Tag Archives: Vincent van Gogh

The Perfect Imperfections of Creative People

Wedding cake topperIn a survey of the most desirable occupation for a mate “poet” and “novelist” scored near the top. If you’re a poet or novelist yourself I can just see you now. You’re stifling a knowing chuckle and asking, “Did the respondents have the remotest idea what might be in store for them if in fact their mate had either of those careers–or was a painter, sculptor, dancer, composer, violinist, etc? Or were they expressing some romantic fantasy picked up from books and movies? Would it be a blissful and fulfilling match made in heaven or would it be full of turmoil and misunderstanding? Would it be any different than having a less artistically-bent man or woman partner? When all was said and done, would it be worth it?”

I’ve known creative people all my life–grew up in a family of sensitive, fiery Welsh musical people–and for the last fifty years of it have been spending time with writers, painters, and poets in particular, and reading the life stories of the most eminent creators ever to kick up dust on this earth and of their almost miraculous achievements and analyses of their inner psychological workings. This blog puts me in contact with thousands of them in 172 countries.

The end result is that to me artists are the most enthralling, most complicated, gall-darndest, stupefying, generally frustrating, and when in their brooding dark  nasty moods the most demanding, maddening, impossible yet endearing individuals on this globe–in short, immensely fascinating, highly-productive, beautiful, focused, exasperating beings.Vincent VanGogh self-portrait Though they are often no more possible to understand than I can understand the mystery I call myself, and often torture to live with. Rascals like Dylan Thomas, Vincent van Gogh, or Jackson Pollack: there’s just, well,  something irresistible about them.

In my most visited blog post–“The Characteristics of Creative People: What We Learn from Writers, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Actors”–I laid out just that, the characteristics of people who do creative things that conspire to make them able to do those things. I said creative people possess extraordinary energy and a compulsion to work, are willing to sacrifice almost everything else for their art with no hesitations, can produce tremendous volumes of work, value authenticity, integrity, and sincerity, are oriented toward the fullest development of their creative potentials, are resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere,  must have the ability to attract and hold an audience, are more self-confident, bold, and daring than the vast majority of people, and so on

I want to fill out the picture of these original, gifted, talented people who contribute so many ideas and such beauty and creative feats with a description of artists’ characteristics many people consider flaws, imperfections, but which I think if they are imperfections are perfect imperfections that in some convoluted upside down, day is night, night is day way also equip them for the artist’s unusual life.

Artists–creative people of all sorts–are often indifferent to social “rules” and values, and have far less respect for people in authority than the people around them. The artist’s main motivation I think is to be left alone. He craves the freedom Salvadore Dali portraitto express himself, to experiment, to blunder, to go this way and that without rhyme or reason, and rules and external authority hold him back. Artists are often rebellious and uncooperative for the same reason, finding it extremely difficult and painful to do things they really don’t want to do simply because another human being says they should do it, no matter who he or she may be.

They are careless, disorderly, absentminded, forgetful, sloppy with details and matters they consider unimportant though their partner and their teachers and editors and such may consider them extremely important, and there may be conflicts. In a study comparing experienced writers with novices it was found that experienced writers forget what they have just written almost immediately after finishing a piece while novices remember their pieces in detail. Probably like every writer reading this I’ve had the experience many times of finding in computer files or drawers completely finished, refined, polished pieces–even finished novels–I wrote and completely forgot about. My wife-editor will often say, “Remember that thing you wrote about….” And I’ll say, “Oh yah, I forgot about that.” To the artist to say the work is DONE means that his job of doing the creative work–the fun stuff– is done, the fun is over; let someone else worry about the middling details.

They may be argumentative, cynical, and sarcastic, “too” direct–and tactless and intolerant. Sensitive to their every mood, and every shade of their moods, they are often overly emotional and temperamental, and easily hurt and quick to anger. Aware at every moment of what they are feeling and what they are thinking, they are self-absorbed in ways other people cannot fathom. Bundles of energy, their bodies and minds are perpetually active–over-active, electrically-charged in a way that a partner may not be prepared for or know how to respond to.

Fingers circling to indicate perfectionThe Latin sine qua non means literally “without which, not.” It means the essential, crucial, and indispensable ingredient without which something would not be possible. I think that without their imperfections artists could not be artists any more than they could be artists without their positive creative characteristics. In other words, their imperfections are–for them–perfect.

