One of the jobs of a writer is to take a moment and draw it out into the light and expand it into something new, something that other people have never noticed before, or something they overlooked. William Wordsworth called these moments Spots of Time (this isn’t exactly WW’s definition, but if you are a Wordsworth scholar and you reading my blog, you have bigger problems than how I decide to define obscure ideas by increasingly obscure authors). The reason I have been thinking about these spots of time is
because I have been reading David Foster Wallace‘s essays (Both Flesh and Not) and his essay on Roger Federer is a must read for writers, and for people who enjoy the sporting life. Wallace (Foster Wallace?) writes about several matches and points that Federer plays at Wimbledon and expands them to almost ridiculous proportions. (Federer is a professional tennis player, if you don’t have this piece of information in your head, then I am sad.) What I found amazing about the piece was how masterful Wallace had to be to accomplish this writing task. First he had to have a very high level of understanding about tennis, about the strategy, about the movement, and about what makes Roger Federer so special. A casual tennis fan would never notice 98% of the things that Wallace brings to light. Next, Wallace had to observe the action in detail. The tournament was televised, but Wallace draws solely on memory and possibly a few notes taken while watching the game in person. This combination of memory and expertise is about 50% of the writing process, the rest is the sitting down and writing. I’m not certain how all this works in someone’s noggin, but it is there, and very good storytellers can put it on the page bringing light to a subject that would remain unknown to most readers. After reading the essay on Federer I decided he (Roger, not David, but David is pretty good also) was
probably better than most people realize. Most of us would like to think that we could be professional athletes, but there is a real separation in talent when it comes to all human endeavors. (I know what you are thinking. Yes, that includes blogging and I know you have better things to do now than read my early morning ramblings, but this isn’t about you, it is about me. I must do this and because I have a computer and internet access. Yes, the world has chosen to largely ignore my computer and internet access, but someday these keyboard clicks and trail of mediocre thoughts will be here long after I am gone. Unless there is a global meltdown, and then, even Roger Federer will be forgotten. –One of the annoying aspects of reading Wallace is his use of footnotes, one of the annoying aspects of reading my blog is my use of parenthetical thoughts breaking into my sentences, I’m sorry, it isn’t like I am editing each of these blog entries.–)
Most of us have played some sport along the way and know the moment when we figured out our expertise in that sport had its limitations. I held on to the idea of a professional career in the NBA until Otis Jennings dunked on me a number of times without much effort. Never heard of Otis Jennings? Yeah, well there you go. (I did steal a ball from John Stockton on a three-on-one fast break. He probably went home and considered quitting basketball altogether. I, on the other hand, filed that one away in the old memory banks so that one day I could brag about it. Where’s my Mission Accomplished banner, George Bush?)
What I began to wonder about after reading the Wallace essays was whether we as humans are beginning to move beyond these spots in time. This isn’t an evolutionary concept, it is a technological one. These days we don’t really file away things in our memory banks, we take a snapshot, or snapchat, or hit record and let technology remember for us, but let’s be honest, we don’t really expand those moments. We file them and then forget them. We really don’t have time to think about moments any more. Moments are used to check email, upload a picture of whatever we are eating, and to play Candy Crush. This is a bit of a shame. Human curiosity shouldn’t be narrowed down to wondering if there is a new app out there for wasting time, but there always is some new shiny thing that we can fixate on like Flappy Birds. There was a time when I believed that most of us spent most of our lives living inside our heads, but I’m not so certain anymore. Our thinking time is chewed up by technological distractions. Where will the next big idea come from while we are all so distracted? I was finishing up some editing and rewriting of my novel recently and had the challenge of thinking about how I would expand a section of my novel where Picasso, Dali, and my protagonist played catch. I had devoted a few paragraphs to the section, but a recent reader had suggested that I expand this important moment. I dug in and wrote. In the end, it was better, but if I was forced to expand that moment further what would I do? What I would do is go back and steal from David Foster Wallace. Imitating a master can lead you down lanes of discovery that you may not have considered driving down before and as I have detailed many times, getting lost (in the world, or in your mind) is always a good thing. I might also apply the radical strategy called thinking.
Thinking is an underrated skill (and a skill that I really do fear is being lost amidst all of this distracting wizardry) and in my opinion there are three types of thinking. (Take note philosophy majors.) First there is regular thinking. This is the stuff stored in the front of your brain. The easy access stuff. For me, this information would include whatever I am reading at this moment, a few math facts, a disdain for Conservative thinking, rules for most major sports, how to cook my 30 go-to foods, and pieces of information that I have to use everyday: How to get to Costco. Where the extra coffee is. Which shave day it is. When summer begins.
The next type of thinking is what I will term deep thinking. This type of thinking involves connecting ideas and problem solving. This might also include accessing information that is buried deep in ye olde basket o’ brains. This information is stuff that I can mentally pull out if given time, this gets more difficult as time goes on, but there is still a lot of information hiding in there. This information includes: How to use the metro systems in various cities. Book plots and major themes of those books. Home repair mistakes. How to eat pizza without burning the roof of my mouth. (I should store this one in the front of my brain, because it always worms its way out after I have eaten the second piece of pizza and I feel the skin on the roof of my mouth blistering.)
The final type of thinking is not thinking. I have begun relying on this one more and more as I have learned to trust my brain. Not thinking isn’t really not thinking, it is moving aside and letting the brain work its magic. I have gotten better at doing this as I have gotten older. Here is a step-by-step guide to not thinking. First, you must be confronted by a difficult problem. Next, you must try deep thinking about it for about two minutes. If it doesn’t hit you within those two minutes let it go. That’s right just say, “Good bye problem.” I then put it in the back of my brain and forget it. I will sometimes say, “Well, I’m going to let my subconscious work that out.” Then I go and do something mindless: Mow the yard. Take a shower. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Drive to Costco. It might take a few hours, or it might take two days, but eventually the problem will get solved by my not thinking process. I don’t mean the problem goes away, but I mean my brain figures it out. It isn’t like I know anything about how this works, it just does and it usually works out better if I just leave it alone.
Now here is the problem, my not thinking technique and technology cannot exist together. I never get a good idea
when watching television, or surfing the internet, or playing Candy Crush (I finally deleted that stupid game so I could stop playing). Technology seems to block the brain from working properly, or maybe it just stimulates a part of the brain needed for deeper thinking. I don’t know, but I do realize when I really need to think I must get away from my computer and phone.
So what happens to us if we can no longer think deeply? We stop creating. What happens to a world that stops creating? It dies. I’m not suggesting that we drop all technology and build a cabin near Walden Pond, but I think we need to have Technology Free Zones where thinking is allowed. Check your cell phone at the door, leave your laptop at home, have a cup of coffee, and think. I probably won’t hurt too much.