Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can’t do. The mass of things that lie beyond their abilities force them to concentrate on the things they can. “I can’t do this,” exclaims the distraught Mother-Writer in “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” Lorrie Moore’s famous story about a young child dying of cancer. “I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I do the careful ironies of daydreams. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built …” From the sum total of these apparent trivialities emerges a fiction which succeeds in doing precisely what it claims it can’t.
Or take a more extreme example: Franz Kafka. Was ever a writer so consumed by the things he couldn’t do? Stitch together all the things Kafka couldn’t do and you have a draft of War and Peace. The corollary of this is that what he was left with was stuff no one else could do – or had ever done. Stepping over into music, wasn’t it partly Beethoven’s inability to conjure melodies as effortlessly as Mozart that encouraged the development of his transcendent rhythmic power? How reassuring to know that the same problems that afflict journeymen artists also operate at the level of genius.
I think this is profoundly important for young artists and intellectuals to know. Similarly, a story I often tell: when he was a young trumpet player in New York, Miles Davis was so intimidated by Dizzy Gillespie that he almost gave up music. He knew he could never match Dizzy’s virtuosity, his speed, his brilliance of tone. So Miles became the anti-Dizzy. He played slowly, using few notes; he tried to avoid vibrato, instead creating a thin, clean tone; he often played with a mute. The result: The Birth of the Cool.