 

© 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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Turning Points In The Lives Of Creative People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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

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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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Feedback and Help for Creative Success

Without doubt, performance feedback and creative success go hand in hand. Useful feedback can help you evolve and reach high levels of satisfaction and achievement. But where are you to find the quality of feedback and help you need? Deprived of it, some artists and writers quit before they reach their peak. They bid their beloved craft adieu.

Something, for example, has gone out of publishing. Something is missing. No longer can you find the publisher’s textual editors who once existed who would work tirelessly with you, the author, suffer with you, and use their specialized skills to help you create the best you’re capable of. Creators are rare and exceptional human beings who are able to work alone in seclusion long hours without recognition, without praise, sacrificing, overcoming hardships without flinching, always returning with high energy to the work which they have a talent for. For a writer or artist who by necessity spends so much time alone, the insights of a close collaborator who cares as much about your work as you do can be a godsend.

hands-545394_640In a novel I wrote an episode in which a New York publisher’s editor came out here to the Midwest to spend a week in a cabin at a lake working intensely with a promising writer. I wrote this episode knowing very well that an actual editor would say, “Well, such a thing is simply not conceivable.” But I thought how wonderful if it were. I enjoyed writing that episode more than any other.

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

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

Wolfe was immensely talented, but his main problems were his uncontrollable, obsessive verbosity and a chronic inability to cut that resulted in unedited manuscripts of fantastic lengths, three or four times longer than a publishable book could possibly be. Those problems in turn were caused by Wolfe’s difficulty making any kind of independent decisions. He didn’t know where or what to cut. He would stare for hours at the manuscript before eliminating a few sentences when his agreement with Perkins was that he would strike out tens of thousands–a hundred thousand—words. He would start by rereading the manuscript section by section, trying to find things that were unnecessary and could be omitted. But he was totally blind to them. He never in his entire career had a concept of a publishable book.

I am certainly no Thomas Wolfe, but my wife Diana is my Maxwell Perkins. She has been a highly-regarded writing teacher, tutor, and mentor for years, and I doubt her judgment and skill can be surpassed. She edits all my work, and over the years I’ve been prolific—well over a million words–and she’s been busy. I—we—have had published best-selling nonfiction, as well as fiction and poetry, many magazine and newspaper articles, and this blog.

But she is far more than a conventional editor, and in this post I’m holding her up as an ideal, one the likes of which every writer and artist should find, hold onto, and treasure. I heard a psychiatrist say, “Everyone could benefit from a therapist.” And every writer and artist could benefit from knowledgeable, frank criticism—sympathetic criticism of course, not thoughtless and cruel criticism. When tough, street-smart novelist Henry Miller found himself being abused by editor after editor he submitted work to, he snarled, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off saying such things to me?” If you are to survive in the arts, as in life, you must never be intimidated by anyone. I think the greats were all bold, all brave.

Diana and I have developed a harmonious division of labor. I create. She evaluates. I respect her talents and she respects mine. They are different talents, but are aimed at the same object: the quality of the work. I’m aware that she will be my first and most demanding audience. I’m always eager to hear what she has to say because her opinions will help me improve. And isn’t to improve, transforming a gift into an achievement, what every creative person wants most?

ernest-hemingway-401493_640The most important criticism a seasoned writer or artist receives is self-criticism. The standards of good writing, painting, or dancing, etc., are now a part of the writer or artist’s makeup. Yet, a creative person of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly also from someone else whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that? Am I receptive to constructive criticism? Am I confident enough for it? Can I be dispassionate about it? Can I be non-attached?”

We all wish to be lavished with praise for every work we produce. John Irving said that “Good job” is the only feedback a writer wants. But it’s much more beneficial to have a wife or friend or coach, editor, teacher, writer’s or artist’s group, etc. who’ll point out flaws and shortcomings before the work reaches agents, publishers, newspaper reviewers, and the final judge—the audience.

Some writers and artists and people in every other profession would prefer to not know how well or poorly they’re doing. Others very much want to know if knowledgeable people they trust think they’re doing okay, and possibly more importantly, if they’re doing poorly, and if they are, in what areas they might improve. They welcome feedback and actively seek it, feedback that is (1) timely, (2) specific, (3) well-meaning, and (4) helpful.

