“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”
That’s a quote from the character of Master Qui-Gon, in “Star Wars, Episode I, The Phantom Menace, written by American writer, director and producer, George Lucas. More on that later.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 21 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about doing the work, about doing the same thing every day, over time, can be very productive. Which brings me to what I want to talk about today, focus. As I said last time, if you’re focused on the work, and work consistently, then the book appears, the project gets done, the Imagination mysteriously steps into reality in front of you as a creation.
The best way to talk about pig headed stubbornness would be my own path because my own background had nothing to do with creation. There were no books in our house, no music, no creators in the family or extended family. My schooling had nothing to do with creation. So, what did I do? I did it anyway. Again, I’m stubborn. I got involved with writing anyway, irrespective.
I asked people who came into the coffee shop where I worked in the East Village how they got their work out there, when they hadn’t gone to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or Harvard or Yale. They told me I had to get an agent.
I finally got a wonderful agent, at one of the biggest agencies in Los Angeles, when I was working as a copy writer for an insane advertising agency in Alaska. Myself and my wife went out and partied. Finally, one of my novels was going to get out into the world. Two years later: my agent had sent the novel out to over sixty publishers. I lost count. We got answers back like: “Fanning’s work is very innovative, fresh, talented, but we have an Irish novel on our list already.” I told her to stop sending me the rejections.
Years later I got a second agent, for a different novel. He was a former publisher turned agent working for one of the biggest agencies in New York. His friend, then a deputy editor at “Vanity Fair”, had recommended my novel. What happened? Myself and my wife went out to celebrate again. Two years later, I had lost count of the number of rejections after thirty. After returning to publishing, my agent went on to work in politics in DC. I still like to think it’s because he was so disillusioned with the publishing industry.
What did I do? I stayed focused. I kept writing. What some might call pig-headedness, kept me going. My first novel was published when I was 45.
To make matters worse, we created a place for people to do the same thing, create, in a foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language, in the middle of nowhere, on credit cards, with again, no experience. And of course, now we’ve created another place, where people can get their writing out into the world.
Sometimes you’ve got to take matters into your own hands. Creation is not just about creating something. It’s about your mind, your mentality, your focus. You change your mind and you can change your life. Change your mental attitude: It’s not if, it’s when.
You loose yourself in what you love creating, by keeping focused. It’s easy not to create when you say you can’t create. You have to keep your focus. Keep moving forward. Stick to it. Especially when it’s not going well.
A friend of mine once told me she wasn’t creative. I asked her why she thought this. “Because I tried to paint when I was younger,” she said. “I was useless.” I asked her how long she did it for. A day she said.
This is not focus. How can you say you’re not creative after a day? That’s crazy. She didn’t understand that she is extremely creative, in her businesses, or that she could be both, a painter and a businesswoman. Both are creative. If she’d give even five percent of the focus she gave to her businesses to painting then I’m sure her paintings would be on walls.
So, by being focused, by doing, repeating, we find out the how of the question “Can I create?” The response is always going be yes, if you allow yourself to focus on what it is you want to do.
Which gets me back to the quote I started with: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” George Lucas, a self described introvert, wrote those words. “The Star Wars” movies, and franchise, has made over $47 billion, and counting. But what is the story behind the story? Well, most producers didn’t like Lucas’ story idea. They said it was for kids, that nobody wanted to watch science fiction movies. They said it was “a little strange”. When Lucas did get a budget, it was drastically under what he needed. The producers didn’t go for it because of the story idea, but because one of them, Alan Ladd, believed in Lucas, not the movie.
Lucas started writing, eight hours a day, and ended up taking a huge pay cut to direct. Then there was the fact that there were no special effects back then. Did that stop him? No. He created the motion picture visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. (He later sold this company for over $4 billion — yes, not million — to Disney).
It goes on. He had to reuse props and costumes from other movies because he had no money. The actors wouldn’t do any overtime. Seemingly, they all thought it was going to be a failure. Then he resigned from the Director’s Guild in disgust because they didn’t want him to have the title sequence he wanted. They made him pay a fine. And, when he finally finished editing, he didn’t like the finished movie. Yes, he went back and re-edited it, even though it cost a fortune. And did it end there? Of course not. When they released the movie, they hardly distributed it.
That’s focus. That’s discipline. You go deeply into the creation, ignoring all rejections, all failure, all distractions. No matter how hard it is to persist, you have to persist. No matter how hard it is to leave everyone behind, you have to leave them, to a point.
