art Musings writing

Get Inside the Sound

Today’s post is adapted from an essay I started a few years ago and recently rediscovered. I hope you enjoy it. It definitely gets at some of the struggles I have creating.

“Get inside the sound,” said the leader of the African drum group. Fifteen of us sat inside a room in the local art museum/ ex-public school, goatskin head drums between our legs. He said if you really hear the sound, enter it, imagine that you are it, the miraculous thing is that that’s what comes out the other end. The sound you imagine is the sound you hear.

It’s a good technique to psych yourself into flow, it’s at the very least a good first step, but my instinctive reaction is, “If only.”

When I talk naturally and confidently, I hear a fairly determined, mid-pitch, slightly gravelly, and altogether neutral voice, almost a TV announcer’s; friends hear a high voice with something approaching a lisp or an accent.

At the computer I fare better, because in an art like writing, there are plenty of opportunities to approach your work with fresh eyes. But even when you’re trained, talented, and experienced at any form of self-expression, the leap from your vision to the audience’s is a risk.

For me, writing, there’s always some initial spark of an idea, an emotion or two with a few half-forgotten facts like a lost dream or a word you can’t quite remember—rather like Coleridge’s supposed opium dream of which “Kubla Kahn” is the attempted record. This fleeting flavor is one of the very first things I want to convey. I try to climb inside the feeling, call it back, then extract some objective correlative, in the words of T.S. Eliot, from my uncooperative imagination.

When I feel I’m succeeding it’s one of the most ecstatic things I experience. When someone else captures enough of my “feelings,” I am, fairly or not, a fan for life.

But then the hard parts begin. Trying to discover whether I have communicated any of the specificity of my experience, or whether – as happens often enough – I’ve just written the same thing I always write, or something entirely unexpected, and the initial conception is left floating between my mind and the screen.

It’s an elementary mistake to hold to the naïve faith that what you feel is what others see.

Scientists describe how theory of mind, the realization that others have a point of view, develops in two-year-olds, but they know that it’s only partly true. Highly intelligent adults routinely fail basic tests of theory of mind—it’s easy to feel you’re the only real person at any age. Experiencing your writing as if you were reading it, not writing it, is extraordinarily difficult—for me, at least. Even harder is modeling how other people will experience it—not only do they have an outside perspective, but that perspective is shaped by a million variables of biology and experience that you will never know more than a fraction of, and there are so many people.

Fortunately, there’s language. French, Swahili, English, Russian—but also (this, I think, is the “soft postmodernism” that can be salvaged from the “hard postmodernism” that says EVERYTHING IS LANGUAGE! EVERYTHING!) musical, artistic, cultural. The clothes someone wears, the key in which a symphony is written, and the tropes in a story all say something beyond themselves. Your life, your experience, and your self-concept fall into that language—at least partly. (Some of those theorists would say these things do entirely. I am fairly sure this is nonsense.) 

Much of the best art, and the best interaction, is a continual, conscious, virtuosic dance between your own point of view and its reception, an exercise of skill as well as sincerity, between having a true point of view and realizing that other true points of view exist. 

But some of the best moments in life and art are the ones in which skill breaks down, you get inside the sound, and, by some miracle, that is what reaches someone else.

In personal news, I’ve submitted some poems to six journals! I may, if I have it in me, try to submit new poems to new journals once a month from here on out.

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