The Centipede’s Dilemma

Everyone probably has heard some version of this one. It’s the old story about the centipede that’s doing fine until someone asks him which foot moves first. At that point, according to one rhyme, he winds up distracted in a ditch, considering how to walk. You don’t even need more than two feet to experience this. Try walking slowly some time while you consider each and every tiny movement of your body. It’s amazing how clumsy and awkward it can make you feel! I had a dance instructor who used this exercise to make students aware of how much of their movement is done on autopilot.

Rehearsing a dance step over and over, or ballet positions, or yoga or Tai Chi postures, programs the autopilot, so it can take over while allowing the creative mind to focus on something else. Practicing a musical instrument does the same thing, naturally. Even all those endless scales and Hannon exercises in my childhood were designed to program my fingers to move nimbly between keys, while arm and wrist remained quiet and the mind was free to concentrate on the music.

Back when I was a piano major in college, my autopilot was highly programmed and engaged as soon as I sat down and raised my hands to the keys. During my decade of near-silence, when I thought my music gone forever, I lost a lot of that programming. At first I was almost as clumsy on the organ keys (even without the pedals!) as someone who is regaining the ability to walk after a serious injury. Accident victims and wounded veterans relearning motor control face a much more serious situation than I did, but I can relate to their difficulties. It’s a bitch when you lose that autopilot.

However, the centipede’s problem is bigger than a failed autopilot. He’s gotten in his own way, by becoming too self-aware. And that, it turns out, was my biggest problem while regaining my music, and now is a problem with my renewed writing.

Stage-fright is real, as I know all too well. But this goes beyond that. When I let myself become aware I’m playing again! …well, that’s the point when my feet get lost on the pedals and my fingers fumble a C major triad. My mind has to be in the music, and I have to not be in my own mind, or it’s an audio train-wreck. It may sound easy to get out of your own way. I never really had that much trouble with it in the past. But re-learning the trick of it is anything but easy. You have to not only have the autopilot programmed, you have to trust it to work and get the hell out of the way.

The connection to writing may not seem obvious. After all, a writer has to be in her head, thinking of the plot, listening to her characters arguing back and forth, weighing the words that will convey the precise meaning required, deciding on the strongest structure for phrases and sentences and scenes and chapters. Other than the mechanical movement of fingers over keys, there’s not as much for a full autopilot to do. In fact, I suspect a story written while fully on autopilot would be wooden and lifeless.

But. (There’s always one of those, isn’t there?) The centipede tumbled into that ditch because he was trying to figure out how he did it. And if I let myself start thinking about just how I’m writing, I land on my nose right beside him. I have to get out of my own way and let the story take over, and I haven’t fully re-mastered that trick yet.

I will, though. Yesterday was a special service at St. Raphael’s; it was the final service by the interim priest who’s been with us for a year. I’ve enjoyed working with Father Geoff, and he’s been endlessly encouraging about my music. So I wanted this final service to be as beautiful as possible, and all my focus was on the music itself rather than the woman sitting on the bench. It worked. I got out of my way, and we all sounded glorious.

At some point those wounded veterans must have to get out of their own way as well, and they do. If they can, and if I’ve been able to get out of my way on the music, then I’ll be able to do it on the writing. But I don’t dare let myself think of me while I’m working on it!

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The Centipede’s Dilemma — 2 Comments

  1. That is the fatally dangerous thing about thinking about -how- to write. The more we analyze it — what makes this story work? Why is full frontal nudity OK in WATCHMEN when it is not OK elsewhere? What was Dickens doing with the structure of BLEAK HOUSE? — the greater the peril of becoming unable to write yourself.

  2. A similar things happens to me as a preacher. When I just let it flow, when I just lose myself in the story I am trying to tell, I find that I am a much better speaker. Rather than being overcome by the utter terror-thought of “well, I’m in front of all of these people again — what on earth am I going to say?”

    I find the more I let go of my own hang-ups about what other people think of me — of the content of my message, the better orator I become. The real preacher emerges when I am fully myself! Trusting myself… and just getting out of the way of myself