People check their smartphones about fifty times a day in Ireland, even more in America. You can’t splinter your focus. Any great creator you respect was, is focused. They’re not on their smartphone. Would Lucas, Musk, Gates stop creating if their phone pings? They turn the thing off. They put it in a different room, space. They mastered what they mastered by being dogged. They didn’t work on the surface, they dived into what they loved. Nothing distracted them.
And what happens when you do this?
You might be seen as a weirdo, like the black sheep I mentioned earlier. “What do you mean you want to repair old cars on the weekend? But you’re not getting paid to rebuild old cars.” “Your three hundred and fifty page novel is more important than going to the beach?”
Nobody who ever created anything to a high level has ever been seen as “normal”, while they were trying to get their creation off the ground, and even afterwards. When we were starting our retreat in the middle of nowhere nearly two decades ago, people thought we were mad.
“You’re crazy. You don’t speak French.”
“What do you know about the hospitality business, about composers and artists and directors?”
“You’ve no family or friends there. Nobody you know.”
It’s only now that people see our retreat as a success, after the fact.
You have to stay focused. Don’t let people make you think you’re selfish, ruthless. You’re not. You’re just being focused on your craft. You’re into what you’re doing, what you love.
DaVinci was a near recluse. He was compulsive. Did it stop him inventing, painting? Does Gates still look like a nerd? Yes. Did that stop him creating Microsoft, his foundation? Did wearing the same clothes every day stop Einstein coming up with the General Theory of Relativity? Flaubert was still living with his mother at the age of 35, hardly going out. He was obsessed with writing, or more, re-writing “Madame Bovary”.
To use a made up phrase found in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”: “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
So what if you miss watching TV and playing video games. So what if you stay up all night writing your screenplay while the kids are asleep. So what if you forget what time it is, where you are, when you’re creating something you love.
You focus because you have to. And because of that focus you put something out into the world that will benefit you first, by enjoying the process, and then your community, and hopefully the wider world.
How do you stay focused? One word: “No.” You can say it nicely.
“No, thank you. I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’ve got work to do. If you say “yes” to everything, you lose your focus. You have to prioritize.
Which is more important, to create, or to try to please everybody all the time? It doesn’t mean you have to say no to the most important things or people in your life. It means you have to know what or who are the most important things in your life.
For me, it’s writing and my family. I’m not perfect. I try to carve out time every day to write. I also try to spend time with my family, individually, and together. These are the most important things to me. I focus on them.
Also, focus can be fifteen minutes every day. It doesn’t have to be eight hours a day. Fifteen minutes adds up. To hours, to days, to weeks and months of creation. That’s how this book was written, over years. Writing in the car waiting for people. On planes, trains. On a hike. In the morning before breakfast. After yoga. During yoga. And with time, those fifteen minutes become very valuable because they give you time to really ponder, meditate on what you’re creating.
A good Australian friend of mine read a draft of one of my novels. He loved it. Yes, I was very happy. Until he got to the parts he didn’t love.
“What the hell is this?” he said. “You, you’re not focused! You’re jumping out of the bushes. You can’t do that. Stop. I want to read the story. I don’t want to read your beautifully written opinions or hopes for the planet and humanity. I’m a reader. I want to know what the hell is going to happen to the protagonist, not have a cup of tea with Fanning, who’s just jumped out of the bushes.”
He advised me to go over that chapter again. It went from nearly forty pages to seven. Ever since then, we call each other out, although 98% of the time it’s him calling me out, for bushjumping — when I lose focus, get in the way of what I’m creating.
You have to know how to hide yourself from your creations. The reader, watcher, client, buyer doesn’t want to know your life story — unless you’re writing memoir, non-fiction, or a book like this. They want focus. They want to buy, watch, use, read the thing you’ve created. The creative doesn’t care about your “opinion”, unless it’s in some way related to the work, the building, the painting, the software, the novel. They care about the protagonist, the colors, the movement of the building, the facility of the program, how much the business will make.
What can you do? We’re all blind a lot of the time to our own opinions. It’s part of the job. That’s why we need beta readers, focus groups, curators, editors, other creators to help us focus. We need feedback.
So, keep the non-essential behind the damn bushes, and remember, focus is not an eight hour work day. It can be as little as fifteen minutes a day. As long as they are fifteen focused minutes, every day.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an American writer and director, but as I always do I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
There is no prosperity unless there is discipline.
Ní bhíonn an rath, ach mara mbíonn an smacht.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.