I don’t know what to do with all of your kind words. If I respond to your positive comments too specifically I will seem to be indulging in some sense of self-importance, which I would much prefer not to do. Let me approach things from a different angle: I suspect that there is a devious and convoluted strategy behind your insistence that you are a “naïve amateur” and a “bungler,” even if, on a conscious level, you are no more than a bystander to this strategy. Are you familiar with this story about Nasrudin and the hole? “Nasrudin was digging outside, and his neighbor asked him, ‘What are you working on?’ ‘Well,’ Nasrudin replied, ‘There’s a lot of excess dirt on the road, so I’m digging a hole to bury it in.’ ‘But what are you going to do with the dirt that you ’re digging out of this new hole?’ said the neighbor. ‘Hey,’ Nasrudin replied, ‘I can’t attend to every single detail.’” There is something very liberating about defining yourself as small rather than big, low rather than high, foolish rather than wise, and confused rather than certain of your direction.
I love this excerpt from your comment, which strikes me as very much the statement of a strategic amateur, who knows that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”: I have a curious relation to the 'void.' I find myself using the word a lot, and I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It’s like the God of the gaps, thrust in where I’m at a loss. The word just comes of itself, and I keep repeating it, like an obsessive rubbing of a rock until it becomes a stone. It’s like the Mecca Stone, worn into a concave and finally become the site of worship.”
As I said in The Snare of Distance, “If we humans cannot travel from one side of the omniverse to the other, it is perhaps because, at this point in the Kali Yuga, we have gotten much too big.” It just struck me that this was a rephrasing of the maxim that “It is more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” One of the secrets of creativity is, I think, to allow oneself to be taken by surprise. To see oneself as a perpetual beginner—or, more formally, to act with the Zen “beginners mind”—is a way to potentially maximize this result. Oddly, this strategy, whether consciously or not, can coexist with a natural tendency to perfectionism, and it may be one of the best and only ways to make this natural tendency bearable. Whatever one’s obsesssiveness, at some point one must appeal to a larger field of energy and intelligence, and these larger forces must be allowed sufficient breathing room if they are going to effectively go about their work.
When I was younger, I used to read a great many biographies and autobiographies about or by famous writers, painters, and composers, to see if I could disentangle the logic of their creative processes and perhaps find some way to imitate their example. If there was any common thread, it was perhaps a relative indifference to received opinion and a capacity to go deeper and deeper into the demands of their own creative process, that is, to allow the work itself to become the teacher. Here are a few of my favorite statements in this direction:
From Joseph Haydn: "As head of an orchestra I could experiment, observe what heightened the effect and what weakened it, and so could improve, expand, cut, take risks; I was cut off from the world, there was no one near me to torment me or make me doubt myself, and so I had to become original."
From Johann Sebastian Bach: “I was obliged to be industrious. Anyone who works as hard should get as far.”
From Pablo Picasso: “I do not seek; I find”
From Jackson Pollock: “When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”
From Hokusai: “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
And finally, here is another story about Nasrudin that you might get a kick out of:
Nasrudin Plays Guitar
Nasrudin was at the town square one day, and a group of people asked him if he knew how to play the guitar.
Nasrudin didn’t know how, but he replied, “Yes, I do. I am a masterful guitar player—in fact, I am one of the best in the world!“
The people, expecting him to make such a boast, immediately produced a guitar and asked him to play it.
Nasrudin took the guitar and started playing only one string, and continued to play only on that one string. After a minute of this, someone finally interrupted him and asked, “Mulla! Guitar players move their fingers and play a variety of strings. Why are you only playing one of them?”
“Well,” Nasrudin replied, “those players keep on changing strings because they are searching for a specific one. I found it on my first try—so why should I switch to another one?”