Buckminster Fuller [ed. note: who the hell names their child Buckminster??] wrote the phrase “I seem to be a verb” in 1970. It’s the title of a very brief book which I will never read, I guess, since it’s out of print and did you see the prices at that link?
It reappeared in my head yesterday when I was writing a letter to a Lichtenbergian friend. (Yes, I still write letters. I love writing letters. You should write me a letter.) He had posed an existential question that I think has universal application: Who would you be if you weren’t who you are?
By which he meant that if I were not a composer, who would I be? If I were not a writer, who would I be? He also added to the mix the question of recognition of our work/self. If I write music that no one plays, am I a composer? Since this is generally the case with my music, you can see why the question would interest me.
Bucky’s phrase occurred to me as a possible answer. Here’s the entire koan:
The question my friend was asking was not “If I were not a composer, who would I be?” but “If I were not a composer, what would I be?”
Wrong question. I am not a category. I am not a “composer.” I’m a verb: I compose. I have composed. I did compose. I am not composing. But I am not “a composer”—because if I don’t compose (and I haven’t), then I can’t be that noun, can I? And then what am I? Wrong question.
The question is, “What do I do?”
I think this shift in thinking is critical to saving our sanity as artists, as the humans who MAKE THE THING THAT IS NOT. If I stake who I am on what I ‘am,’ then I’m doomed to despair if somehow I stop being that what. On the other hand, if I stop doing something—composing, writing, gardening—then the Lichtenbergian Precept of TASK AVOIDANCE guarantees that I will do something else.
In 1927, when Charles Ives was 53, he came downstairs and announced to his wife that “nothing sounds right”; he was out of music. For the next 27 years he wrote no more music. Something similar happened to Jean Sibelius. Both men stopped composing.
Should we have stopped thinking of them as “composers”? Not at all. They had composed; they were no longer composing. That’s all.
That’s not to say that such a shift in one’s creativity wouldn’t be jarring; I myself am wondering whether anything “sounds right” at the moment. But if I decide, like Ives and Sibelius, that I’m done, that doesn’t change who I am. (It also obviates the whole “if a tree falls in the forest” aspect of no one playing my music, or reading your novel, or buying your painting.)
It only changes what I am doing. Today, at least. Cras melior est.