I will soon launch a monthly e-newsletter about creativity called Musing on the Muse. The preparations for this new project have triggered all sorts of images, ideas and memories all related to that central theme. It’s as if I’ve evoked for myself, the kind of “flow” that I hope Musing will trigger for others. I offer the following, from my off-line journal.1
1 It may be old-fashioned but I believe that the notion of boundaries between the private and the public are still essential. It’s not a question of propriety, but of letting one’s Muse (or one’s creative unconscious) know that it’s safe, that nothing will be shared unless it agrees.
In my earliest complete memory I ask my father to let me play with the “coughing saw.” I was two. That was what I called the coping saw. A small saw with a frame like a square with one side being a skinny flexible saw blade. I guess my father let me play with it because of the relatively little harm it could do. My father was happiest when he made things. Furniture. Simple pieces done without power tools, inspired by something he read in Popular Mechanics. A bench. A set of Adirondack chairs on which he painted hearts and clubs, diamonds and spades.
I got the message that shaping materials with your hands can either be full of pleasure or fraught with frustration. But I never managed to absorb any of my father’s skill with wood. As I grew, my impatience sabotaged any chance of getting measurements right, and by the time I got to high school woodshop, I hated anything to do with carpentry. I had no faith I could ever get two pieces of wood to fit together. It took me a lot longer to discover that it’s almost impossible to make something satisfying without faith.
Fortunately I went on to other forms. When I was 13 or 14, I discovered ceramics. The potter’s wheel. The first time I succeeded at centering a ball of clay on the spinning wheel, I felt something completely new. Anyone who’s ever thrown a pot knows that almost indescribable sense of sudden alignment, when the awkwardly spinning off-center mass between your hands at last composes itself around the invisible center . I found clay at a summer arts program for kids. I wasn’t much better at it then than I was at woodworking, but my father wasn’t there to have to measure up to. I did as well as any of the other kids, so I was free to explore the process on my own with no one to please.
One summer my father planted tomatoes. Everyone was surprised that this New York Jewish Broadway stage manager had it in him to grow a bumper crop of tomatoes that just kept coming all summer. Looking back, it doesn’t seem so strange. He put his hands to it. And his hands always knew so much more than the rest of him.
Around the same time, during the only three years of my childhood we owned our own house, he built me a playhouse in the half-acre of San Fernando Valley former citrus orchard that was our back yard.
I loved the playhouse. Mine! All mine. One day I decided to make something. I found an old radio some one had abandoned. I moved its tubes around and discarded some to make room for one of my several broken clocks in the innards of the half taken-apart radio. It was a Time Machine and boy, did I want it to work. Now, for some reason, my father had wired the playhouse with electricity and I felt compelled to plug in my Time Machine. Electricity was a kind of magic and plugging it in would have to make something happen.
It did. The radio started smoking and gave off an awful smell that burned my nostrils. At least I had sense enough to pull the plug.
After ceramics came oil painting and pen and ink drawing at the same camp. Then the making of things took a turn. I started playing guitar and what I made now was incorporeal: music. But still, it came from my hands. My father never touched a musical instrument, though he had sung parodic ditties in vaudeville amateur shows and stage-managed two or three Broadway musicals with Fred Astaire. So the guitar, like the clay and the paints, was all mine. Part of the world I made to which my parents could not gain entry. To have this world was terribly important. It was important to listen to music they couldn’t understand. Well before rock ‘n’ roll and the generation gap, when I was 14, in 1959, I discovered the Folkways series of archival recordings of Mississippi Delta Blues artists. The oldest, funkiest, blackest ones were the best, as far as I was concerned. Blind Lemon. Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Hurt. The funny thing was that I really didn’t like the music all that much back then, but I learned to love it. I tried to play it on guitar. In the summers I’d learn Lightnin’ Hopkins riffs from L.A. kids who came to the same camp. One summer, Brownie McGee and Blind Sonny Terry taught at the place and, of course, I was in Brownie’s guitar workshop. By then I was 16 or so and had thick calluses on my fingers. As much as I loved the guitar and clay and paint though, I had no real ambition to ever make a living by making music or bowls or dark landscapes.
I have managed to make my living through my creativity, though. As an actor, or a writer or a teacher or director, I’ve been blessed to have experienced enormous satisfaction, surprise, awe, validation, appreciation and love as well as frustration, stasis, emptiness and grief, but that’s another story. The point is, only a very few aspects of that work involve making things with my hands but I still have a nearly constant powerful desire to do just that. These days I only take out the guitar once or twice a year and then I become lost in trying to remember the old riffs, the licks, the finger-picking patterns, the songs. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I go onto the back porch and draw, with pencil, stump and kneadable eraser, what I see – plants, flowers, a piece of weathered wood, it doesn’t matter. A familiar, clear trance over takes me and my hand’s movements themselves are a kind of seeing.