Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)

George Carlin: The Virtue of Dissatisfaction

I found myself yesterday, in a bathroom not my own, catching up on my reading. In this case, George Carlin’s Braindroppings was the toilet-tank offering. My gentle hosts may have been having fond flashbacks to the venerable comedian’s “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” days when they bought this. Carlin’s intelligence and quirky perspective are all on display here, but I’m not sure Wendy and Bernie knew how vulgar, and how downright misanthropic, Carlin can be. It’s dominated by a deeply angry, even despairing world view that I can’t quite get with, though there are some brilliantly caustic lines. He’s discouraged, but he makes a sour sort of fun of it. There should be a warning label.

That’s not the thing, though. In his introduction to the book, Carlin cites a gorgeous piece of the philosophy of Martha Graham, the great goddess of dance. He counters his own seeming conviction of the uselessness of hope by sharing Graham’s insistence on the importance of individual expression. So, from a sometimes pungent source (and I don’t mean Wendy and Bernie’s bathroom) here is today’s beautiful thing:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open….

No artist is pleased….[There is no] satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Here’s to openness. Here’s to living. (And to George and Martha — not the Washingtons — my odd coupling for today.)

Just Say NO to Reading

Readers are Leaders was one of the main mantras of my teaching career, and no doubt it also soothed me regarding the undeniable Rightness of my constant hunger for text. But one of my annoying little assignments along The Artist’s Way this week has been reading deprivation. In a life like mine, that’s not such a small thing, actually, and though it has been easy to slip into that mindless groping for typeface, I’ve been surprised by how much I like it. It’s a relief. It makes me realize (again) that reading is not some lazy-boy dodge for me but a ravenous, indiscriminate and chronically unsatisfiable quest. I highly recommend it to the reading-addicted.

“Readers are leaders!” I harangued my classes, but “put the book down and go DO something!” has been a regular jab at my hyper-literate sons and even, now, their book-snaky Dad. “They say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading!” That has long been one of my favourite quotes (I forget who wrote it), but it’s not quite so funny anymore. It’s been good to find new ways to live in the evening, and it wasn’t all Adventures in More Timely Housework (though I even enjoyed some of those). I finally repaired those loveseat cushions. You might say it was only packing tape, but it was Industrial Design to me!

Fumbling Toward Creativity

I’ve been working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, one of the most intelligent and illuminating personal development books I’ve come across. It’s an openly spiritual (and determinedly non-religious) take on the act of creation, and its message is simple: there’s a Creator, whatever you choose to call Him/Her/That; the world may be material but it is infused with spirit (and so are we); creativity is not some hoarded magic bestowed only on the few, but essential to human life and accessible by the many. The book asks a lot – it’s a 12-week program in “creative recovery” and there’s a lot of work involved in finding that free and open acceptance of our possibilities.

And Carol invited me to talk about art and spirituality at a meditative gathering she does in her home. We prayed, we talked about the forms and the importance that creativity takes in our lives – beauty, order, reverence, making, delight – and then we demolished gorgeously adorned trays of spirit-lifting goodies. Sweet. I’ll do that again, even if the food is not so smacktacular. “Tapping the Creativity Within” was our title; sounds like maple-syrup time. And it was, actually. I was suggesting that we need to provide an outlet for the sweet and juicy stuff that unceasingly flows from our spiritual roots to our intellectual (and hand-some) leaves. Nice. I like this image because it makes art something useful, delicious, natural. Sappy if necessary, but not necessarily sappy.