In my last letter I touched on the idea that your vocabulary might be responsible for personal happiness, effectiveness or creativity. Could it be possible that we are formed by the words we use? For example, might the elimination of the word “failure” promote “success?” Might the constant use of the word “happy,” make you so? You may see a few problems. We may know of folks who give lip service to “love,” while they practice “hate.” You might think that the program will not work if you think one thing and say another. But the idea behind the concept is that the words themselves are what you may become. Words maketh the man.
There are two parts to the program. The first is a personal list of words you think have negative values and may wish to eliminate. This is the “undesirable” list. They can be discovered by replaying your normal conversation on a recording device. Also, a true friend and careful listener can give you an honest report. Listen to yourself in social situations or in the company of wine. Just as a search-engine scours the internet for keywords, you and your friends can build your negative list. It may take a while. Write them down. Print them out.
The second part is a list of words you think you need. This is the “desirable” list and it may take even longer. It may never be finished. You build your list in several ways: Look at your undesirable list and think of the opposite words and their synonyms. Add words or visualizations that you can only dream. Scratch around in the vocabularies of those you admire. When you feel a positive thought coming on, stop, look and listen. Read uplifting material. Focus on the stars. If you go to the responses to the last letter, Your Thinking Words, you will find a starter template that you can customize and print out. It happens to be my own list. It contains my current personal work-process words as well as life-process ones. You will already know some of them from these twice-weekly letters. Subtract from mine and add your own.
Oh, and how do you get the program to work? Just know that you can train or retrain yourself to paint, write, speak, drive, ski, or become a prestidigitator. Word retraining may not be easy, but believe me, it’s been done.
PS: “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.” (Ingrid Bengis) “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” (Rudyard Kipling) “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” (William Wordsworth)
Esoterica: A friend’s tape-recorded voice was laced with words like doubt, hopeless, poverty and resist. She was well-spoken. She chose her words carefully. I always thought she was intelligent, discriminating and thoughtful. I was wrong. She was, and still is, clever, talented and witty, but she is in a state of defeat.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
We, too, want a peaceful world
I was struck by the use of a positive vocabulary from the artist in Iraq in the last responses. I would like to tell this person that many Americans are bewildered by their country’s push for war, and do not agree with that policy. We, too, want to live in a peaceful world. I pray that this writer’s suffering and that of his/her country will end soon and that we will be able to live our lives in a positive manner.
Our wonderful worlds
The last collection of responses was absolutely fantastic. We read all the self-absorbed North American happiness words and hear of the joy we take in our wonderful worlds, and then there’s that letter from the suffering artist in Iraq. Outrageous. Are we artists asleep at the switch, or what? As bad as things are in Iraq right now, those white UN trucks must stay until the day after George W. Shrub is out of office.
Working for love and peace
I think having support from other artists is so important to talk with them. To learn from them and grow as a stronger more creative artist. When working on myself I will strive to work for happiness and peace. I find my paintings let my emotions come through. A release of much pain into strength and learning of peace. I am at a state in my mind and life that I have to take value of what is important to me. I need to find the balance again I once had. It is slowly coming back. I am going to make 2 lists of words as you suggest. I think it might really give me more insight to who I am. Yes people tend to “talk the talk and do not walk the walk” I have found that in some of my family members. Our words are who we are. I think the next step is finding out when we wish to be. Is it the person whom is torn by his or her own mind… or is there something more? Yes I believe there is much more to an artist than what meets the eye. I believe artists are always thinking, it is changing the negative into a positive. I think depression hits many many people if not everyone in one place or another in their lives. It is overcoming depression and looking at life as a gift. We are here for a short time, I want to make my time here a good one with passion, creation, love and peace.
Painting as prayer
Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
I just have to write, for the second time today, because of what is happening to me. You can’t imagine what the reading of today’s clickbacks has unleashed for me. “Painting is my prayer” seem to be the catalytic words. Exploring the meaning of these words has given me an understanding and acceptance of who I am and why I do what I do as no other language has been able to. I felt that painting after 9/11 was such an irrelevant thing, such an indulgence, such a petty activity in the face of the catastrophe of that day, our times. But now I see that painting is a commitment to love, to life, to living, to seeing. It is my prayer. It in no way negates or diminishes the troubles of the times, even if I paint flowers or cats instead of mangled bodies. My work is my faith which acknowledges terror, fear, poverty, despair. But it is also innocence, peace, love, dignity, harmony.
