I have to consider the possibility that all this writing I do is driven by a compulsion similar to what I regard as my graphomania, a sometimes uncontrollable urge to make marks on paper. I write that sentence not to castigate or judge myself, but to view myself for a minute as others, untroubled by a need to set their thoughts and feelings down clearly in words, must sometimes view me.
Put it this way, you can tell a complicated story to a friend who is quite interested in what you are talking about and they will always hear you out. That same story, set out in 1,500 words, might well be unbearable for them to read. Why is this insane bastard sending me this long section of his obsessive personal diary? This insane bastard sings like a bird, why doesn’t he perform in a coffee house instead of madly singing to me? We have coffee houses and clubs for singing birds, why is this bird sitting on my shoulder and singing directly into my ear? Ewwwww…
Years ago, when I drew a lot, everywhere, somebody sitting next to me on the subway would from time to time ask me if I could always draw. They sometimes seemed to be looking for a tip about how to draw. I used to tell them that I always loved to draw, though I wasn’t especially good at it when I started, though I always found it great fun. If you love something you will keep doing it and it’s natural that you’ll get better and better. The love of the thing will keep you delighted to do it. The delight will keep you at it and your mastery of the thing will improve.
I have often thought of this in regard to other things. When you strike a note on a guitar, if you love the sound of the guitar, you will notice there are different ways to sound the note. There is a great pleasure in this discovery. If you strike the note with the soft pad of your finger the note has one sound, kind of round. Think of the great bossa nova guitarists. If you strike the note hard with a pick, your finger immobile on the note, you get a certain sound, you can also “attack” softly with a pick. The kind of pick, hard or flexible, influences the sound of the note as does the gauge of the strings. In addition to picking the note, you can hammer the note on, you can pull off to get another note. If you fret the note below where it naturally sounds on the fretboard and bend the string up to it, you get another sound entirely, a singing sound. You can bend the note one whole step, as blues guitarists and rock stars generally do — one distinct sound, or you can bend the note up a half step, as Django used to, a much different, and playful, sound. There are also countless microtones you can stop on as you bend from one tone to another. Mr. Clapton is a master of this, as is, more notably perhaps, and more masterfully, Mr. Beck, Jeff Beck. There is vibrato, plucking, tapping, fast picking, sliding a la glissando, harmonics, all kinds of ways to play a note.
All to say, if you love a thing, it is not work to learn more about it, to study it, to be so compelled that the thing itself is of infinite value to you.
I appreciate, more deeply than I can say, that in a robustly commercial society where all real value is monetary (and an unmonetized space, like the ad-free hold time of a business phone call, is a sadly wasted space, to those who love monetization above all else) what I have said above makes absolutely no sense. A psychologist may agree that in terms of stress reduction, or increasing self-esteem, daily engagement in activities you do well and enjoy greatly are ‘mastery exercises’ that have mental health benefits to the individual. Don’t found your life on them, mind you, but they have a certain value.
Found your life on your love of them at your peril, friends. You may find yourself with excellent control of pencil, pen and brush, able to “kill an edge” with great precision in a way that will impress your friends if they are watching. There used to be an ad on matchbooks “learn to drive the big rigs, flash a big bill-fold and impress your friends!” If you’re doing it to impress your friends, I completely understand. Who am I to opine about what motivations are more noble or laudable than others? As a teenager I deliberately set out to master a little piano, which I taught myself from what I knew on guitar, to impress girls. It once actually worked! She sat on my lap as I played Beatles songs with my arms around her, and the rest, a veritable magical mystery tour.
I sometimes imagine the electronic book of my life. It would be lavishly illustrated, with some of the millions of images I continually make with no purpose except love of making the marks. My desk is continually overflowing with them. It is horrible in a way, this profusion of useless but largely beautiful debris. I would select a hundred compelling images and put them in the colorful book. I would take a hundred pages of my best writing, maybe two hundred, place them between the pictures. Since the technology is there, I’d add sound files, with some of the music I have come up with over the years. You’d be happy to buy it. You’d love it, if you were the right kind of person.
I try not to judge, though I am often unsuccessful in this. People have very different experiences and expectations of life. My own are eccentric in the eyes of many people, I realize that. It comes with dancing to your own idiosyncratic rhythm section.
I love reading well-written history books sometimes. I love Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a masterpiece. She writes, about the assumption, in the Jerusalem court that tried him for his enormous bureaucratic crimes, that Eichmann was a normal middle class German of his time:
They preferred to conclude from his occasional lies that he was a liar — and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case. Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.” This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape. (p.27)
As for the title of this post, real writing, at its best, makes you stop to wonder. It changes, even for only a moment, how you think and feel and makes you consider your own life and the world around you in a different way. It is wonderful shit.