“I hear not the volumes of sound merely–I am moved by the exquisite Meanings”
Observing attentively is the best way to satisfy one’s curiosity, and the mainstay of the creative life. Leonardo da Vinci had an easy way to do it: take the scene, event or idea apart, piece by piece, to bring the task down to manageable size. Every part had to be considered on its own until it was fully understood, and only then could one move on to the next. He talked with his patron, the duke of Milan, about the need for time and patience to process one’s observations, describing how the most goes on (in one’s head) when activity is the least obvious. Writers know intimately how true that is as they plot, plan and execute much of what they eventually write in their heads, first, before anything goes on paper.
That all sounds rather pedantic, but in fact, Leonardo took so much childish pleasure from his explorations, and I assume joy from the final discovery, that his means became his ends. A seeker of all knowledge, he observed nature so deeply and completely that he surpassed all the other Renaissance Men of his day, to say nothing of most creative explorers to come after. But his focus was on uncovering the secrets of the world around us, rather than the world within us, although of course there are places where the two cross over and seem to become one. Even so, I tend to think of the inner explorations of the human spirit launched by such men as William Shakespeare, and other poets and writers, as the most difficult of all.
Following a panel discussion recently between four wonderful poets, only one of whom was previously known to me, I found myself trying to take their ideas apart, piece by piece, to study their subject better, and realized it was getting hard to do that with every new thought piled on top of the first ones. Feeling as if my aging brain was probably giving off steam for everyone to see in its desperate attempts to dissect the discussion, I slipped more comfortably into focusing on the poet I knew from other readings across the years, feeling a kind of attachment for her ideas and work I couldn’t seem to access for the others. I sensed it wasn’t solely about her familiarity, but that my First Impression of her long ago had been so favorable, it would undoubtedly overwhelm anyone else appearing with her. Why? Was it the uniqueness of her presentation, way back when…or was it more the nature of first impressions in general? I worked on that question for many days, but kept getting bogged down as my brain struggled to multi-task. I never got completely discouraged, however, sensing that the attempt to understand is itself the kind of exercise my brain needs most.
So, I kept working on the nature of First Impressions, exploring first all of them I’d had of this poet, and then moving on to others of people and events, both positive and negative, in my past. Finally, I had a breakthrough the other day! It came listening to a piece of music by Robert Schumann. On a sunny, happy morning I burst into tears in the middle of my kitchen, moved by the beauty of the piece i was hearing, but also something else: my First Impression of it. That trigger threw open doors containing all kinds of thoughts and emotions that weren’t even conscious on this day as I heard the music. I wondered if my First Impression of the writer’s work I’d had years ago also prompted my current reaction to her, and saw that it had.
So how could First Impressions be so influential when I work so hard to keep an open mind? Because of those emotional First Impression triggers, pressing on the subconscious the way a skilled masseuse finds the knots in soft tissue. We become particularly sensitive to their stimuli, and I credit the power of my first Schumann fantasie with my reaction to all things Schumann, now. I’m glad I spent my time and patience on this observation, because now I can move on to the next one. After all, Leonardo only had our shared universe to work on, while writers have the limitless space of their own unique inner lives to explore. I understand why First Impressions of feelings are so influential and lasting, even if we think we’re open-minded. They’re not about the mind. They’re about the heart.