Thursday, June 9, 2011

"The Difficulty of Being": advice from Jean Cocteau (and Charlie Chaplin too)

Sometimes a writer needs to read (and heed) the printed word of those gone before, and who better to point the way than Jean Cocteau and the wisdom of Charlie Chaplin? Those long-gone, black-and-white days are hard to heed these days, but they are still vibrant for those with an ear to listen. From
The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau, and translated by Jean Sprigge (1995, Da Capo Press), here is a paradigm of personal style.

"I am neither cheerful nor sad. But I can be completely the one or the other to excess. In conversation, if I am in good form, I can forget the sorrows behind me, a pain I am suffering from, forget myself, so greatly do words intoxicate me and sweep ideas along with them.

They come to me f
ar better in solitude and, often, to write an article is torture, whereas I can speak it without effort. This frenzy of speech brings an impression of a facility I do not possess.

The white paper, the ink alarm me. I know they are in league against my will to write. If I succeed in conquering them, then my engine warms up, the word drives me and my mind functions. But it is essential that I should interfere as little as possible; that I should almost doze over it. The slightest consciousness of this process stops it.

And if I want to get it going again, I have to wait until the machinery chooses, and not try to persuade it by some trick.
One must not confuse intelligence, so adept at duping its man. with that other organ, seated we know not where, which informs us -- irrevocably -- of our limitations. ...

It is the power to revolve within this space that talent reveals itself. ... So long as what 's to be said is said, it's all one to me. All the same I have my method. This exists in being hard, economical in words, in rhyming my prose, in taking aim regardless of style, and hitting the bull's-eye at whatever cost.

I have heard Charles Chaplin deplore having left in his film The Gold Rush that dance of the bread rolls for which every spectator congratulates him. To him it is only a blot that catches the eye -- I have also heard him say (on the art of decorative style) that after a film he 'shakes the tree.' One must only keep, he added, what sticks to the branches."

Writers, film-makers, artists: what often intrigues us about an individual's creative style is "what sticks to the branches." like leaves after an afternoon rain and the western wind in summer. What's left is the artist's unique vision of the world, Cocteau's "intoxicating" sweep of ideas -- and just as often a creative process that can reveal an artist's limitations, as well.

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