Gentle reader: When was the last time you lost yourself completely in what you were doing? Before we proceed on this line of enquiry, I must caution you that this post contains cussing words. The language, if you will, of the streets.
The purest moment of creativity is the one from which you’re most absent. Creativity can take you out of yourself. Acquired skill becomes muscle memory and inspiration and expression meet and flow in perfect confluence. The unconscious mind appears to take over completely.
I came across the most wonderful evocation of this feeling the other day, via a tweet from pianist James Rhodes. Rhodes shared the following passage from the book Body and Soul, by Frank Conroy (a book which is now on my to-read list, and which Amazon tells me tells of a 1940s"child prodigy whose musical genius pulls him out of squalor and into the drawing rooms of the rich and a gilt-edged marriage.“):
"Once you get to a certain point you can sort of forget your hands. It becomes mental, in a way. You go into a kind of trance of concentration, imagining what it’s going to sound like, feeling it in your head, and somehow that’s exactly what happens. It feels almost like magic. It feels so good sometimes you can hardly stand it. I mean, you know you’re playing and there’s a resistance, you’re pushing against it harder and harder, and then you break out into the clear. Just like that you’re through and there’s no resistance and you just sail along and it’s like pure thought turning into pure music.”
I love this description of “a kind of trance of concentration.” I know this feeling of breaking out into the clear well.
For me, listening to music can induce something like this kind of trance. It seems only right to share here the stunning, the godlike Out of this World, by John Coltrane.
But as much as I love listening to music, as much as music often feels like it really should be the real world (moreso than the drab and unfair place “stoopid reality” – as Homer Simpson once dubbed it – can sometimes prove to be), making music is beyond me.
There is no way I will ever be a musician. Gentle reader, I have tried. A bit. The results were not good. On guitar, I can just about manage to do bloody and unspeakable musical massacre unto the first two chords of Space Oddity by David Bowie. With ultimate concentration and fingers clumsily contorted, I can just about try (and fail) to make a stab at the perhaps less-than-complex opening notes of A Forest by The Cure.
It sucks. But at least I find myself in good company here. In Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry writes of his own anti-talent (to borrow a Martin Amis phrase) for music making. Testify, brother:
“I can’t so much as hum ‘Three Blind Mice’ without going off key. I can’t stick to the rhythm of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ without speeding up. I can’t fucking do it. […] I’m not even tone deaf, that’s the arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank of the thing. I’m not even tone fucking deaf. I’m tone dumb.”
The joys of making, composing (or yes, even humming) music are lost to me. But I frequently get the feeling described by Conroy as that of “breaking out into the clear” through writing. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to meet me in person, you’ll know I’m not exactly gobby. But where the right words often evade me verbally, when writing they just seem to flow out of the pen (or, right now, the keyboard).
My Twitter friend Ellison Bloomfield once said “I can write as easily as other people breathe.”* Now that is a feeling I understand perfectly.
Writing can be a trance that takes you out of yourself, both in terms of disappearing into the purity of the moment, and of expressing the you that you can’t express in other ways. Creativity can take you out of yourself.
What does “breaking out into the clear” mean to you? What takes you out of yourself?
* At least, I hope this is exactly what Ellison said. I tried to find her tweet, but couldn’t track it down. Ellison, if I’ve misquoted you here, please say and I will happily put it right.
- The image at the top of this page was taken and tweeted by my friend Kate Griffiths-Lambeth at the excellent IBM Smarter Workforce Summit in London the other day (Thursday 18 June 2015), and depicts the hands of your humble correspondent.