van Gogh, and Whitman. But what does time matter if time is needed for you to come into your own? When writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman told himself, “Make it new.” and he did.

What we learn from autodidacts is to be original, be true to ourselves, be honest, be direct, don’t hide from ourselves, and find our own truth though it may be different from everyone else’s. You are not like other artists or writers. In Leaves of Grass Whitman writes, “I celebrate myself” which seems to me not a bad place for creative people to start.

(For further reading, you may wish to see the excellent Van Gogh: A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein, and Geoffrey Dutton’s Whitman)

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artists, Audidacticism, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Emily Dickinson, Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh, Walt Whitman

Writers’ and Artists’ Deadline Problems and What To Do About Them

vincent-van-gogh-74018_640Writers and artists are almost always marvelously productive human beings able to generate huge quantities of work, amounts of work which put people in other walks of life to shame. They are concerned with their production and pay close attention to it—did you write your 500 words today; did you finish painting that corner of the canvas before quitting for dinner? If production falls off, they want to know why, and if good work pours out of them fluently, they want to know why that is happening too.

Hard as I try, I find it difficult to imagine any writer or artist—amateur or professional, novice or expert–who hasn’t had  production deadlines to meet, and it’s not unusual for them to have had problems meeting them at least once or twice, and possibly more frequently than that. You’ve heard it said, and maybe you’ve said it yourself when you’ve been under the pressure of a tight deadline and are having trouble meeting it: “This deadline is important. It’s in the contract, and it’s very clear.”  Think how ominous the word is. It’s not a “lifeline,” but a “dead” line, as though if you exceed it you’re a goner.

You have a task that you’re supposed to finish by 2:00. Or it may be by next Tuesday, or one year from Tuesday. There’s some kind of principle or another—Murphy’s Law–that goes, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Let’s say you start to work and encounter a setback. You begin thinking, “I’m falling behind.” You’re not worried and you continue on, but you run up against another snag or block that slows you down more. More work, another snag; the ideas just won’t come, or you can’t find a concept for the drawing, or your computer crashes, and it will be a long time before it’s fixed. (I had that problem once and was told there was a backlog and that I’d have to shut down for ten days while I waited for a repair person. But I had a deadline to meet, and I really couldn’t wait ten days. So I called the national president of my internet service provider at that time, calendar-148598_640 (1) AT&T, and had a nice conversation with his personal assistant. I explained to her that I was an author and had a book to get out to the publisher right away, so I needed my computer to work. She was an avid reader which I think helped. A repairman was ringing my doorbell at 8:00 the next morning. By 8:20 I was back at work, everything copacetic, things under control.) Or you move out of your old place into a new place or have a baby, and your work comes to a standstill.  A crack in your confidence then appears. You soon begin to conjure up a grim chain of possible events: “If I don’t finish this assignment-story-novel-report-painting-lithograph on time, this might happen and that and that, and that would be very bad.” And then there are other slowdowns and still more. Eventually you think, “Oh, God, no matter what, I can’t possibly finish on time. My butt’s in a sling. What a predicament.”

Strategies for Freeing Yourself from Deadline Difficulties

  1. Pay not the slightest attention to the deadline. You have only so much attention. It’s not divisible. If it’s on one thing, it can’t be on another. Resist any inclination to worry about the deadline. Fix it in your mind once, enter it on a calendar, then get to work immediately. Whatever attention you devote to fretting about it is that much less you can devote to the job at hand. Yet that’s where your mind should be totally focused. It will be helpful if you are able to be dispassionate and non-attached. Perfectly unworried.

archer-160389_640Archery contests are held at a temple in Japan and the best archers compete. The object of the contest is to see how many arrows the marksmen can shoot from one end of a 128 yard long veranda into a target on the other end in one day. The ceiling of the veranda is very low, and the archer has to shoot without much arch. That requires considerable strength and is exhausting. The record is 8,133, or about five arrows every minute for twenty-four consecutive grueling hours. Now how many arrows would the archer have shot if he stopped to fret about the deadline? Certainly not 8,133.

No matter what, we must refuse to let our mind waver from the job at hand, agonizing less about the deadline, absorbing ourselves in tasks, just shooting our arrows, just punching away at the keyboard, just drawing lines. The more we remain firm and focused, shifting our minds again and again persistently to what is in front of us that needs doing, the higher the quality of the work we produce will be and the sooner the work will be accomplished.

  1. Remember that some time pressure actually enhances performance. There are many things we would never have completed if we hadn’t had a deadline to prod us. In school you had papers to write or a drawing to do. You were forewarned: it was due in four weeks. If you were like most students, you put it off for three weeks, six days and 19 hours. You stayed up the night before and, bleary-eyed and rendered useless the rest of the day, turned it in on time. There you are; you obeyed another principle: work tends to expand to fill the time available for its completion. So had you just one week, you would have finished it in one week, and would have finished it on time had you had only five hours.
  2. Bear in mind, however,  that unrealistic deadlines create too much pressure, and too much pressure interferes with performance. You worry. You tighten up. You lose focus. After a while when you’ve fallen behind, you find yourself beginning to pay more attention to the deadline than to doing well what needs doing. The need to finish on time gets more urgent and you start taking shortcuts. You really don’t want to, but you’re lowering your usually high standards and getting sloppy and the work’s quality is falling off.
  3. If you have any say in the matter make the deadline reasonable. Realistic deadlines motivate performance. I’ll confess: I’m a naturally excitable person, and I used to get very stirred up and to be too optimistic about reaching any deadline that I set. At times my staff had to work ridiculously long hours and on weekends and holidays and even while they were sick to meet them. So I devised a simple precaution which I called “the kick.” When I was asked by a client to estimate how long a job would take, an associate would kick me under the table. That was the signal to increase my estimate by 30%. Never let your enthusiasm exceed your better judgment. Can you use some version of the kick?
  4. Choose deadline-beating thoughts, not worry-creators. You are inwardly free to replace one thought with another whenever you want. Instead of, “I’m losing ground,” replace it with, “I’m making progress. I’m whittling this baby down,” or “Every time I stop to look at the clock (or the calendar) I’m wasting time.” “I’m going to have the focus of those archers.”
  5. Accept the deadline as an exciting challenge. When I was working on a particular book, as I turned in one chapter after another, the editor thought, “This is pretty good stuff, and it’s getting better and better. This book is going to make money.” She told the publisher, “I think we have something.” The publisher then said to her, “The longer his book, the larger the cover price we can charge. Have him double the number of words we contracted for (from 60,000 to 120,000 words). And let him know since the book is so good, we’ll want an earlier pub date. Finish with it as soon as possible.” So the length was doubled and time pressure increased. Rather than the usual “cut, cut, cut” I had to think “add, add, add.” I could have renegotiated, but accepted the new terms as a challenge and didn’t ask for any more time. I just worked longer hours (an extra writing shift every night), and everything went well.
  6. In some cases, renegotiate the deadline. When you do not see the time constraint as challenging, but rather as completely unrealistic, renegotiation makes sense. No one wants you not to meet the deadline.
  7. Overcome the causes of the snags and slowdowns. For example, often a person’s failure to meet a deadline isn’t that person’s fault at all, but of someone else’s failure to meet their deadline. If you can help them overcome their snags it will help you overcome yours.

I don’t think American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)—that master of language–ever met a single deadline his entire career. When you’re as talented as Wolfe, you can get away with murder. Until you can get away with murder too, you will have to find effective ways to handle your deadlines, striving never to be late.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artists, Blocks to Action, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Motivation, Success, Work Production, Writers