It’s Tuesday. The alarm clock radio tells me its minus 10 C. The warm front that the weatherman predicted hasn’t found me under my down quilt. Soon. This cold has lengthened my musing time like the ice frost on the fir trees that line the river bank. The newspaper tells me “Iraq Fails Tests.” The prayer flags in my garden are frozen in mid air. In every downtown coffee shop, chat turns to economies of scale, rising gas prices and costs of war. In every yoga studio, candles are lit for savasana. The asanas are dedicated to Peace.”… as long as there’s one flame, we have a lifeline…”
Not such a wonderful life
Diane Middleton, Calgary, Alberta Canada
I read the response from the artist in Iraq and was moved by his/her desperation, to say the least. In so few written lines, he/she likely speaks for many of his friends, family and neighbors. The buildup of fear amongst the Iraqi people towards the Americans most likely outweighs any hatred towards them. And so the Iraqi’s wait — not such a wonderful life. The artist remarked that they have little or no materials left for making art. And although producing art wouldn’t be a flourishing activity for them these days, it would be a ‘salvation’ to do in desperate times. What other escape would they have that is so meaningful?
Faith in happiness
I know first-hand how destructive depression can be — how important happiness is. I have been going through some challenging times in the last few years. Happiness is scarce for me lately, but I do recall vividly, the feeling of being happy. I don’t give up on attaining it again. I use my art to connect to happiness — I paint sunshine a lot. I realize that my unhappiness is of my own making. I realize that happiness is something I can decide on. I can make small decisions throughout every day that will add up to a happy frame of mind. But all this takes some time; the ghosts that haunt the psyche are persistent in their efforts to survive. That’s where the belief in the reality of happiness is vital. We must have faith that it is at the core of who we are; that once the crud is cleaned away, that’s what’s left.
A vision of unity
Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
I do not prefer any one state on our Earth. There is a certain amount of insincerity in all of them. I have also love for all of the states of the Earth because among all of the bad people there are many thousands that are good. Is it possible that all the good people of the earth can collect together in one country? Yes, this country is Internetia.
Think of peace
Is my nose ever sore from repeatedly hitting the wall through my negative thinking. Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a tendency to put myself down, believing that I didn’t measure up and having strong feelings of inadequacy. I promptly went out and bought Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl and am now going to go over that wall! In my favour, I have a strong determination and lots of time and by golly, I am going to succeed in fulfilling my goal – to be the best that I can be and to own it. Your letters seem to come at a time when I am looking for exactly the answers that you provide and at just the right pace too. I am also finding a lot of useful information through the responses you receive. What a precious gift you are! Perhaps through your letter, the negatives in the world could be reversed just by asking each and everyone on your membership list to think of peace, voice it and pass it on.
Mantras of the mind
Words definitely recreate your world-view. The words one uses reinforces in ones mind their ‘reality.’ Words become not unlike a meditation mantra. Their use and reuse registers in the mind and begins to form who we are and who we will become. The use of positive words is indeed one method of refocusing the mind. Such a focused mind is able to see “failure” as an “opportunity,” for example. As one begins to eliminate ‘negative’ words first from one’s vocabulary and then from one’s mind, one begins to see life quite differently. How one views any situation is, after all, everything. The mission seems to be a multi-stepped procedure starting with a change of the mantras of the mind, moving to a new world view, thus changing our response to any given situation. No longer seeing life as we once did our minds and hearts become open to all of the possibilities life has to offer. This may sound trite but very inviting, don’t you think? The next step is open for further discussion amongst the family. If my kids come up with anything really great I’ll let you know. They seem to be the ones with the answers! I love life. These muses keep me going.
HJ Teunissen, The Netherlands
I just had to respond to the interesting “Serious Collectors” letter of Jan. 3, 2003. I think the distinction collector/artist that seems to be made in the letter excludes some of the most fervent – and perhaps insightful – collectors of all. The artist-collectors. I was at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam less than a month ago. There they had an exhibition of the Japanese prints that Vincent (and his brother Theo) were so fond of and that they collected. It’s an extensive collection, and Van Gogh found inspiration in the prints for a number of his paintings. Rubens, Monet, Degas and many others did the same. Because of their own artistic talent they were able to appreciate that of another artist and find inspiration and delight. A collector isn’t necessarily operating from the outside, but can be one of the artistic community.
