There is no try

It must have been the first year Star Wars came out in Scotland when I went to see it because the queue at the cinema in Dundee trailed down one street and around the corner and stretched for hundreds of people down another street. So, it must have been January 1978. After waiting for ages, we finally walked into the vast, darkened hall, and I remember the special smell of velvety seats. I settled down and gazed at the screen in awe, as lightsabers whooshed, and the Millennium Falcon zoomed across the stars, and robots beeped and muttered, and music blared – sounding like an orchestra of electronic trombones.

A few other things from that movie stuck with me. One is 300-year-old Yoda, and his Zen-like saying: “Do or do not, there is no try.” I’ve written it on a card on my writing desk. The card sits beside a little model of Yoda, gazing into the distance like a green all-knowing monk.

It is not immediately obvious how wise Yoda’s saying is. When he says it in the movie, he is exhorting young Luke Skywalker to use a mysterious force to lift his crashed spacecraft out of a swamp. Yoda sighs at his pupil’s initial failure, and reprimands him when Luke says: “I’ll give it a try”. Quick as the flash of a lightsaber, Yoda replies: “No, try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”

What does this mean? I’ve always taken it to mean: if you believe something can happen, it will happen. In the story within the movie, it has something to do with faith and wonder and believing in something outside of yourself. I’m not so geekish as to believe in a ‘Jedi force’, and I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something outside of myself: in the incredible power of humans to achieve great things, for themselves and for others.

I’ve always found if I try too hard to write a story or an article or a blog, it doesn’t work. If I stress about finding the right way to describe something, say a spaceship, I find myself straining without any result. The spacecraft may rise a fraction out of a swamp, but it will soon crash back into the wordless slime. Yoda will shake his head at me and say: “Do or do not, there is no try.”  So, I stop trying to find exactly the right words, and I just write. There is no try. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but when it does work, it makes sense.

Another thing that stuck with me from Star Wars was the barely moving but ultra-expressive face of actor Alec Guinness, who played the character Obi Wan Kenobi. It wasn’t any words he said that mattered, it was his believability. It seemed to come from his manner and expressions. I knew he was acting, but I felt he was a character made real.

In the 1980s, I watched Alec Guinness on TV as John Le Carre’s Cold War spy George Smiley, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982). In those extraordinary performances, Guinness further developed the art of barely moving but saying a great deal with just a twitch of his mouth or an icy gaze. Again, I knew he was acting a part, but I felt I was watching a real puffy faced spy. It was like watching his worries and his determination, as he walked through a secret world of drab streets, treachery, and an occasional lethal encounter. Many years later, as a journalist, I met a couple of real spies who did not want to meet me.  They had the same cold stare as George Smiley/ Alec Guinness. Those real spies didn’t need to act or try to look creepy. They just did.

I have read interviews with great actors who spoke about the craft of acting. Method actors talk about almost becoming the person they seek to portray. Other actors speak about the importance of absorbing the story they will be a part of. And all seem to touch on the idea that, through practise and learning, a point is reached where ‘trying’ gets left behind and there’s only doing. It is a level climbed up to.

Years ago, when I went to gyms a lot, I remember getting annoyed at not being able to lift some weights. They were very heavy, but I felt I should be able to lift them. From some dim corner of my brain, I recalled that controlled breathing could help. So, I calmed myself by spending a few minutes breathing deeply, and then I lifted the weights. In time, I developed the same method, so I could lift some weights I would otherwise struggle with. And I noticed something else: if I was in a low mood and I felt “I can’t do this”, the weights wouldn’t budge.

Recently, I have tried (oops, I hope Yoda isn’t reading this) to walk more. So, over three months, I’ve done around a dozen long walks, including from Arbroath to Dundee, and several walks along the Fife coastal path. Due to some cold and wet weather, I had to put a hold on these adventures, and it made me feel anxious. I badly needed to see again a distant horizon across the blue Firth of Forth, or see snow on faraway hills, or hear seagulls crying out like timeless echoes. So, I got on a bus and went to St Andrews and then to Crail. That was a few days ago. It was a special walk; a lot of my walks are. I walked along a narrow road between wide fields, a couple of miles under a vast blue sky, to 300 acres of a disused airfield. I found a wartime control tower: unused for many years, boarded up, and I took a few photographs. In the middle of this big flat nowhere-land, I imagined biplanes bumping along the runways and lifting off, up into the clouds high above the Fife coastline. As I daydreamed, I saw a flicker of movement from some distant buildings: old aircraft hangars. Through my binoculars, I looked in that direction, and saw two large deer leaping through thick grass, and vanishing around a corner. I watched for a few minutes, but I saw nothing else move. It seemed the right time to continue exploring.

Crail itself is a fascinating place. The small harbour is like a picture postcard – impossibly perfect, until it gently comes alive in front of you, with ripples on the water around the brightly painted small trawlers, and just a few souls out walking their dogs, or carrying tools into a house that is being renovated. There’s a steep bank packed with stone buildings, some painted white with red tile roofs, and all the buildings are huddled together comfortingly, like kittens sleeping together in a large basket.

When Spring comes, I would like to explore many places around Scotland. I suppose the thing about trying and doing for me, and perhaps for a lot of people, is we often get so worried about trying to get to a better place, inside or outside of ourselves, we forget Yoda’s advice. There is no try.

Harvey Duke

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