Ernest Hemingway, for example, didn’t become the most innovative literary stylist of the last 100 years without incorporating into his work the advice of his newspaper editors, and fellow writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald who were generous enough to share their expertise with him

Diana advises me, consults with me, inspires me, encourages me, and criticizes every facet of my work—objectively I believe, and always fairly. She is not easy on me, but pushes me. Well, not “pushes.” Pushing isn’t in her nature. But from her commitment I feel myself gaining energy. She is to me what a real editor should be, though I know how trying writers can be. (I once called my publisher’s editor and she sounded demoralized. So I said, “What’s wrong, Kathy?” She said, “Oh, I just had an hour-long argument with one of my authors about a comma.”)

vincent-van-gogh-self-portrait-1887Many creative people benefit from close personal support and encouragement from one other person such as a lover, husband or wife, sibling, or close friend: Frederick Chopin/George Sand, Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner, Jean Paul Sartre/Simone De Beauvoir, Henry Miller/Anais Nin, Vincent van Gogh/Theo van Gogh, Virginia Woolf/Leonard Woolf, Salvador Dali/Gala, and George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin.

It may not be the oddest phenomenon, but it is something of a phenomenon that as soon as a creator is in his judgment finished with a work, he immediately loses interest in it. He wants to go on to something else. A study found that professional writers couldn’t remember what they had just written. But amateurs could remember very clearly exactly what they had written. And writers, like artists, are often working on 3, 5, or 10 projects simultaneously, moving restlessly from one to another as the mood strikes. While at times I’ve forgotten about whole projects I’ve got going, Diana somehow remembers. She will say, “Whatever happened to…?”

I might work on a piece for a long time, turning down invitations to go to movies, visit friends, or take vacations. Poet John Milton said some people—like me–“scorn delights to live laborious lives.” But when I can say, “That’s it,” well, that’s it. It’s all done. Something shuts off. All responsibility for it disappears. My mind elsewhere now, I might say flippantly, “Well you take care of it from here. Just mop it up.” And Diana will say, “Oh, no, you’re the writer, not me. I won’t make a change without your approval. So let’s get going. Why in the fourth sentence do you say…?”

Diana doesn’t usually suggest subjects I should write about. I develop my own ideas. But once she gave me a subject and it will give you an idea of how we work. I’d never really written anything significant about the death of my sister Sharon who was very dear to me. Diana said I should. I wrote what I thought was a good piece and gave it to her. She didn’t like it. I said, “It’s perfectly fine. I’m done with it. I’m not doing anything more.” Her words in reply were “It is not up to your standards.” I liked the implication that I had high standards, and in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t satisfied with it either. I redid it seven or eight times. It became “Days End.” When it was done, a critic said, “This is not just writing. This is literature.” If it is, it wouldn’t have been without Diana so persuasively prodding me.

I’ve learned more of what they call “classical restraint” from Diana. That that style appeals to her is not coincidental. It suits her. She is dignified and calm—classically restrained. Her favorite word in the English language is equanimity—composure, level-headedness. A writer’s most effective writing mood is important, and every writer has to find his/her own, just as painters and sculptors, etc., must find their most productive working mood.

Diana is able to find in my writing what I may not see. I asked her to go over some fiction of mine. As she read she stopped abruptly and said, “Hmmm, this passage right here is a poem.” She said, “Just read it. These lines here. It’s a really nice poem just as it is.” I put it verbatim in poem form without changing a word and it was published and won a contest. I hadn’t noticed my poem among the prose.

I’m currently writing a book that I believe has something original to say to writers who wish to achieve their writing goals, including becoming a higher quality writer and being successful in other ways too. I don’t let Diana or anyone else read anything I’m working on until in my judgment it’s pretty much done. I never tell anyone exactly what I’m doing. But she knows something about the book and the other day let slip the comment, “You should really make it applicable not just to writers, but to artists and actors, and so on.”

I’ve tried, but for the life of me I cannot get that sentence out of my mind. I wonder, “Should I do what she suggests? It would take more time, more work. It wouldn’t be easy, it would be tough. There are a hundred reason why I shouldn’t do it.”

But damned if I don’t have a hunch that once again she’s right.

 

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Artistic Relationships, Artists, Creativity Self-Improvement, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Editor, Feedback, Goals and Purposes, High Achievement, Personal Stories, Success, The Writer's Path, Thomas Wolfe, Work Production, Writers

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