Monday, October 17, 2016

Holy Alchemy

A wise music teacher once taught me something that is as true about writing as it is about performing. In my piano lesson that day, I was too emotive for the teacher’s taste. “If you don’t over-interpret,” he said, “you leave the possibility for the listener to interpret the music in his own way, and that creates a richer experience for him than just hearing your response to the music.” Later, I told him that he might just as well have borrowed a line from Carly Simon: "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." This story has become a parable for me that speaks to the mystery of how art can transcend my personal perspective.

In my last post, I expressed my dismay at the trend in Christian publishing houses towards confessional writing and the paucity of good fiction and poetry. I think we get closer to the mysterious ways in which God works when we allow that mystery full play in the genres of story and poetry. I said that creativity and artistic craft can transform personal confession into something greater than the author’s limited, personal truth, and I promised to explain myself. I might be in over my head with that. Philosophers and poets have written long treatises trying to explain how art can be transcendent, and none of them have written the definitive answer. Neither can I. I can only chip away at it, a little bit at a time, and maybe get close to it.

Whether I’m writing a story or performing a Brahms intermezzo, I can only write or play from my own experience and emotion. When I play Brahms, the pathos you hear is mine, prompted by the pathos of Brahms. The goal, however, is not for you to hear or feel my pathos, but for mine to cause you to feel yours. It would be so much easier to just tell you the story of what caused my pathos, but the buffer of expressing it through a character in a story or a musical composition is what gives the readers or listeners the opportunity to insert themselves into the work. This is especially true if the artist can avoid over-interpreting as I was inclined to do in my piano lesson.

The difficult task of the artist is to surrender personal experience and emotion to something greater. T.S. Eliot wrote about crafting poetry in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates;  the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
Transmute is an arresting word. Transmutation is a complete change of one thing into another. In chemistry, it's what happens when one element is changed into a different element either through radioactive decay or nuclear reaction. The original context of the word was connected to medieval alchemy, the science by which practitioners hoped to change a base metal such as lead into gold. It's not merely a refiner's fire that burns away the dross and leaves the silver. It's a complete chemical transformation.

When we experience dramatic life circumstances that prompt us to say, "I should write a book about that," we have essentially two choices. The first is the choice of non-fiction: telling the story as it happened, recording our feelings and reactions, and either letting the story be enough, or in the case of most Christian writers, turning it into a testimony of God's faithfulness through the storm. There's nothing wrong with that, and there are many very good writers of Christian memoir. I do wish, though, that more people would make the other choice. The second choice is to surrender the story and our role in it to holy alchemy. This is where novels, poetry, and symphonies are born. 
What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.
Eliot understands something here that a lot of non-artists don't. Artists who aren't making art for attention or money but because they are compelled to by an inner need tend to feel that they are giving themselves away, or losing part of themselves, not that they're engaging in "self-expression." If the word expression is at all appropriate, it's more like what is meant when we express juice from a lemon. It's draining. Remember, my job as a musician or storyteller is to create an inner experience for you using the medium of my own emotions, without drawing attention to them as my emotions. My calling is to make you the hero in the story that was originally mine until the Holy Spirit's nuclear reaction obliterated it and changed it to yours.

When the “courage to tell your story” in confessional memoir format results in big book deals and an appearance on Oprah, maybe it isn’t actually courage. Maybe there’s more courage in surrendering your need to tell your story and allowing God to transmute it into a song that's not about you.

There are more aspects of art's transcendence to consider - the connection that is created between the maker and the receiver, for instance. At any rate, I hope that if someone reads here they'll consider stretching themselves and venturing into the realm of story or poetry when they find themselves thinking, "I should write a book about that."

Photo by Sergey Zolkin

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