Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
If a Moment
I once watched a composer work on a new piece. He sat before the piano, a pencil in one hand, an open notebook filled with scribbles on his music stand. I was a distance away, far enough to be inconspicuous, while he played a series of keys. Although I don’t have the ear to tell you the actual notes, it was the same sequence of three, again and again, along different octaves. He would play one, two, three, then scribble for a bit; play one, two, three, then scribble some more, his attention fixated on uncovering just the right melody. There was a curious determination in his posture, in how he bent forward to hear, almost shoving the sound into his ear.
On more than one occasion I’ve also watched a painter fiddle with a canvas—add a splash of color, light some object, move a section—without any specific objective. What the canvas reveals, I have learned, isn’t known beforehand; the complete picture is the consequence of brushstrokes and inspiration and discovery. Each stroke triggers another stroke, and the tiniest dab of color in one spot prompts an adjustment somewhere else, a bit like how moving a single rock in a river creates ripples along both shorelines. If a painter has a plan, it is loose, elusive, not constrained by precision, and almost circular: the process of applying paint onto the canvas affects decisions of how the paint is applied.
And a few years ago I spent the morning with a photographer while he took shots around New York City. The rough goal was to capture a little atmosphere, some clear and recognizable images of the city, each one a ten to fifteen second film, which could be spliced into a television show between narrative scenes. Although there were a few specific places that he needed to film, the work was loose, the exact frame determined by the situation at the moment—the passing crowds or cloud cover or peculiarity of an intersection. At dawn he caught the sunrise over Manhattan from the Brooklyn waterfront—a shot that you’ve surely seen in many films—and then, as the day progressed, he moved north through the city, around Midtown, along the park, into Harlem, each shot a consequence of the events at a particular moment.
There’s nothing too surprising about a composer discovering the right notes by pressing the keys, about a painter uncovering the image with brushstrokes, or about a photographer finding the shot while looking through the viewfinder. Quality art is often contingent, it seems, on the artist seizing and then amplifying just the right moment, and that usually requires a rather monomaniacal focus. What’s fundamental, for many artists at least, is to capture the sensation at the time when it all comes together: when there’s a sudden harmony in the tone and pitch of piano keys, when the colors on the palette finally match the vision, when there’s that instantaneous recognition that the camera has just the right frame.
But if art is going to emerge organically during the act of creation, then the artist can’t be too wedded to any single outcome beforehand, and must, instead, be prepared to harness the moment when it arises. The opposite—too much planning, a fixation on a goal—almost certainly guarantees that the unexpected will be missed. So the trick is vigilance, the steady and relentless search for the right sensation during the work, which might be a pulse, a vibration, perhaps a shiver, that ignites a creative drive—and is the moment that must be captured.
Of course the conditions for this spark can be cultivated—there’s not much use in expecting furor poeticus to do all the hard labor. Perhaps one distinction between renowned artists and everyone else just might be the ability to cultivate those conditions, as hardly anything worthwhile comes from sitting around and waiting for an epiphany.
In my writing, I typically have a vague, uncertain trajectory in mind, one that pushes me forward but that isn’t too certain about the destination beforehand, and I’ve found that this, for me at least, seems to work best. Exploiting the fortuitous moments that arise on the page feels crucial to creation—and it requires me to maintain a certain looseness, or lightness, so that there’s room for the unexpected.
To discover an unexpected ending at the bottom of a page is also one of the more rewarding aspects of playing with words, and I’ve learned, too, that these unexpected endings are what readers typically find most notable. But they only emerge if I leave a little space for the fortuitous in my sentences—which means that I can’t be too didactic, too targeted, too devoted to any one route. Sometimes I may have a specific target in the distance, but the actual writing feels almost like sailing, in that I’m not quite sure how I’ll tack with the wind to reach my destination. Although this may appear a tad elusive, there’s nothing inherently spooky about the process, though it does resist rigidity. I can’t force or twist it into a mechanical system, just as I can’t schedule my epiphanies.
What I can do, however, is immerse myself in my sentences while I write, and keep my attention on the aesthetics and lyricism and coherence of each word, so that the end of one sentence cascades into the next. If I am faithful to my own sensations in these moments—and manage to ignore absolutely everything other than that single beacon—then it is pretty much a guarantee that my overall trajectory will drift toward the unexpected with each new sentence, and that I won’t be able to predict the endpoint in advance, just as I can’t predict exactly what I’ll say more than a few words ahead when I speak. Whether the result will be good, effective, pleasurable, even sensical, is a completely different topic, though the result will at least be my attempt to faithfully capture my sensations at a precise moment—which can, somehow, occasionally, begin to approach what might be called art.