June 17, 2011

Friday Loveliness

So, I recently discovered Gel, which is very much like TED only weighted slightly toward the creative side. Fabulous stuff. They have smart, funny, intellectually authentic videos just like TED. Today I wanted to focus on one that blew me away.

I love it when you come across an brilliant mind and charismatic speaker whose ideas mesh so well with yours, especially when they are in a different field and able to say it in a new way. Yesterday, that fabulous dynamic person was Rob Kapilow, American composer, conductor, and music evangelist.

He starts by talking about Bird by Bird, that great book about writing by Anne Lamott. He extends its ideas to life. Your working hard getting nowhere in your writing, or in your life, and then something happens. He quotes Anne:

You find yourself back at your desk, staring blankly at the pages you filled yesterday. And there on page four is a paragraph with all sorts of life in it, smells and sounds and voices and colors and even a moment of dialogue that makes you say to yourself, very, very softly, “Hmmm.”

Then he says:

You’d had that sense that you’d come in contact with something important that resonated in some kind of fundamental way. I believe the ability to listen for the “Hmmm,” and more importantly the ability to act when something makes you go “Hmmm” is one of the most important abilities that you can possibly have.

This idea of his fits so well as an answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” (Which is kind of what Anne was talking about in the quote, but I’ll extend it a bit.) For me, I’m never at a loss for ideas. They come thick and fast, especially when I’m “in” my writing or tuned in to that frame of mind. For me, ideas come as Hmmm moments. Something will catch my attention, my emotion, my interest, and set my mind agoing. Before you know it, I’ve got a first sentence or the ideas spool themselves out into a character or a plot. An entry point and that “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” that creative drive and impetus and life. It catches hold and spins me, and is like the kneel Catholics give before entering the pew, a ritual that puts me into a certain state. This way I work fits so well with what Rob is talking about here.

But he goes on, wonderfully, beautifully. He does this amazing thing: he explicates what the experts hear and what moves them (in music). He tells a story about a great teacher Nadia Boulanger, who taught all the greatest composers of the twentieth century, who opened his ears so that he really listened. “There is both an enormous and an infinitely small difference between good and great. The difference is hundreds of small but inspired choices,” he says, and it is so true. And then he made it his mission to show audiences how to hear just as he had that epiphany, which he does regularly on NPR and through teaching.

Oh, oh! In writing, exactly the same thing. It’s so funny because when I was teaching Freshman Comp, every once in a while I would get these perfect papers with these eloquent turns of expression and perfect grammar. You would think that I would’ve jumped for joy, wouldn’t you? But of course I didn’t because this was plagiarism, and someone had bought a paper to hand in. I can see why it happened, but how could a person actually believe that I ~ or any writer/teacher ~ could mistake a professionally written paper from that of a freshman in college? It’s because, to them, they cannot sense the difference, but an expert can tell in the first sentence. That’s what Rob is trying to teach audiences, to sense the difference between good and great, to be able to understand what the composer and the arranger and the musicians were trying to communicate in the intricate and complex language of music.

And that’s what makes the difference between good and great in writing: hundreds of small but inspired choices. First you have to be able to tell that difference ~ which is where reading voraciously and commenting on peers’ work and mimicking the greats comes in. Then you have to implement it in your own work. (This is why I don’t understand people who want it to remain a mystery and can’t explain how they do things. Aren’t our tools words, and if you can’t explain what you’re doing, how can you possibly hope to explain the delicate colors of contaminated water or that look your partner gives you when you’ve broken his heart for the final time?)

He goes on and says many other great things. You should immediately go and watch it all the way through. But in the meantime, I wanted to make your Friday lovely with this ~ if nothing else, go to 17:50 on the video and listen to him playing the piano.

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