Words pay off
Because I ‘wrote’ the blocks out of my brain, (The Artist’s Way) along with all the negative words I and other people had said, it allowed room for creativity to enter. Ideas came faster than I could paint. I also wrote down the word, “artist.” I followed with even harder words for me, “I am an artist, I am an artist, I am an artist.” And finally I made the leap to, “I am a good artist, I am a good artist, I am a good artist.” It was validating and liberating. An artist is something I had felt I was to become since the age of four! As I describe it, the floodgates have opened and now I cannot stop. Two years ago I painted for the first time in my life. Three months ago, over 100 of my works filled an airplane hangar in a solo art exhibition at Vancouver International Airport. In four hours, over 70 paintings sold. It took me a lot of trust and belief in art to pull off something as huge and bold as this. A lot went into the mix, but self-talk and specific words definitely played a supporting role.
Discouraged with reality
I am a young painter two years out of art school. In that time I got involved in juried shows, art associations, and won awards, but all the attention has been for realism. I have been developing a new style away from that genre over the past year that incorporates pen drawing and landscape — a style that seems to suit me and hold more meaning. Since creating a series of these large paintings I haven’t exposed them to the public. Last week, I heard of a competition in Boston. In the process of creating the slides, and having help to choose the ones that I should put in, I noticed a lack of excitement toward the new work from the people helping me. They think my best work was from 2 years ago when I was doing realism. This made me feel as though my heartfelt work over the past year creating this new portfolio was a waste of time. I want to make a living as an artist, and maybe that means creating art that other people know and like. I feel torn and at odds with what to focus my time on. I didn’t end up sending the slides to Boston, and I’m not sure what to do. I feel my heart has broken and my efforts have been futile. I feel that I need to create realism in order to make a living. Maybe you have some thoughts on the issue.
Power of visualization
Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
We artists are good at manifesting what we visualize. Perhaps this knack for manifestation has its counterpart in our lives beyond our art. Instead of visualizing poverty and depression, why not visualize success and helpfulness. With regard to day jobs: Somebody has to do them. Somebody has to find the raw materials and manufacture the art supplies so that we can make our art. Somebody has to grow food so that we can eat, be clothed and housed. To me there is no such thing as honest work that is low status. I’m deeply grateful to everyone with a day job that contributes to society. It’s important to give back, not just as an artist but as a human being.
No more than lip service
Aw gee, and here’s me thinking it were the eyes that mirror the soul. Turns out words is them things that simulate some kind o’ synaptic map…the way I figure it if it’s worth talking about it ain’t worth painting landscapes over…’nless of course one has something to say…or paint on about. Changing one’s vocabulary ain’t exactly like changing canvases. If yer miserable bein’ miserable… tough! Paint it! If it’s whining you need to describe y’self in terms of style… you’ve already screwed up by buying into the dream machine. Juxtasupposing this psychiatric barnfull of available explanings into the human condition is no more than lip service.
Finding a way
Skeptical thinking is a skill, needing practice to develop. Ferreting out false beliefs gives us the ability to listen to new information and to the voices in our heads. Are we listening to our good sense or our false beliefs? I have found that uncovering false beliefs frees up thinking energy and raises confidence in my ability to learn and act on my thoughts. My attitudes about selling my art have become much clearer. No more dwelling on ways to blame the art world, the system, anybody else. My life is painting. I will find ways to reach the people who may not remember the richness art can bring to their lives. It’s always been our responsibility to find our audience. In a time when art is being ignored in the schools and in the public mind, we can find a way to give it back to the folks who don’t realize they are missing it.
Line and image have deep effect
I have studied the philosophy of yoga since 1985, using a book by the first white woman to become a Swami, Kundalini Yoga for the West by Swami Sivananda Radha. It is a workbook for self-examination using an ancient Tibetan system of the chakras. Speech is so important it is included in the readings for each chakra. What words we use with others, as well as what words we use about ourselves have so much power. In the book there is a spiritual practice called The Divine Light Invocation. Studying one of the lines, “I am sustained by Divine Light” an image came to me of myself as divine and rooted into the earth. I painted this work and placed it where I could see it in my counseling office. Any time I began to have doubts about my abilities I looked at this picture and was strengthened by my spiritual connection. This combination of picture with words has had a deep effect.
Altering language lifts burdens
Aileen Rosen, New York, NY, USA
When my daughter was born seven years ago, it awakened me to the impact that language can have on forming our identities. Because I was now raising a girl in a culture that generally assumes the use of male pronouns — for instance, one sees a dog, or any animal, and without thinking calls it a “he” — I decided that in speaking with her I would do the reverse and use “she.” By changing my own speech I felt I was actually helping to eradicate the distinct male bias in our language, and I found that my own faith that girls matter as much as boys in turn flourished.
