Saturday, February 5, 2011

Finishing Touches

 The athlete puts forth energy, efforts to challenge muscle strength and suppleness in physical performance.  The musician maintains a constant relationship--a virtual marriage--with one or more instruments, all the while keeping an ear tuned to the characteristics of tonality.  The actor rehearses lines while investigating the nuances of character to be portrayed.  The angler "reads" the stream or creek for signs of which insects may be abroad, thus influencing the choice of bait.  The painter sketches and "reads" for gradients of light.  The photographer is alert for the potential of exciting images and for the shifting nuance of light.

And so the respective Process of each matures.

These observations are recognizable for their simple-minded reduction, yet all the above practitioners do in fact resort to some basic form of maintenance to keep their abilities honed.  What of the writer?  What should the writer do to continue the growth process and fend off the atrophy of complacency?

You read.  You write these vagrant notes to yourself.  You begin projects, often with no hope of finishing them, an approach to writing you have come to regard as important in its way as involuntary breathing is important to life.  There are no guarantees you will finish even when you set out with a reasoned conclusion in mind (or somewhere).  At length, Life will continue without you, but that is no reason for you to give up on the process nor to think of life as being defined by such convenient benchmarks as beginnings, middles, and endings.  Franz Schubert may or may not have intended to finish his work we know as his Unfinished Symphony.  Mozart is believed to have pushed himself to completing his Requiem before death came visiting.  Any number of men and women pushed themselves beyond what we consider endurance to finish a project, but in our conventional wisdom, we are seduced into believing such efforts were for us, those unknown to the creator.  You stand up to call bullshit on that notion; these men and women were riding the high of being engaged in their work; they were not thinking of us, they were in the work, part of it, away from the awareness and effects of whatever it was that brought them down to their death.  As you read with some eagerness the pages of Edward Said's last work, On Late Style, you came to the conclusion that Said had indeed not been able to finish, what we have instead is a presentation of intermediate draft, of more notes than final text.  This awareness produces admiration once again for Said, but also has caused you to think what a remarkable project it would be to "get" more arguments for late style, the products of mature process, down on paper.

As a younger writer who was in a real sense getting on-the-job-training by being paid to write interviews and profiles, you interviewed a thirty-six-year-old ballerina the morning after she'd done the lead in Swan Lake.  You met her at eight in the morning, at a studio, where she'd been at the barre for at least half an hour.  When she spoke to you, she dispelled any notion you might have had about her working through exercises as any sign of devotion to her art.  "This kind of work allowed me to do what I did last night, true enough, but the simple fact is, if I did not do it, I would not be able to walk later this afternoon when it would be time for lunch."  For a few moments, you wanted to marry her, so tangible was the sense that she was in so deep into her craft.  You think of her from time to time, ratifying her inclusion on your list of persons who do for the sake of doing in a way that has nothing to do with numbers of success or flipping off the personification of Failure, rather doing it for whatever endorphins manage to squeak out.

It is splendid to finish something; you are all in favor of finishing things, the consequence being you intend to live beyond any concept you may have of your own late style, and into that world where, as you hang out with peers and the conversation drifts into aches, pains, and slowing down, you with polite resolve remove yourself from the surroundings and begin wondering if there is something and some Siren out there that will lead your energy and thought away from vectors of conclusion, into the warm light of curiosity.

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