In the last week I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations.
I was at a book launch for a poetry collection last week. I won’t name the poet, since I fear my words might offend him, and I am uncomfortable offending folks. The organizer had arranged a panel discussion between poets and scientists, to discuss where the intersection set between them might lie. Someone in the audience asked about intuition and one of the scientists, who was also a professor, said he aimed to foster intuition in his students, and did so by training them in knowledge, since he believed a solid knowledge base was the fertile field of intuition.
I liked that, since my experience with writing has been just that — my ability to intuit what’s best for my characters and my plots, why this word works better than that one, springs from years of training. So I said so. I said that what the scientist/professor told his mathematics students is precisely what I tell my writing students.Practice, learn your craft, train your mind to observe the world as a writer so that when intuition breaks forth, you can recognize it and you know what to do with it.
Well, the poet didn’t like that. He jumped in, bristling, and said that training was the death of art and no artist should train (a word he spit through his teeth like a bad seed). All art, he said, was purely experiential and there was no room for such stultifying processes as training. He then went on to talk about seeing in “hyper-space” and how when he was thus transformed one eye looked into the “other realm” and one stayed focused on this world. He said you could see it, if you watched him on film.
I’m afraid he rather lost me there, and all I could think of was how when My Best Beloved gets tried, his left eye wanders. A bit lazy that eye, and its wandering is how I know it’s time for sleep. Nothing to do with “hyper-space” whatever the poet meant by that. However, I kept mum, since the poet seemed mightily grumpy on this subject and hadn’t asked my opinion anyway. Nor did I mention my impression that his poetry, frankly, could have benefited from a wee bit of training. (I suspect he’d think my prose would benefit from a wee bit less.)
So, that was one conversation.
The other occurred when My Best Beloved and I were in New York City over the weekend, and had lunch with my old friend, Ted Quinlan, and his partner Sandy. Ted is probably Canada’s foremost jazz guitarist (or Guitar God, as my 18-year-old godson calls him), and certainly someone who has trained in his art for decades.
We had a fantastic lunch at The Boathouse in Central Park, which has got to be one of my favorite spots in the city. The scallops, I must say, were the sweetest I’ve ever eaten. We sat at a white-clothed table right next to the floor-to-ceiling windows and gazed out on the semi-frozen lake, the boats (upturned for winter), the great granite rocks and leaf-barren trees . The rain pelted down and over lunch the ice turned to mush and then slate-ish water.
Since Ted and Sandy are Canadians here for a sabbatical year, we talked about what differences they’d noticed between Canadians and Americans. Naturally, we talked about health care, and agreed none of us could understand why so many Americans don’t see this as a human rights issue, and why they don’t seem to want everyone in their country to have at least basic health care. Mystifying. And then the talk turned to the news, or what passes as news in the US.
We talked about the crazy coverage of things like Tiger Woods marital problems, and the frantic, fear-mongering on some television and radio stations, and how unlike news coverage anywhere else in the world it is. Ted mentioned the whole “Balloon-Boy” fiasco and how Americans are fixated on these sensational stories.
“They even broke into regular programing for these updates,” Ted said. “It became one of those moments people will talk about later– ‘do you remember where you were when the Balloon Boy story broke?’ Like the OJ story years ago.”
And we talked about that, about how when reporters like Christiane Amanpour were desperately yelling for people to turn their attention to the genocide in Rwanda, no one could hear them over the roar of the OJ story. Tragic.
Ted recalled how he remembered exactly where he was when the OJ story broke. He was on stage in a club that had the television tuned to an American station and there was that now-famous white Bronco, heading up the highway, with millions of people watching.
Ted said, “And what’s weird is that although I remember the story so clearly, I don’t remember who was on stage with me, or whose gig it was. I just remember that image of OJ in the Bronco.” He shook his head. “I later figured it out. I was talking with my friend Mike, about how he didn’t remember who he was with, either. Putting the pieces together we discovered we were in the same place, playing together.” He blinked a couple of times and said. “I don’t know what that means… you know… but there it is.”
I thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, I think it means that the danger of a society saturated with these sensational stories is that it keeps your attention riveted to the screen, and away from what’s really important, what’s actually happening in your own life; it’s a kind of distraction drug — look over here! look over here! Don’t look at the important thing happening right in front of you! Look over here!”
Ted burst out laughing and said, “There you go! If you want to find meaning in something, ask a writer! That is your job, after all, isn’t it?”
What a lovely thing to say. Because that’s in fact what I believe my job is: to make meaning from our lives, our experience, our stories.
Now, I’m no smarter than Ted or Sandy or My Best Beloved. In fact, I might be far less intelligent than they are. But because I’ve trained my mind for years to look at things like narrative arc and symbolism and metaphor and so forth, it’s easier for me, in circumstances like this where stories are being told, to grasp onto an intuitive flash. That, in turn, permits me to craft meaning from experience.
It’s limited, of course. I get no intuitive flashes about say, engineering, or particle physics, or astronomy. Not that I wouldn’t love to… but that’s just not where my training lies.
So, with all due respect to the unnamed poet, I’m afraid I have to disagree. Training is important in any arena where one hopes to do well, from auto-racing to brain surgery to playing the jazz guitar, or to writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… writing is a practice, a way of living, and as such it requires attention, dedication, and yes, training. We train so that, when the intuitive flash arrives, we’ll know what to do with it, how to take it and form it into meaning; so we’ll have the appropriate tools at our fingertips, and the knowledge of how to use them. You just don’t get that by happenstance; it is a gift earned by attention and intent.
Intuition may well be an act of grace, which comes upon us unmerited, but in order to make use of its gifts for a purpose perhaps greater than my own mere pleasure, I need to train my skills, hone my abilities, and be humble enough to know it.