I've come to believe most any writer has periods when they say to themselves, "It was better when I didn't really know what I was doing."
The first time I heard such a statement — that someone was better when they didn't know what they were doing — it was in reference to some band or other. Possibly the Sex Pistols, although I doubt it: by the time they did know what they were doing, they had already disintegrated. But it made sense; there's a spirit to being unselfconscious about your work that is hard to regain once you lose it.
Lester Bangs once told an ancedote in this vein:
Cecil Taylor recalled jamming once with a schized-out bassist who just happened to wander into the club one night, played a set and then ran out in a typical paranoid spasm after the set but before Cecil could ask him who he was, where he lived and maybe get his phone number. Cecil said that this guy didn't really know how to play the bass at all, but that because of that he did things that more schooled musicians wouldn't even think of trying because they had been taught that there were immutably fixed "right" and "wrong" ways to do everything. Which Cecil felt was a crock — he said that if this guy had stuck around, he might have had a shot at being one of the great free bass players.
The lesson everyone seems to try and take away from stories like this is, Screw the rules, I have improvisation! After all, didn't the Ancient Sages themselves say it in that old kōan about how you have to empty your cup before it can be filled? And so on.
I think all this is charming, but only half the story. It's great to have an unlettered and untutored approach to something, but the danger is is being stuck there. Becoming familiar with what you're doing is inevitable, and so you might as well make that into the road to mastery.
I do think there is something to what Robert Rauschenberg said: "I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." The word that is easy to miss in those sentences is trying — that you do these things as practice, as a way to better place into perspective the habits you will have of knowing what you're doing.
Perpetual amateurism is not the solution to getting stuck in a rut. It helps to break up your own habits and your own first impulses, to regularly challenge yourself not to fall back on the easy answer. But all that has to be backed up with the discipline and the conscientiousness that you acquire as part of the job of getting work done.
We are always doomed to experience, to leaving Eden; we might as well wear our fig leaves with pride, and know that under them we go naked anyway.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind