Learning musical instruments presented the same problem. I understood the process as having to do with hours upon hours of physical familiarization with an instrument, of listening hard to other people play that instrument, and, above all, of listening hard to yourself play it, but I couldn’t mentally map that out in a way that convinced me it would work. Hence my early struggles with and avoidance of new means of expression linguistic, musical, or otherwise. I didn’t so much find the tasks themselves difficult as I found breaking my mental block about the idea of the tasks and the precise mechanics of their culmination impossible.
That David Ogilvy observation I quoted a little while ago keeps looping in my head: "Big ideas come from only one place: the unconscious. Nobody's ever had a big idea by a process of rational thought.” He spoke of having to “flog himself” to read through all the technical material on the new Rolls-Royce, but only when he’d ingested it, then ingested a big dinner and settled in with a nice bottle of claret, did his unconscious mind produce a way to advertise it. (“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-
Royce comes from the electric clock.”) That this process works now seems clear to me, or at least as clear as I find anything, but the how of it badly tripped me up for the longest time. I could never summon any faith in anything other than conscious, deliberate reasoning. It still trips me up, but slightly less often now that I have an awareness of it.
Naturally, I now wonder how to harness these automatic processes of my unconscious mind — the cycles of thought always running in the background, if you will — to best stuff-making and/or stuff-doing advantage. My attempt to psychologically “place” myself in Los Angeles before moving there in September involves writing a list of “alternative” L.A.-based novels for The Millions, and thus reading a bundle of them in preparation. A coming trip to Mexico City necessitates similar relevant-cultural-product absorption, including but not limited to Alex Cox’s El Patrullero and books like David Lida’s First Stop in the New World and Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City.
Gearing up to devote a much larger portion of my life to filmmaking, I’ve been cramming my mind full of material on the nineties U.S. indie wave that originally inspired me; material on the working methods of kind of filmmakers who tend to have to fend for themselves, financially, intellectually, and aesthetically (Jarmusch, Greenaway, Godard); and the cheap, freewheeling, convert-every-glitch-into-an-artistic-choice first pictures from these directors. And since I feel compelled to imbue my own next film with the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, you know I’ve been cramming down some labyrinths.
But the unconscious mind — or at least my unconscious mind — needs a hell of a lot of time to chew on this stuff, and that gives me trouble. In my experience, it does its work so slowly that I never notice the progress in real time, only as sudden epiphanies — but so, it seems, did Ogilvy. It also demands that I break my unwillingness to take in what I don’t understand immediately and completely, like the movies, internet videos, and TV dramas in Japanese, Korean, and Spanish that feed those languages, raw, whichever part of my brain can process them involuntary into something resembling linguistic skill.
Sure, I can’t diagram how all this allegedly happens, but would I want to? As I just heard Adam Carolla say on Fitzdog Radio, if you envision life in its totality and everything it requires of you, you’d never do anything. If you think a second floor would look good on your house, you have to put your head down and just act on the vision. If you ponder about all the hassles with lawyers and architects and contractors and zoning and materials, you’ll go straight to bed instead. But if you stare at your feet and take a step at a time, sure, it’ll take twice as long and cost twice as much as the estimate, but ultimately, that second floor will be there, you’ll have stories to tell — and you’ll have actually lived. So, bonus.