I became aware of the many and subtle ways my use of language could affect my young daughter’s sense of who she was in the world. I eliminated the words “hate”, “stupid”, “bad” and “ugly” from my vocabulary. I said “yes” more often than “no”. I shifted away from the negatives that come so easily and found it increasingly easy to embrace the positive. My new- found outward diplomacy initially felt awkward, but soon I’d internalized a new world-outlook. And I’ve come far. I’m trained as an architecture and design critic and am accustomed to judging the object world at least in part on its appearances. But having altered my language, I find, has liberated me from many burdens and assumptions about our culture, and about myself. Its effect on my daughter, though, remains to be seen.
Stick to the truth
Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
“Let fall thy lance: despair, and die!” (Richard III) It’s not so much a matter of changing the words as of using them to best advantage. The thing is, for an artist, despair and neglect become ingredients in the subject matter. The negative is magically transformed into the positive just by expressing it in art. If this sounds incomprehensible, give art up, the painting career was a bad idea. That would be my advice to Bob Young (in the last responses) and similar whiners. For the true artist giving it up is not an option so we may as well make the best of it. Success, financial security, fame, etc. would be great but we can do without them. In fact, I think there’s a good chance our work will be better without them. What our work can’t do without is truth, and success has a way of compromising one’s truthfulness and artistic integrity. On my web site I posted a quote by Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazis to be persecuted by the Communists, and this year received a Nobel literature prize. Speaking of the time after the War when he was working in obscurity and poverty, almost in hiding, he said, “You are not thinking about being successful. You expect to make no impact. It’s hopeless. And if it’s hopeless, you might as well stick to the truth.”
“Good angels guard thy battle! Live, and flourish!” (Richard III)
The value of “effervescence”
I’ve been enjoying focusing on new positive qualities for the last while since I picked up Jim Down’s book, The Book Of Positive Qualities, 988 Building Blocks For A Good Life. He gives lists, definitions, synonyms, sayings and quotes for each quality. I’ll choose one and use it as much as possible in my language, writing and even painting for a day. My children have picked up on this… my favourite being “effervescent” that my son chose. A day with a seven year old lacing his conversation with “effervescent” spilled over to lift everyone’s mood!
Replace old files with new
Our thoughts and our words are a result of a lifetime of learning. So often we do need to relearn some of the negative thought patterns. I like to think of it as replacing the “old files” (often old lies we hear in our subconscious) with the “new files” (truth and hope). As an artist and writer I believe in the importance of healing the past (whether it was a deep wound or small). Of course we can paint in tough times, but in the freedom of knowing we are whole, the creativity can flow like never before. Perhaps then it won’t matter so much if we paint for success. It may be enough to just paint.
Listens to audio tapes
Janet Trahan, Long Island, NY, USA
One of the ways that I maintain positive thinking is to take myself on artist dates, museums, symphony concerts, ballets, creative stuff. I also recommend Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I have the book and the condensed audio version of the book and play it regularly while I’m painting, driving, whenever there is a moment. An artist friend and I listen to the tape in order not to fall into the arms of negativity. It has helped her climb out of the depths of a deep depression, after her 18 year old son died of Leukemia. She went on to open a very successful art and music studio, where she paints and teaches art and music. She was able to raise her seven children and have a business she always wanted, with which she earned the money to raise her kids as a single mother, and still be able to paint.
Too many artists out there
I struggle with negative self-messages all the time. Little by little I seem to make progress. Another thing that sometimes makes me feel threatened as an artist is that the art schools are churning out so many artists every year – the world around me seems to have far more artists than it needs (and yet not enough in another way, ironically). Therefore, I can’t say that whatever I personally have to give the world as an artist seems terribly important. Its importance can only be its intrinsic importance to me – then again, in a way, that is always the case, however important and needed the outer world happens to make you feel as an artist.
Happiness a personal process
I don’t think I have ever read anything that struck home as much as the happiness topic. We certainly are the only ones who can make ourselves happy. We cannot and are not responsible for the happiness of someone else. Happiness is not just a state of mind, but a way of life. It isn’t a simple thing for some of us, but certainly a worthy endeavor. I have a special group of artist friends who I paint and draw with every Wednesday. We have worked together for over 6 years now and we find a lot of comfort and encouragement in our group. When we were in our group this past Wednesday the model looked at me and said, “What are you thinking? You look like you are really enjoying whatever it is.” The best part of it was that my thought at that moment was about how much I truly love life. Just the very thought of what it means to be alive and creative too, wow, I don’t think one can ask for more than that. The hardest part of knowing is that you can try to pass it along, but it truly is a personal process that you have to do for yourself.
