“You Never Get It When You Press”

Good evening.

In its way, this is a blog post about blogging–and perhaps about learning and creating, generally.

Dan Aulier has compiled one of those bedtable books that one can read for months, an anthology called Hitchcock’s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a great big festival of a book, a delight to roam through. It also has plenty of food for thought to carry into the new academic term that begins very soon. Here’s one table of the banquet, an excerpt from writer and actor Hume Cronyn’s memoirs as republished in Aulier’s omnibus. Cronyn writes,

“Early on in our working relationship, I discovered a curious trick of [Hitchcock’s]. We would be discussing some story point with great intensity, trembling on the edge of a solution to the problem at hand, when Hitch would suddenly lean back in his chair and say, ‘Hume, have you heard the story of the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter?’ I would look at him blankly and he would proceed to tell it with great relish, frequently commenting on the story’s characters, the nature of the humor involved, and the philosophical demonstration implied. That makes it sound as though the stories might be profound or at least witty. They were neither. They were generally seventh-grade jokes of the sniggery school, and frequently infantile.

“After several days’ work together, punctuated by such stories, I challenged him–politely.

‘Why do you do that?’

‘Do what?’

‘Stop to tell jokes at a critical juncture.’

‘It’s not critical–it’s only a film.’

‘But we were just about to find a solution to the problem. I can’t even remember what it was now.’

‘Good. We were pressing….. You never get it when you press.’

Cronyn concludes:  “And while I may have failed to appreciate Hitch’s jokes, I’ve never forgotten that little piece of philosophy, either as an actor or as a sometime writer.”

Compare Walker Percy’s endorsement of the “indirect approach,” as well as the phenomenon known to astronomers as averted vision. I’m particularly intrigued by a deeply paradoxical notion that emerges in every case, a notion that certainly rings true to my own experience: it takes practice to “not press” successfully. It’s not at all the same as slacking or snacking. Sometimes it seems that the art of “not pressing” is the hardest art of all to master, and also the most necessary to move from one level of expertise to another. And in another paradox, once one has a feel for not pressing, for the indirect approach, for averted vision, one can go to that zone almost immediately when a novel situation or a new level of learning appears.

These ideas form a constellation in my mind with several others. “Beginner’s mind” (shoshin). The third stage of learning that brings back wonder and self-motivated learning, a progression that Paulo Friere and Seymour Papert discuss.  Poincare and creativity.  I am struck by how often similar ideas recur in various guises. Knowing how to know to not-know. The vanishing light around the rim of the unknown unknown can be seen only through such practices, I think.

Brian Mathews’ latest Ubiquitous Librarian blog poses a question that may be obliquely related to some or all of the above (and fittingly so). I don’t know that early adopters who move through change more quickly and with greater joy have mastered the arts of not pressing, along with the arts of averted vision and the indirect approach, but it’s interesting to consider. Certainly those arts can keep us from falling into the trap of substituting elevator pitches for voyages of discovery.

Postscript: I have had to train myself over many years to answer direct questions (typically from administrators and other gatekeepers) about the character and value of a project, the specific plan for an exploration, the criteria for successful “outcomes” (and all the assessment apparatus that entails) (and I’ve learned it may be bad form to confuse “learning objectives” and “learning outcomes”), and so forth. One wants to be responsible, to be granted resources for action, to exercise due diligence, to act like a grown-up. Indeed, and no question. Yet I always hope, and in my own practice strive, to find a moment or two, or more, for the not pressing and the averted vision. An indirect approach, an open space, like a cup for Elijah, who might one day return to demonstrate the poverty and dessication of spirit that often conceals itself behind bullet points and elevator pitches.

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