We’ve been dumped on this winter, record-breaking snows that challenge plow crews, threaten roofs, and evoke an all-around readiness to be done with winter even though it’s only half-spent. I hate driving on icy roads but love to walk in fresh snow. My dog trots in my tracks, hemmed in by snow berms, the model of obedience, though in truth if she gets into doggy heaven it will definitely not be on good behavior.
Away from town, our tromping makes tracks alongside those left by scampering voles and plodding moose and hopping chickadees. My favorites are the loop-de-loops of snowshoe hares, never a straight line from point A to point B, the proverbial rabbit trails. But what appears aimless wandering is actually purposeful. Lacking much in the way of defenses, these big-footed bunnies meander to throw off the coyotes, the wolves, and the owls that are looking to have them for lunch.
Pay attention, we writers are told. Be the ones on whom nothing is lost. But it’s the rabbit trails that often yield the most interesting writing. More often the trouble is not that we daydream or drift but rather that we trot too intently along a straight path that leads away from the creative potential of our project. We beat a plot thread into submission, manipulate a character to act as we need her to act, steer a poem in the direction we think it should go.
Strategic meandering actually enhances our work. As Jonah Lehrer reports in “The Importance of Mind Wandering,” people who daydream purposefully score significantly higher on measures of creativity. To stimulate daydreaming, researchers had subjects read a slow section of War and Peace, then timed how long it took before they start thinking about something else. All the subjects wandered eventually. Those who experienced an uptick in creativity as a result of their drifting were those who were aware of their daydreaming. Those who simply drifted off but didn’t recognize it got no creative benefit.
“Letting the mind drift off is the easy part,” Lehrer explains. “What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic you’re able to take note; the breakthrough isn’t squandered.”
In The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell suggests that writers do their best work when they’re only partially cognizant of the worlds they create. “A fully known world is devoid of mystery,” he writes. "The writing process often begins with instability, not necessarily the dramatic act but the shifting ground."
Rabbit trails aren’t procrastination, which is nothing more than pure and unproductive avoidance. The idea isn’t to stumble around aimlessly, but to meander with purpose, to open ourselves fully and completely to possiblities, to imagine “what if” not only at the beginning of a project but all the way through. Though it appears chaotic, we remain acutely aware in our bounding.
It would be safer to stay in our nests, not venturing into fresh places where we’re likely to run circles, chased by scary possibilities. But if we hope for a story or poem operating at another level of experience the way Flannery O’Conner suggests it should, we must expose ourselves, meandering with purpose, making notes along the way.
Deb's "Self-Made Writer" posts are also at www.49writers.blogspot.com.