A SEASONED editor and critic, John Beaufort, once shared a bit of wisdom that has proven so practical over the years that it deserves further currency: "It's not what you look for but what you find."
My friend had been floundering in London after the great war. London then was the capital of world news; Washington, still a backwater. He felt under enormous pressure to get his dispatches back to the States. Then someone shared this statement with him.
It means that we can become so caught up with outlining what we think we need as reporters to put together a story that we overlook the obvious, what is right at hand; we need to become better observers, to cultivate a receptivity to the flow of what is around us, to learn to quiet down, listen, see.
For a reporter, the ability to see what is in front of him is no small matter. Most reporters, it is complained, travel in flocks. Can flocks see? Reporter flocks, in campaign coverage, visit the conventional feeding places - photo ops, speeches, luncheon stops. Nothing wrong with this, but seldom does the conventional lead to the exceptional. (Fine stories do follow asking "What's missing here?")
Time and again I would come upon some report in the mail, spot a potential source in a lobby, course through a city-hall planning department, and come upon a fragment of information, or a quote, that would prove useful or crucial to my work.
Now let us post a corollary. A found fragment can contain the DNA, the identity, a blueprint, for a larger work.
After a dance concert the other day at Connecticut College, choreographer and dancer Dan Wagoner, Harvard University poet Leo Ou-Fan Lee, and I were spiritedly discussing how found objects - bits of string, or phrases, or a particular color, or movement of a bird's wing, the glimpse of a face - can stay with us sometimes for years until they suddenly find a use in the larger work of which they are a part. There was much merriment when I confessed that I like to walk quickly and keep an eye out for things (a shiny bolt and nut, a curled blue-coated wire, a toy race car are samples on my desk) and could refer to myself as "Richard the crow." "That's the title for your autobiography!" rejoined Wagoner. But the poet, dancer, and writer agreed on the value of found objects and their content, their resonance with something larger that could be called a work of art.
Of course the gift is not to find objects but to be able to see in them some hint, some inkling of larger usefulness - an idea.
There are those who like simply to be at scenes and those who like to observe scenes. My father always would say, "Observe human nature," when we would mingle with crowds. He loved to be in the middle of things, to laugh and play. But even more he liked to observe. When we would drive to our cabin up north, he would quiz me about the crops in the fields, what kind of soil it was, about everything along the way - except how much fuel we had in the panel truck: Twice we were so busy looking and talking we ran out of gas, to much laughter. As a boy in Italy's Emilia region, he had been befriended by a young blind man who would question Father about how the buds were coming out, how the light lay on the mountains, so that he had been trained to see with intensity and passion.
What we write or compose needs some authenticating observation to qualify for consideration. I have known journalists, businessmen, teachers who may never have had an original idea in their careers: Convention does provide widespread employment.
The looking is what's crucial. How we set ourselves to see, how we move about, our readiness for surprise: This is the heart of the creative process.