On Words, Human Creativity, and the Ineffable

Friday night I was driving from South Buffalo to a friend’s house in Amherst. The radio was playing all kinds of awful music, so I turned it off and just drove. I kept being struck by how familiar the roads were–the roads I grew up with, that I know like the back of my hand without having ever really learned them. And yet, living farther away, having less reason to travel them, they become something from the past. At what point, though? At what point does the familiar become nostalgia?

I was feeling odd, thinky feelings as I drove through, imagining characters I may or may not ever use in my writing, wondering what the point would be in creating them, in sharing my own moments with the world under the cover of fiction… and then I was marveling at how naturally it all came to me, the feeling, the understanding of it, the ineffability of it all but the knowledge that through character and actions and dialogue and scenes I could still convey the feeling, and all that went with it. I cannot name it, I cannot describe it in any number of details that would really do it justice. But I can set up a frame and an image that draws the eye to what I mean to convey.

And isn’t that an odd thing to realize? A writer does not show you what s/he means to say with his/her actual words. S/he writes around the idea, using words to sculpt and direct and evoke thought and feeling, not to directly express anything at all.

On Saturday, I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner, and I decided to try the radio again. I tuned it to WNED, the local classical station, and they were broadcasting live from the Metropolitan Opera. It was a contralto, and a mezzo soprano, and I don’t really know if they were singing one song together or two songs right after another, but there was something in the almost-immaculate pitch and timbre and tone of their voices that actually brought tears to my eyes (the echo of perfection is, to me, made all the more perfect by the rasp of a flaw). It wasn’t a sad song. It wasn’t particularly joyful. It was something much harder to express, those in between emotions of real life: realization, understanding, existing, enduring. I sat in my car in the parking lot for five minutes while the song concluded, and felt utterly moved, and alive, and content. (I found out later that it was Handel’s Rodelinda)

At night, after we brought our Christmas tree home and filled the whole house with the scent of pine, my husband and I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Netflix streaming. It’s a documentary about the Chauvet Cave in France, where they’ve discovered the oldest artwork in the history of mankind. And it is beautiful.


These stills, of course, do not do it justice.

Watching the film, seeing how haunted the scientists were (being surrounded by the ghosts of prehistoric man) I couldn’t help but wonder what drove humans to make those drawings–single-handed, by torch light, scraping away the first layer of the uneven walls to get to the white beneath, then using the charred remains of their fire to depict with mind-blowing accuracy the essence of an animal. Many of the animals looked like the artist only tried to capture the shadows on and around them, never defining their shape with solid lines and curves. Some of the drawings even suggested movement, a kind of “proto-cinema” as one scientist said. And they suggested that, with the play of shadows on the uneven walls cast from firelight, the animals draw could appear to be very much alive at times.

What was it that drove our ancestors to draw on cave walls? Is it the same thing that drives us to create today? Maybe it was a desire to be remembered, to leave a fingerprint on the world for future generations. Did the cave man in question simply want to tell a story? And at what point does this ancient, human compulsion to tell stories and reproduce the world around us become what we call art? (*sigh* I miss my anthropology classes sometimes.)

Anyway, I think you should all go out and watch that movie. Ask yourself where your motivation comes from. Think about your stories, your creations, your life–do you live your life and make your art in the hopes of being remembered? Or do you live your life and create your art because you are moved to, because the world around you begs to be captured and shared in charcoal and words and paint and sound? And if it does, then why do you think it does?

There are no wrong answers. I just think these are interesting questions to ask ourselves, as individual human beings, inextricably connected to our own species, and also, of course, as artists.

Thinky thoughts, my friends.

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