On Aphorisms and Grocery Shopping
Aphorisms are destructive. Little proverbs that mean to instruct just bind at the ankles. Jazz music was full of those. Arpeggios up: scales down. Jazz is rhythm. Jazz is Blues. Swing. Accent your upbeats. It’s is in Bird’s eighth notes. No, Pops’s quarter notes. No, McCoy’s dotted quarters. Always be improvising. You’ll never play a line you didn’t practice. Think ahead. Be in the moment. Learn the masters. Innovate. Learn the standards. Compose. For what it’s worth, those little nuggets invade every field; jazz being the one with which I’m familiar. They’re all over writing blogs and instruction as well. Be concise and direct. Be engaging and electric. Never use two words when one will do. Don’t use tired phraseology. Be honest. Be creative. Use action. Be vivid. Tell a story. They pile up in jagged tangles, but in most artistic fields they can cut at cross purposes and be true in their own way simultaneously. The challenge is that, while they cut at cross purposes, there’s enough truth in each for well-meaning people to extoll their wisdom in definite and rigid terms.
When I drove a lot, back in Virginia, I saw political bumper stickers on the backs of other cars. I rolled my eyes. If your politics can fit on the bumper and be read in the time it takes a light to change then your politics aren’t worth having. A version updated for the times might involve memes instead of stickers. I still believe it and what began as a roll-of-the-eyes at what people chose to plaster on the backs of their cars, turned into a sort of litmus test. The question is no longer “do you put that opinion on a bumper sticker?” but rather “could that opinion fit on a bumper sticker if you chose to put it on one?” If yes, then it’s probably worthless. Anything of value is worthy of nuance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those aphorisms lately, particularly those that dictate why we write – or when we write. A common pair of conflicting bits of advice are as follows: Write what you know. Know what you write. The first implies that writers write from experience and should always draw on personal feelings, ideas, etc. The second, that writers don’t write what they know but learn by way of writing. I subscribe more to the latter than the former, by far. Still, though they’re advice enough for what they are, they’re a hindrance when I struggle with what to write about. Both imply a threshold, elusive but rigid for its simplicity. Either I must know enough to write authentically, or an idea must be worth working at the page to determine its dimensions. I’m not sure how to determine what I know or where the bar lies, no matter which side of the glass I’m on.
Writing is synonymous with thinking and thinking is exploration, not creation. It’s easy to think my time wasted when I have the end in mind. But the means can lead down pathways, tunnels, dark recesses, places hidden from any map. A short walk to the grocery store presents no less than two dozen permutations of the city blocks; each block two sides of the street; each side of the street different perspectives to and from; each route a small collection of alleys, shrubs, trees, and other digressions, different each day from the next. Walking simply for the gallon of milk erases the infinitely variable city that lies between the case and my refrigerator. Even the plastic jug merits all the little digressions and metamorphoses.
Not a thought that crosses one’s mind is unworthy of words. And now I have my own aphorism, about as valuable as all the others. How can mine be worthwhile when all the others aren’t? It probably isn’t any more or less. How can every thought be valuable when those crammed onto bumper stickers are patently worthless? It’s not the thought itself but the act of stripping a thought of nuance; of walking, head down with earphones in and eyes glued to a screen, over the same sequence of concrete and asphalt every day. Every thought deserves that nuance; each errand merits a little adventure. Every walk is worth taking, eyes up and ears open.