Tag Archives: William Golding

What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Really Good Writers and Artists?

Once you are a really good writer or artist, you enjoy many advantages. But beware because now you will also have new weaknesses.

Red silhouette of a woman on yellow background, with an indication of her brain, as she looks at shelves of booksAs a really good writer, painter, actor, architect, or composer you have the ability to generate the best solutions to creative problems. The solutions are much better than the solutions less capable creatives settle on. Your aesthetic judgment is better than theirs. You perceive features of the problems facing you and the solutions to them that lesser creatives don’t notice and can’t think of.

One reason why you are so capable is that if you are  really good at your craft, you are able to keep huge amounts of useful information in your working memory, far more than less excellent writers, painters, etc. can keep in their minds. You can easily draw on that wealth of knowledge you’ve acquired about your art–its history, its techniques and artists, its methods leading to success and those that lead to failure or exasperation. Even genius, left alone with no help from extensive knowledge, is not strong.

As an example of the wealth of knowledge possessed by excellent creatives, let me cite multiple Academy Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize winning composer and song-writer Marvin Hamlisch. Torn or burnt fragments of sheet musicHe had a staggering knowledge of American songs. I knew Marvin and would do exhaustive research trying to stump him with the least known and most esoteric songs my research could find, asking him “Who wrote…?” and “Who wrote…?” However obscure the song and no matter how confidently I thought, “He will never know this one,” he always knew.

But you must guard against a common weakness of really good creatives: over-confidence in their artistic judgement. Capable as you may be, your judgment is not infallible, and sometimes it is wrong. For example, even a supremely talented writer, painter, or architect can waste months or years on an ill-advised project that looked promising but turned sour. Thomas Wolfe studied playwriting at Harvard and wrote bad plays for nine years before realizing, at the suggestion of his lover, that he had no future in playwriting, but was “meant” to write novels.

In another instance it took George Bernard Shaw five years of submitting to publishers one novel each year to realize the opposite: that he had no future writing novels, but could write plays masterfully. An editor who had turned down Shaw’s novels had said, “Unfortunately we must reject this novel too, but the dialogue was wonderful. Did you ever think of writing plays?’ That was all that was necessary for Shaw to turn the direction of his career.

Really good artists and writers are generally (though not always as in the cases of Wolfe and Shaw) good judges of their own abilities. They are self-critical and self-demanding to a very high degree. They are self-absorbed in a positive way and closely study themselves and their work, which they are obsessed with. They are motivated by a so-called “urge to improve,” and monitor themselves so that they are able to detect errors in their knowledge, technique, style, and skill, and do something to correct those errors.

Woman's hands typing on a laptop with a yellow post-it note stuck on the corner of the screenUnlike ordinary writers who might not be aware that their plots are not believable, a really good writer would be aware if theirs were not. Yet, in spite of being vividly aware and quite objective and accurate about their own work, expert artists and writers have the weakness of often being wrong in their predictions about the performance of novices they have been asked to evaluate. It is as though they are unable to recognize talent while it is still in a formative state. In fact, the greater their expertise, the more likely they are to be wrong in predicting the performance of novices.

Something very similar may happen in the field of professional editing–highly experienced editors not recognizing the promise of young writers. For example, when young English schoolteacher William Golding’s submission of his first book, Lord of the Flies, was being considered by Faber and Faber Publishers, the editors, Wooden table with sheets of paper with a red pen on top and a cup of coffee on the sideincluding the senior editor whose judgment was “always right” rejected it as impossible to understand. Only Charles Monteith, who had never edited a book before, argued angrily on behalf of the book he had fallen in love with despite its obvious flaws. Unlike the experts, he saw that good editing could remedy its weaknesses. Lord of the Flies, edited by Monteith, became an international best seller.

Golding went on to write many books, essays, and plays. Golding and Monteith became an example of a superb writer-editor-friends team working together in harmony for many years of productivity culminating In Golding’s Nobel Prize.  So if you are a novice and are looking for objective and accurate appraisal of your ability, it may be a good idea not to ask an expert, but to go to a teacher and to hope  the publisher’s editor assigned to you is as enthusiastic as Charles Monteith was and as willing to fight for your book.

To improve their artistic performance, really good artists and writers will be more opportunistic, making use of whatever sources of information they need to solve their creative problems. Just as stand-up comedians steal jokes from each other, artists and writers “borrow” insights and techniques from other artists in their own art and from other arts as well, and from any other field they are familiar with.

green and yellow field with a fantasy-like swirl going up to a cloudy sky of blue and whiteReally good creatives are able to pull out of their minds–with ease–the insights they need. They are so able and accustomed to using the substantial skills they have developed, that they do so automatically, “without thought” as a Zen master would say. To them writing or painting is easy.  Yet, at the same time, they may be victims of inflexibility in the face of new circumstances. At times they have trouble adjusting to situations confronting them.

For example, marvelous actor Charles Laughton was offered the starring role in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, but hard as he tried, he could not form a concept of the role sufficient for him to play it. He turned the role down. He said that he finally realized how it should be played when he saw Alec Guinness play in the movie the role he might have had. Was it an Academy Award winning role, whoever would have played it? Would Laughton have won the Oscar for best actor as Guinness did?

blue, purple, and pink jigsaw puzzle pieces in a disordered pileReally good creatives spend considerable time analyzing the problems facing them while less accomplished creatives spend less time and are not as patient as the exceptional creatives. A study discovered that students in art school who would become the best and most financially successful after graduation took much longer to meditate on and plan their paintings, lithographs, and sculptures.

A weakness of many really good artists and writers is overlooking details that don’t seem to them to pertain to the problem, but do pertain to it. Highly talented people are notoriously blasé about details, don’t worry about them, and don’t like to bother with them. (For example, when F. Scott Fitzgerald submitted the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, it had more than 100 misspellings.) That can also be seen in areas other than the arts. People with extensive knowledge about a sport recall fewer details of a text about that sport than people with little knowledge of the sport.

painting of a serene blue-green lake with trees and blue mountains in the backgroundGenius in the arts or in any other pursuit is almost always specific to one art, one domain. Often it is assumed without too much thought that a person with a high level of skill in one area will almost automatically be skilled in another area or many other areas. That’s called “the halo effect.”  Yet while there are exceptions, the halo effect is generally invalid.  High-performing creators do not excel in areas where they have no expertise. But in a single domain they are on their home turf, and their work is really good.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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Something Has Gone Out of Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red pen editing writing

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

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

 

© 2017 David J. Rogers

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

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