It is impossible to say just what I mean!

John Coltrane

There’s a story I heard once about John Coltrane: that he spent his whole musical career looking for the right saxophone mouthpiece. He was searching for the sound he heard in his head.

I was thinking of that Wednesday morning, curled up in the den reading as the snow fell outside. I’m in the midst of Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, a challenging book analogizing writer and mapmaker.

Turchi was talking about T.S. Eliot, who I had read at a very impressionable age, when I was imagining what it might be to be a writer. I went over to the bookshelf and grabbed my old college text, the wonderful battered Norton Anthology of American Literature. It’s a wonderful tome, printed on a thin sort of onionskin paper that allowed them to pack 2,590 pages of the American literary canon in a single volume.

Rereading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I was struck by the line I had marked with a ballpoint pen those many years ago:

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

I have no idea what that 18-year-old had in mind when that line struck him enough to point it out to his future self.

I love jazz, and I love art. I enjoy both in a similar way, piecing together the linkages and history and story that goes with them. Thursday morning, it was Bill Evans I was listening to as the snow fell. As I started thinking about the ideas I am now trying to explain to you, I looked up to this great painting on the wall above my head. It’s by my dad – the Grand Canyon or something like it, a piece I’ve stared at in one way or another since I was a small boy, assimilating without being conscious of it an aesthetic that carries me to this day. When I go to art museums, I piece together the history on the walls in a way that only makes sense as a piece of the art I grew up staring at.

I do not have to paint, or to make music, so I can listen and I look with great comfort. But I have never been a comfortable reader. It is because, after a lifetime of trying to write things down, I understand how hard it is to pick what it is that needs to be said out of all the noise around me. And once that is done, it is even harder to say just what I mean. I don’t mean to try to compare myself to Eliot or Coltrane here, but if it was hard for them – great artists in command of their tools – how could it be anything less than impossible for me?

A few lines later, Eliot’s Prufrock turns toward the window to say:

That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all.