“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the one thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
—The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’m about halfway through re-reading this. I’d forgotten how British it is. I’d remembered it dimly as straightforward Arthurian legend—Disney adapted The Sword in the Stone from the first part of it—but it’s actually more anachronism than chronism. Funny, fierce, odd, tragic.
Three-quarters of the quirky contemporary references must have gone completely over my head when I first read it at eleven or twelve. At the time, I just blasted through paragraphs of stuff I didn’t understand to get to the action. My son does the same thing now when he reads. It’s amazing how easily kids are able to extract story from all the messy and confusing bits surrounding it. Today, I’m getting maybe half of White’s embellishments on Le Morte D’Arthur—I’m not caught up on 1950s English cricketers or politicians, for example.
Anyway, I share the quote because I find it reassuring. I just turned forty and it’s coloring my thinking. While my ability to work with words relies on a set of practiced skills I consciously employ, the larger part of what I do each day feels subconcious, cognitive, instinctive. The Muse. The thing that’s either there or it ain’t and there’s nothing I can do but show up and hope.
Nowadays my Muse is vocal and reliable. A steady writing habit helps. Over time, of course, the old engine will sputter and grind to a halt. I may not outlast that part of me altogether, but I have to accept that my powers of invention will fade with my overall cognitive capacity. As Merlyn points out above, however, even as my natural spark ebbs away over the decades, I should, barring unforeseen medical conditions, continue to be able to learn even after my talent goes. It helps, knowing that. It’s always been more about the reading than the writing for me.
How long will I still be able to work at a level I can accept? It puts me in mind of the proverbial judo sensei whose muscles have atrophied with age but whose mastery of technique allows her to throw people half as old and twice as large. You get more efficient with experience. I can only hope that the effort I invest in technique offsets the loss—gradual, but already apparent—of short-term memory and other concrete cognitive strengths.
Every time I have to spend an extra moment searching for a unique way to convey something, I can’t help but, you know, um…
We recently watched Come Inside My Mind, the new HBO documentary about the life and career of Robin Williams. Truthfully, I never enjoyed Williams’s standup. Watching him in that context made me nervous, like watching a high-wire act in a second-rate carnival where you aren’t completely sure things won’t end in tragedy. Clearly, he felt compelled to stay on the edge, wandering away on wild riffs and then, with amazing frequency—but not always—landing. He always felt the need to test his spark, to make sure the fire was still burning. Though Williams trained at Julliard and possessed technique in spades, he didn’t want to rely on it.
One moment from the documentary sticks with me: In 2001, a subdued Williams appears on Inside the Actors Studio. This is well into Williams’s later period, the decline that began in 1998 with movies like Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, right after his last clear artistic triumph in Good Will Hunting.
On stage, host James Lipton essentially challenges him, wondering out loud whether he’s still able to work his improvisatory magic at will. Visibly gathering himself, Williams lurches into an extended riff in the grand old style. It’s forced, but still remarkably sharp. You can see the pleasure in his face when he sticks the landing and the audience applauds.
That the magic hours are limited, that one’s talent burns for only so long in life: this is what makes all vital artistic output so precious. All the more reason to get your butt in the chair and prepare to gather what arrives regularly. What comes today won’t wait until tomorrow.