Encouragement with self-talk
I was raised by a professional pessimist father and a pollyanna mom – so my inner voices can be at variance. I recall the moment when I realized that I was “shooting myself in the foot” with my “self-talk.” I was in Guatemala painting with a group under the direction of my mentor Milford Zornes. A young woman was sitting near me working on her painting. I had been looking at beautiful Lake Atitlan and asking myself, “What are you doing? You should be home with your child and husband, what ever made you think you could be a painter?” I then heard a woman near me saying to herself: “Oh, honey, that is a gorgeous color, you are doing so well, great going, etc. etc…” It washed over me in that moment that I would rather be in her head than in mine. I resolved then and there on the shores of that lake to change my self-talk. It has not been easy and I still have to be very aware, but it is so worth doing! Now when I hear those negative comments I just say, “Thank you very much for sharing, I am doing the best I can, so just get the $%& out of here.” My students may think me terribly conceited when I comment during a demo, “This may be the best painting I have ever done” or, “Oh my, that is a wee bonnie spot there.” Not at all, of course, I’m just trying to keep that creative child in me encouraged and happy.
Do something different
William Smith, Duluth, GA, USA
Two powerful sayings that can change your perspective are: “Your attitude determines your altitude,” and secondly, “You don’t do like you do because you feel like you feel — You feel like you feel because you do like you do.” Your attitude can affect your art. Without the freedom of a happy spirit, your efforts will be faulty. The result will put you into a downward spiral. Like Newton’s first law of inertia, “Unless acted upon, a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion remains in motion”. The key to change is action. If you don’t do something to change the momentum, you’ll continue to do like you do and, consequently, feel like you feel. Use a different color. Try a different brush. Shoot….close your eyes and paint. Have fun. Do something different and find the excitement again that made you want to paint in the first place.
I have always been a person that could find happiness in whatever I did. For some people in parts of the world they would be happy if they had a paint brush and paint to paint with. Others feel they need a studio to be happy. Some may feel they need a job with lots of status or a partner that supports their efforts. We can ask ourselves if that is what make us artists? Are we only artists if we have friends or partners that support us? Are we artists only if we have money to buy paint, etc? Would we only make artwork if we had a nice studio? If each individual would really ask themselves what really is important, they may find that they really do have a reason to be happy. I liked the fact that Victor Frankl said that when every thing was taken from him, NO ONE could take away his thoughts. So if we have the ability to THINK and do that in itself we can be happy. Many people do have negative people around them and they may even fight their own negativity, but it is nice to remember that NO ONE can take away your thinking ability and with that you can overcome anything. And if a person can overcome obstacles, whatever they may be, they indeed have a reason to be happy.
As a goal oriented person I have recognized in myself the need to achieve. As of late I have become more conscious of this drive and have spent more time attempting to just be. The best way to make this change is to continually monitor your thoughts. Each time I catch myself ruminating over some perceived “failure” or “I am not good enough” I catch myself with that thought. Then I go back over the material and find the “miracles” that also happened. One can never be too sure what small events in one’s life will ultimately be a great source of happiness to themselves or to others around them.
Self-program with self-talk
We actually program ourselves with our self-talk!! Unfortunately, most start at a very young age with negative thoughts and may not even realize that they are doing it now. The first step in stopping the negative self-talk is to begin to listen to your thoughts and recognize what you’re telling yourself over and over and over. Once you recognize the pattern, the way to change it is to catch yourself in the negative self-talk and change it to something more desirable. This takes practice and commitment as the other is deeply engrained. You are establishing a new habit. All repetitive thinking is in reality a habit and can be changed.
Ellen McCormick Martens, Houston, Texas, USA
Amadee Ozenfant, in his 1928 book Foundations of Modern Art, recommends that an artist work at another job, preferably something physical like carpentry or gardening, for half the day, and work at art the other half. He says otherwise, the artist becomes too removed from ordinary people and life. Sally Warner’s current book, Making Room for Making Art, explores this subject in depth. She says that while it is difficult to continue making art in the face of all the internal and external obstacles we all have in our lives, it is important to do just that. Be stubbornly insistent on your vocation, and continue to create the beauty all human beings crave. We need to remember that every artist has these struggles. Don’t be looking around thinking other painters have it easier. Making money isn’t the only value in life, even if our society claims it is. It is necessary, and wonderful, but it isn’t the primary reason we paint.
Me and My Art
Tian LiushaWang, Fen Garden Guanghzou, China
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003. That includes Susannah Wagner Merritt who wrote, “Did you know that watercolors were one of the experiments the astronauts were conducting before they died in the space shuttle? Some school children thought of the process and sent along apaintbox. We lost some painting buddies today.”