campfire

In a 1982 interview, Brian Eno said:

My reputation is far bigger than my sales. I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself thinking that some things generate their rewards in a second-hand way.

This gets at such an important distinction: There’s work you enjoy, and then there’s work that makes you want to make work yourself. Work that invites you.

Clearly, there’s something about listening to a song like “Sunday Morning” that makes people want to pick up a guitar. Is it the clear and unpretentious style of Reed’s vocals? Who knows? One way or the other, it wakes the artist within.

Eno’s quote got me thinking about this curious and admirable quality. You see it in only a handful of practitioners in any given form of creative expression. There’s writing that warms the mind and spurs the imagination, and then there’s writing, however entertaining or engaging, that holds you at a distance and leaves you firmly in your seat. One is a conversation and the other is a demonstration.

“There are two kinds of geniuses, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians,'” the mathematician Mark Kac once wrote. “An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.”

I’m not a mathematician like Kac or a physicist like Feynman, but personally I would have lumped the latter in with Reed. Reading Feynman or listening to him talk has a way of making the process of understanding the natural world feel entirely natural. On an intellectual level, I know I wouldn’t be as good as Feynman even if I were many times better. He was a certified magician, no doubt. But he makes me feel like I, too, could pick up a piece of chalk and unravel a mystery of the universe or two. And he certainly led countless young people into the sciences.

Is there a word that means the opposite of “gatekeeper”? We should all aspire to be that thing.

Bertolt Brecht believed that an artist has a responsibility to alienate the audience. Not to annoy them, but rather to keep them continually aware of the artifice involved in the work. To bring their attention to the mechanics, the underlying thought process. Breaking the fourth wall, for example, or changing the set in full view of the audience—alienation wakes people up to the reality. You are experiencing a work of art. Someone made this with intention. This Verfremdungseffekt was intended to keep people objective, allow them to judge the work instead of being swept away by it as Wagner’s operas could. But it also, in my experience, has the effect of making you want to put on a show yourself.

I don’t have all that much interest in seamless writing. It leaves me cold. Give me writing that reveals the writer’s process, the brushstrokes and chisel marks, work that reveals the trick even as it’s performed and erases the line between artist and audience. Ultimately, we’re all fellow travelers, looking at the same stars, telling stories around the same campfire.