(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)
“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” Paul Cezanne
Last night I attended the Mendocino Music Festival’s third orchestral concert of this year’s festival, my wife a cellist in the most excellent orchestra. The second half of the program was Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a massive work that lasted more than an hour. The third movement of the four-movement symphony was especially moving to me—the glorious music swamping my psyche and catalyzing several epiphanies about the novel I’m currently writing.
In the program notes written by Marcia Lotter, a fine local violinist, she wrote that the failure of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so depressing to Rachmaninoff that he was unable to compose anything for ten years, and it was only after successful hypnosis, during which the hypnotherapist implanted positive thoughts about composing in Rachmaninoff’s subconscious, that the great genius was able to resume composing.
“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Aldous Huxley
When I lived in Berkeley a decade ago, I was, among other things, a babysitter specializing in taking care of children from two in the afternoon until their parents got home from work after five. Favorite babysitting activities included gardening, drawing, taking walks, making fruit smoothies, reading, story telling and playing the piano.
I frequently oversaw two five-year-old boys who were close friends, and one of our favorite things to do was take turns playing my piano for each other and responding with our playing to what we had just heard the other person play. Our music was entirely improvised; atonality and redundancy perfectly okay, with banging the only thing we agreed to keep at a minimum.
These two boys and I enacted our round robin piano concerts fifty times over the course of a year, and one of the boys prefaced every single one of his turns at the piano by saying, “I’m not very good.”
No matter how many times I and the other boy responded to this child’s music with genuine appreciation and applause, he would begin his every turn at the piano with, “I’m not very good.”
One evening I was having supper with this boy and his parents, two smart, funny upbeat people, and after the meal the boy’s mother requested I play a few tunes for them on their piano. I did so, and then the boy’s father said to the boy’s mother, “Play something, honey. How about that Bach you’ve been working on.”
She went to the piano, sat down on the bench, and before playing said, “I’m not very good.”
“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones
Most American artists and writers, even famous successful ones, struggle with feelings of failure and inadequacy. The universality of this struggle speaks volumes about our punitive and hierarchical society and the endemic antipathy to original self-expression, not to mention the lack of understanding of art as a practice that is not inherently about the creation of commercial artifacts.
“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Albert Schweitzer
Long ago, before the advent of personal computers and PDFs and Word documents attached to emails, I spent three of my fifteen years in Sacramento writing an epic poem in the form of a novel entitled Two Rivers. When I finished typing the final version, I made a dozen photocopies of the giant thing, gave them to friends and began work on my next novel. Over the course of the next few years, two valiant literary agents tried and nearly succeeded in selling the book, but ultimately Two Rivers was never published.
A decade after completing Two Rivers, having moved to Berkeley, I went to visit old friends in Sacramento and ran into a photographer I admired but did not know very well, and he asked with some urgency if I would accompany him to his studio. We went to a part of town that in former times had been an industrial area but had long been abandoned by the time I moved to Sacramento in 1980 and remained so until I moved away in 1995. Now the area was a thriving enclave of artists and entrepreneurs, with once derelict warehouses refurbished into studios and galleries and cafés and performances spaces. On a huge lot at the heart of the new mecca was the photographer’s spectacular two-story studio and gallery.
“I bought this place nine years ago right at the start of the renaissance around here,” he explained, walking me through the gallery space and out onto a brick terrazzo surrounding a large fountain burbling away in the bright sunlight. “I couldn’t afford to buy this place now in a million years, but it cost me next to nothing nine years ago.”
“Fantastic,” I said, dazzled by the sight of two red and green parrots perched on a towering cactus.
“I decided to buy this place after I read Two Rivers.” He turned to me and smiled. “I got the manuscript nine years ago from a friend of a friend of your friend Bob. I read it twice without stopping and I’ve read it two more times since. I keep waiting for it to get published but…”
“Never will,” I said, remembering little about the book. “Too dark, too crazy.”
“Yeah, but that’s what helped me get down to my shit, down to what I’d been afraid of my whole fucking life. There I was. You wrote me, man. When Carlo jumped into the river and was drowning and Madman saved him, I swear to God it felt like he was saving me. And when Carlo crawled out of the river, I was changed. Bought this place the next day, stopped taking pictures of dog food and office products and never looked back.”