It sounds absurd. It cannot be true. But it is. It is the truth: The author of the book did not write the book. Neither did the sculptor of the statue sculpt the statue. Nor did the composer of the song compose the song.
I know this feeling. I have encountered it thrice.
In Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, his novelistic biography of Michelangelo, Stone imagines the great artist as an old man praying before his Pieta, which he sculpted some 60 years earlier. Stone has Michelangelo praying there and saying to himself that he did not sculpt this. It is independent of him. Now, as an old man, he can be inspired by it, as he is no longer entangled in it as its creator.
Michelangelo left many writings, including letters and poetry. I imagine that Stone heavily relied on them in reimagining Michelangelo’s life. I imagine there is something in those writings that substantiates Stone’s imagining the artist’s thinking when he came upon the Pieta decades after he sculpted it.
I imagine this because Michelangelo’s feelings were not unique. Nor were they a function of his age. It is not just when an artist happens upon his own work decades later that he may sense he really wasn’t the creator of the work. This feeling can occur simultaneous with the work’s creation.
Not just to Michelangelo. Over 500 years after he died, Peggy Noonan, in an essay on Bob Dylan, wrote essentially the same thing. I quote:
“Writers are often asked how they get their ideas, and the language with which they express them. The truth is they don’t know. Why did your mind yield up that thought in those words?
“Mr. Dylan doesn’t know where it comes from,” she writes.
She quotes Dylan speaking to historian Douglas Brinkely: “Sometimes you write ‘on instinct.’ Kind of like in a trance state. . . . The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
They write themselves.
It may sound weird, but it states a truth.
I have had this experience, especially on very long-term book projects that steeps me in the subject matter. With extended attention and concentration, I am writing the words, yet simultaneously I am wondering, “Who is writing these words? Where are they coming from?”
I bring them forth, yes; yet I am not doing so. I am a sieve, not a writer; a vehicle, not an originator. I am indispensable to the work, yet it is empty of me. Both.
If I think otherwise, if I let my ego take over my work, then the work dies. But the more I remove myself from my work even as I am veritably steeped in its creation, the better the work will turn out. The less me put into the work, the more the work will shine.
It is a paradox. The finer the writer’s product, the more the writer is removed from it. True enough, if there is no writer there is no creation, but if the writer — sculptor or composer — is too much present, there is no creation. It comes out artificial or hackneyed, a creation that no one will notice.
It works this way in any arena in which we are very deeply invested.
Take what many regard as the most powerful prayer during the most powerful Jewish season: Unesaneh Tokef. It includes this line, “You will open up the book of memories — and it reads itself.” The book contains the memories of my life, but I need not put myself into reading it. It reads itself.
Take a visceral, emotional connection to a particular symphony. I need not guess as to what comes next. I already know. It’s deep inside me, even before the notes are played. They’re inevitable. My musical emotions have a life of their own. If I try to figure them out, they die.
Take some conductors. They have trained the orchestra, which can’t get to where it needs to be without the conductor. But once it’s time for the performance, it’s not the conductor who’s making the music. Some could just as well walk off the stage and the music will come out the same.
This isn’t guessing. This is not the bottom of the ninth inning or fourth down at the one-yard line, when you don’t know what will happen. You can only guess. Creativity is different, since it is I who am the creator.
I need not be consciously present to see the creation through.
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