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What We’re Doing When We Think We’re Doing Nothing

burtonhamletI’ve always liked it that the actor Richard Burton could admit in his diaries: “I am fascinated by the idea of something but its execution bores me.” And this from the guy who played Hamlet a million times. But it’s true that amid the intensity of any creative activity there is often the inkling of a different kind of fulfillment than the one we’ve been told to seek. In our especially “results driven” world where so much can be quantified with disturbing exactness, the idea that it’s the process that matters and not the outcome (even to the point of not caring if there’s an outcome at all) is pretty staggering.

In this way it’s wonderful to think of Burton preparing to play Hamlet, and doing everything from imagining how to put himself in the mind of the Dane; or being aware of the long lineage of actors (from Burbage to Olivier) who preceded him; or pondering what it is to be a father or a son; or just becoming aware of his own relationship to drama, acting, and art … it’s wonderful to think that this was enough for him sometimes. The rest of it was literally scenery and stage-managing. The real transformation and intensity occurred not in front of any audience, but in private.

In wondering what this might mean in my own life, I realize that even if I leave a handful of decent poems or essays in my wake, my notebooks and diaries might actually be the best of me, that writing which I quickly dash off before going on to “something better.” The critic Harold Bloom made this point much better: “what you pride yourself on, the things that you think are your insight and contribution … no one ever even notices them…. What you say in passing or what you expound because you know it too well, because it really bores you, but you feel you have to get through this in order to make your grand point, that’s what people pick up on…. What you really think you’re doing may or may not be what you’re doing.”

Shakespeare: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet: original 1948 Telegraph review

Isn’t this interesting? For all the conscious awareness that goes into everything from paying the bills or writing a poem doing a watercolor, what else is really accumulating beneath that everyday surface? I met my wife only after months of applying and being accepted to a university I was thrilled to go to, but which I forgot about when she showed up. In hindsight it seems that what was I was really doing was keeping myself busy until we finally met; and indeed the studying and reading I was doing actually ended up informing our relationship, not any experience in a classroom.

In another sense, and beyond anything huge or cosmic, I suddenly realized recently that for the past year I’ve been dipping in and out of a certain poet’s work and biography through books and podcasts. I thought I was just catching my breath while my newborn daughter took a nap, I thought I could have been reading anything while sitting out on the front porch, when in reality I was slowly discovering one of those poets and one of those lives that has become a great source of solace to my own life.

As with Burton, the substance comes in the private moment no one would know about otherwise. So who is the most real version of any of us? Is the real me the author of this essay, can he be glimpsed in a video doing a public reading, or is he the person on the porch there, the one even the neighbors driving down the street never saw?

Edward Hopper - Automat