observations and opinion
If you write for a living, or simply write to live, you will on occasion enter what mariners call “a dead calm” – a spell without breeze, when the waters go still and your boat goes…nowhere. It happens without being seen or heard: the words stop crashing up against the inside of your head, the fingers don’t visit the keys. You fall still.
Why? How do you slip from relentless composing to silence? Do you have nothing worth saying? Or perhaps you do, but you just don’t need to say it. Or maybe, nobody is listening? Maybe the world needs to hear your voice and then, sometimes, it doesn’t. Maybe you’ve forgotten how to say it.
Perhaps this isn’t your problem, you think. But if we aren’t all composing words and music, we are all composing ourselves. We draw pictures of life the way we dream it, we see traits in others they may not see themselves. We all create something, even if it’s just love inside ourselves. We create the people we know and love – create them in our minds and hearts.
That doesn’t mean they’re not real: it means we are listening and watching, learning who they are. We shine our light on them and they are more clear to us. And to themselves. And they cast a far greater shadow than without us. To each other, we are the authors, the composers stringing notes along the laundry line, watching the wind snap the sheets clean and dry. We are the painters. And we not only create each other, we are also created.
But there are times when it feels as if nothing comes to us – not a sound, not a sense, not an idea of what is or may be. Sometimes we just float. But if it is one thing to have writer’s block in front of a piano, it is another to fall mute in front of life itself. Yet it happens: we enter the dead calm.
In Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” the effervescent and voluble Murray Burns (played by Jason Robarts) quits writing for a gruesome kids TV show. He explains to his sceptical, practical brother:
“I was sitting in the express looking out the window same as every morning watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded, not feeling great and not feeling rotten, just not feeling, and for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday… or a … for a minute it could have been any day, Arnie… sitting in the train going through any day… in the dark through any year… Arnie, it scared the hell out of me.”
Murray’s mind, unstopped from the soul deadening drudgery of modern working life, burbles with wit and truth. In the early hours, he delivers mock-sermons to his sleeping neighbours, pretending to be their camp counsellor. He’s funny, but even Nick – the nephew he has adopted as a son – has started to worry. As he tells the social worker:
See, lady, he was developing into a bum. I mean, you don’t want to see somebody you like developing into a bum and doing nutty things. You know what he does? He hollers. Like, we were on Park Avenue last Sunday, and it’s very early in the morning, there’s no one in the street, see, just all these big, quiet apartment houses; and he hollers, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball! Let’s snap it up!” And you know, sometimes, if we’re in a crowded elevator some place, he’ll turn to me and he’ll say, “Max, there’ll be no more of this self-pity. Now, you’re forty; it’s time you got used to being a midget!” And everybody stares. He has a wonderful time. What are you gonna do with someone who hollers like that?
But the gig is up for Murray: if he doesn’t get a job, the social workers will take Nick away. So Murray knuckles under and resumes writing for the execrable Chuckles the Chipmunk. In the last scene, stepping out on his way back to work, Murray stands in the street and “hollers” one more time to the neighbours:
Campers! The entertainment committee was quite disappointed in the really poor turnout at this morning’s community sing. I mean, where’s all that old Camp Chickawattamee spirit? I’m sure I speak for all of us here when I say that I…
Now, I’d like to say right now that… that…
Campers, I can’t think of anything to say.
When I was younger, the sight of Murray Burns in the middle of the street – groping for words, looking downcast and turning his shoulder to the wheel – struck me as tragic. But later, once I was less in love with drama and had fixed my own shoulder very squarely to the wheel, it was Murray’s straight-arrow brother Arnold (in Martin Balsam’s beautiful Oscar-winning performance) whose soliloquy sounded more like a credo for those who ride the rut every day:
I have a wife and I have children, and business, like they say, is business. I am not an exceptional man, so it is possible for me to stay with things the way they are. I’m lucky. I’m gifted. I have a talent for surrender. I’m at peace. But you are cursed; and I like you so it makes me sad, you don’t have the gift; and I see the torture of it. All I can do is worry for you. But I will not worry for myself; you cannot convince me that I am one of the Bad Guys. I get up, I go, I lie a little, I peddle a little, I watch the rules, I talk the talk. We fellas have those offices high up there so we can catch the wind and go with it, however it blows. But, and I will not apologize for it, I take pride; I am the best possible Arnold Burns.
“A talent for surrender” may not sound like much of a slogan (more an epitaph) but it poetically captures the necessary skill of learning to navigate the real world. You can’t sail without the wind and when it doesn’t blow your way, you’ve got to tack.
Listening to Arnold, it is evident he has much of interest to say about the world. Thing is, he doesn’t really need to say it. But Arnold could not be so sanguine if he didn’t know inside that he was the author of his own opus. His masterpiece is creating a life: moments of peace and fun and minor drama, Bat Mitzvahs and birthdays, modest profits and sunsets. Notes, strung together like laundry on the line, snapping in the wind, binding people together.
But this is a fragile creation. The artist may be able to stand back and stare at her painting, listen to fingers hit piano keys with notes that she composed, run her hands along the torso of the stone she carved. But life itself does not endure, and our idea of others – our great creations – at best morph into something within a vessel. And at worst, they break apart into pieces and dissolve, and all that remains is the mark they made upon us.
Elizabeth Ziman said this in her “Last Opus”:
Ziman conveys the loss of what she created through the one now departed. And most likely, she mourns the loss of what was created within her. Being an artist she traps the moment in amber (in song) so that, like a scar it can still be touched and seen. To remind her of who she was and what she lost.
Most likely we are all doing that too, composing our own silent songs. Each day is the opus we are never going to write again. We get up, we go, we lie a little, we peddle a little, we watch the rules, we talk the talk. Sometimes we just have to catch the wind and blow with it.
‘Cause it turns out campers, even if we sometimes we have nothing to say, we can still be the best possible Arnold Burns.