In my composition classes, I taught that if you are interested in thinking outside the box – if you strive to stretch or break the rules – you must first master the box. It’s my simplistic notion based on observations that some of the most innovative musicians were first classically (or at least formally) trained. This mastery is the foundation from which they can reach for more.
In the parts of my life that have little to do with composition structure and cumulative argument, I find that I struggle with mastering the box. Consistency is always a few inches beyond my grasp.
Yes, I’m familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s oft-misquoted adage that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Here is what Emerson actually wrote in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance”:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
It’s clear that Emerson was arguing against a misguided consistency of thought; the rest of his essay shows his allegiance to innovation in idea and expression – at the expense of somber inflexibility.
But nowhere does he suggest that a person’s life should not offer reliable patterns of effort – balance in the paces that can give one freedom to be innovative and creative without generating utter chaos.
There are plenty of examples of how this interplay of pattern and innovation can work well.
William Carlos Williams rests among the innovative Modernist poets, with the “manifesto of the imagination” that was his Spring and All – and yet he worked most of his adult life as a pediatrician.
Wallace Stevens likewise is on the roster of American Modernists, with the fractured, nearly cubist “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” – which he devised on his daily walk to work as a Hartford insurance executive.
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, a masterpiece of modernist narrative voice and structure, while working his overnight shift as supervisor at the University of Mississippi’s Old Power Plant in his adopted hometown of Oxford.
Jasper Johns began his stellar career in iconographic visual art while working as a sales assistant at Marboro, a popular bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan – and he and the neo Dadaist visual artist Robert Rauschenberg worked together in New York to design conservative store window displays at Tiffany & Co.
There is a reassuring stability in pattern, and for many people, the strongest patterns we devise are the metronomic routines of our days: Rise, dress, eat, work, eat, relax, undress, sleep.
Simple, reliable, balanced.
Our communities offer similar patterns to us: We can predict when road traffic will be heaviest, when the grocery store will be busiest. We can even predict birth rates according to geography and the time of year.
Simple, reliable, balanced.
But there can also be circumstances that interfere with our patterns, that unbalance us – and for some of us, these circumstances can be chronic.
They can include the interference of the many varieties of ADHD, in which we feel the influence of distraction more than the influence of routine.
Or the interference of bipolar disorder, in which our lives accelerate and decelerate and can spin out of our control.
Or the interference of major, clinical depression (a feature of bipolar disorder or available all on its own), in which getting through any day can be slogging through waist-deep pain, and getting through a string of days can be a repetitive struggle as ceaseless as Sisyphus’s.
Managing to find something of a routine in the face of these obstacles is not what Emerson meant when he warns about our obsessive “reverence for our past act or word.” The patchwork pattern some of us sometimes manage is not the consistency that the Concord essayist threatens will extinguish our innovation.
For some of us, the struggle itself – balancing on rounded stones – takes away our energy. There is little left for innovation.
But Emerson was right on track when he suggested we need to “live in the present” – a concept that is pop culture now, but that he presaged when he wrote of roses:
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
When some of us exhale, when we let down our guards, we can drift into obsession with our difficult personal histories and our apprehension about what lies ahead. That dulls our wits. That drains the energy we need to battle the circumstances that interfere with our foundation of strength and balance.
Our more likely struggle is to generate a pattern that works today – to find a flat stone to stand on, perhaps giving us enough stability to be innovative without losing our balance, to be creative without generating utter chaos.
This mastery is the foundation from which we can reach for more.