Charles Foran’s ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’ is a stunningly lovely essay on the moment a writer finds the courage to use their own voice. The moment when you realize that the truth of what you want to say comes not from your head or how clever-clever you are or what you’ve learned, but from an ability to notice the precise colour of juniper berries after a rain, or tap into some deep awareness of every experience you’ve ever had and translate that into what a bar of dark chocolate tastes like on a warm day in September.
The berries and chocolate are mine. Food is my portal. Foran’s was music.
He wanted to play guitar but it didn’t go well; a musician friend tried to help by saying that to really get music “…no thinking was allowed. Whatever you do, don’t think. Whatever you decide to play, don’t ponder why you did it. For sure, whatever you are feeling—ah, feelings, again—don’t fuss or fret or worry about figuring it out. Don’t figure anything out. Just play.”
Despite himself, words were more this thing and eventually he found himself wandering about listening to the rhythm of language, trying to force what he heard onto the page.
While the friend’s advice stayed with him he didn’t really understand the message until he was living in Ireland, working as bartender, trying to capture the lingo, the music of the Dublin dialect, repeating descriptions he’d heard of wankers and omadoons and writing about their devotion to U2 and Thin Lizzy in a manuscript where the narrator is a Canadian working in a Dublin bar among characters— “wankers and omadoons who thrashed to U2 and Thin Lizzy…”
One day while he’s busily writing this dross, a piece of music, for whatever reason, offers up a moment long enough to replace the square peg in a round hole effort of trying to get all that ‘external’ stuff, all that thinking, down.
“One afternoon I put down my pen at the opening notes of a reel played on solo flute. The musician had the breathy style I associated with prog-rocker Jethro Tull. From the start, the music was fluid. I turned up the volume and watched through the window as a weather formation, stately as a regatta, floated out into the Atlantic ocean to the melody, wisps of angels’ breath scurrying along the margin between earth and sky. A second reel merged from the first. Now the flutist was adding ornamentation–triplets and trills and grace notes. Certain notes were stretched and held. Others were blunted or bitten. All manner of non-thoughts flashed through my mind while I listened and watched. everything seemed in motion, in flight; everything seemed at once exact and permanent, fleeting and evanescent. Like the weather. Like a young Canadian in a school house in Galway.”
And there it is. The moment beyond which a writer can never again not ‘know’ when their work is hitting a false note. We may try to fool ourselves into thinking it’s okay, that no one will notice, that the darlings are so effing cute they’ll make up for any weak areas—but no matter what tricks we try to play on ourselves—after The Moment there’s no going back. We will know when our work sucks and when it sings. (We may not know how to fix it, of course, but that’s another thing entirely.)
The piece ends with a quote from Northrope Frye that Foran had clipped and kept since his university days, proving his connection to rhythm and language from the start, but words that only now, decades later, sink in: “If the music of a sentence is right, the sense will take care of itself.”
Seems it’s all about listening. Not thinking.
But then, so much is. When you think about it.
— excerpts from the essay ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’, from the collection Join the Revolution, Comrade, Biblioasis, 2008
From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted in February, 2011.