Back in the waning days of the Coolidge Administration, I was but a young lad training to be a Shakespearean actor in London. We were taught by a man who presented himself in a way that suggested God decided to see just exactly how brilliantly quirky, quirkily brilliant and eccentrically, quintessentially ENGLISH a theater artist He could make, and then afterwards worried He may have overdone it.
Anyway, he was amazing. Among the many gnomic pronouncements he improvised one day was after an actor had performed a monologue that she obviously felt had gone horribly wrong (in all fairness, we all sorta did), one has stuck with me above all others. As he deployed the unique British super power of devastating her with impeccable manners, she began to cry. To his credit, he did a very un-British thing when faced with an embarrassing display of emotion: rather than set the premises on fire and change his identity, he looked at her with great sincerity and sympathy and said, “If it’s any consolation, I find perfection in art quite boring.” When I offered that we must be among the most fascinating actors he’s ever watched, his howls of laughter were far less gratifying to me than I would have hoped.
Anyway, at the time I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant. I think I understand it better now. Keith Jarrett, as you probably know, is a world famous pianist. I vaguely knew that, as my relationship with jazz is, at best, fraught. What I didn’t know was that his most famous album, the Koln Concert (1975), considered a masterpiece, was the result of profound imperfection. Jarrett was by all accounts quite exacting in his work environment. He would only play on a certain brand and model of piano. Due to a mix up, the piano he was given to play was the right manufacturer, but the wrong size, out of tune, especially in the higher registers, and several keys simply didn’t work. Jarrett, understandably horrified, refused to play, and walked out. The woman (a teenage girl, really) who organized the concert, chased after him in the rain and begged him to play. Looking at this poor, soaked, shivering young woman was too much for Jarrett. He relented and performed.
Suddenly confronted with an instrument that deeply limited his musical options, he was forced to play in a style utterly out of his usual routine. It’s considered one of the great nights in jazz piano history, and cemented his reputation.
As a writer, I know I have patterns. I have a bag of tricks that I have consciously and unconsciously accrued over the years that I use in what I hope is a craftsman-like way. But that’s optimistic of me. What they do, even when they manage to work, is inhibit me, digging my grooves into ruts. As a writer, I spend most of my time banging my head against the ceiling of my limitations. What I fail to take in to account at times is that some of these limitations are self-imposed. What were once unique but hopefully interesting tics in my style have corroded into clichés. The problem is, it’s very hard to spot them on my own. The more I write, the more I risk digging those ruts deeper and deeper.
All of this is to say, in writing, and maybe elsewhere in life, having the occasional roadblock put in your path may have its advantages. It may force you to think differently than you have before. And as someone whose patterns of thinking haven’t always yielded boffo results anyway (for example, my choice to use the word “boffo” just now), it’s probably worth the risk on occasion.