Monday Motivation: Who can tell the writer from the word?
I was listening recently to a programme on the radio in which musicians were talking about their relationship with their instruments. These were all professionals, leading violinists or cellists. They spent hours every day practising, perfecting their craft. And over time, they reported, they developed a relationship with their instruments that was both profound and a little strange.
Because, of course, a violin is “just” a carefully fashioned amalgam of wood and glue, of metal and string. It’s an inanimate object, after all.
And yet it becomes something more than that over time, as the artist who wields it learns its “moods” and its temperament. It responds to the seasons, to the changing weather. Its owner learns to accommodate himself to these minute changes, as one accommodates oneself to the changing moods of a friend.
In time, too, the instrument becomes an extension of the artist. One of the interviewees told of his anguish watching his violin being disassembled for necessary repairs. The moment that the craftsman sandpapered a section of the instrument was one of real pain.
A long time ago I made a documentary about the relationship between children and the music they made. It was inspired by my watching my son play his flute. I was aware that, after he’d attained a certain level of skill, he could immerse himself in the music he played, losing himself, as we say, in the playing.
Yeats was referring, I think, to the same phenomenon when he wrote in Among School Children:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
When we sink into the music we make, or the words we write, or the wood we fashion, we lose our consciousness of ourselves as the agents of our art. We become the thing we make. The dancer becomes the dance. How do we tell them apart?
And when we, as writers, find ourselves lost in writing, emerging minutes, sometimes hours later, perhaps, a little dazed, a little bemused, we’re aware that something special has happened.
Musicians call this “flow”.
I think that this merging of self and activity is not simply the preserve of artists or musicians, of writers or sculptors. I think it’s something that happens when anyone who has developed a skill of some sort employs that skill in creating something. I’m sure cooks experience this loss of self, as do gardeners, or surgeons, or accountants.
I say that we “lose” ourselves in what we’re doing – but in losing ourselves we gain a glimpse of something ineffable.
These moments of self-transcendence don’t guarantee that the work we produce is earth-shattering. We are, after all, always limited by the depth of our skills and talents. But I think that when you do experience the “flow”, you’re capable of producing your best work.