20 Percent


Today I woke with an increased level of stress and not just a little downturn on my emotional swing. On my way somewhere else, I stopped at the bay and tried to let it all just dilute into the morning breeze, burn off with the rising sun; but the internal grip wouldn’t let go. We’ve all felt this way. The sun had just surfaced and spilled some red-like/orange hue across the waves all the way to the break. Watermen in their deadrises had dropped anchor hours earlier, and a light-blue mist right then began to burn off. Beautiful, yes, but apparently not stunning enough to snap me out of whatever mood I was packing this morning.

So I turned on the radio, and on cue, right then, Marley’s “Redemption Song” came on, took a hold of all that had been bothering me, and cast them off. Gone

For an artist, the work of art is most beautiful before it is created; when it remains an inspirational spark, still predominantly driven by emotion, before the intolerable pace of creation starts. A work of art is, with a bow to triteness, the pit in the stomach, the lump in the throat. It’s the need to hold back tears at the way the sun clips the tops of trees just before dusk; the way someone does something kind for a complete stranger; the way someone you love sends a note at just the right moment reminding you of who you really are. An artist stands and absorbs these events to the point of saturation, then and only then will they return to a blank page or a canvas or a guitar and try to squeeze out every drop to share it with someone else, anyone else. But it’s never right. “You should have seen how beautiful it was before I started working on it,” they might say. For an artist, the measure between experience and creation is the ultimate example of, “You had to be there.”

Like this morning. More than the sight were the sounds. Some gulls off to the south feeding on something passing by, one-foot waves breaking on the beach, “Redemption Song” filling the spaces from behind me, the low hum of a diesel engine out on the water.

John Denver once said, upon being told “Annie’s Song” was the most beautiful song he had written, “You should have been on the ski lift with me when I wrote it; all my senses were alive and full!” Exactly. That’s the problem. We almost always leave eighty percent of those senses at the top of the mountain.

One thing most art forms have in common is their absolute focus on just one of the senses. For a writer, it is sight (or hearing if the work is read aloud). For a painter, sight; a musician, hearing; a chef, taste (though they’ll insist sight as well since “presentation” is part of the plan). We have five senses all working at once on the front-end, experience part of the work, before we attempt to translate that experience into a medium. This morning just before dawn I stood with the misty taste of salt on my lips and the coolness of the morning on my skin. Some of the sand worked into my shoes and the wet grains so familiar to me slid beneath my heel. I took off my shoes, climbed the slippery rocks and let the water work under my feet. I can still taste the salt, the slight hint of something like shellfish. I can describe the physical sensation, of course; anyone can. But imagine reading about it if you’ve never been to the beach. It reads like quite the annoying experience. It is a task to funnel experience into words which will be the solo gateway into someone else’s eyes and imagination. Thank God for imagination. Even now, my memory allows me to still see and feel and hear what happened, but the reader remains, and shall remain, only in the visual world. Words alone. 

We experience the pre-creation part of the work at one hundred percent of our senses, but we must communicate that work almost always at just twenty percent. It helps if the one we share it with has been to the bay, has ridden the ski lift on a crisp, sunny Colorado afternoon, but that more or less limits the audience. How can I translate the aroma of the sea to someone who has never been? I can smell some gas from the boats nearby, but more so the fresh catch of crabs and recently-dredged oysters in traps and baskets on the decks, and at low tide the gentle smell of brackish fresh and salt water in puddles in the mud of low-tide. The burden of experience is on the artist, then, to keep adding and subtracting until the work comes as close as possible to its point of origin. Point of fact: It never really gets there.

But some come close. For me:

Robert Frost’s “Birches.” Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night.” Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

As for emotion, I can write about death pretty well. It is a very visceral topic, and it is nearly impossible for a reader to not feel it with all the senses, but I always feel like that’s cheating, tapping into baggage the reader brought to the work. Some writers will argue that’s exactly what we should be doing. Okay, and there is certainly value in that definition of art which includes the ability to point at something that was already hanging in the air and entice others to take another look from a new perspective. Art has always done that; highlighted the values and breakdowns of society. It is all about perspective. Common ground always benefits the artist and makes the enjoyment better for those paying attention. It is why the modernists had so much trouble being accepted. That must have depressed the hell out of them. Maybe I’m a modernist. 

Every time I return to the senses I feel like I’ve hopelessly failed, and the mood drops and even Marley at just the right moment can’t help. It passes, of course, but perhaps that’s why I find myself more with the desire to live the art—wander through a forest or along the beach; stand waist deep in the water, looking for manatees, hoping for time to slow the whole thing down; sit on rocks on the coast of Connemara, drinking wine; climb to the top of a haunted lighthouse at midnight—more of a desire to be part of the art rather than attempt in any way to reproduce it for others.

In the end my strongest desire is always to say, “Come with me. See for yourself. Meet me at the rocks just before dawn. Come see for yourself a work of art none of us can ever reproduce.”


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