We asked this year’s faculty to respond to a question related to this year’s theme of disTRACTION. Greg Brown brought Einstein into the equation, and still somehow managed to mow the lawn.
When Your Parents Ask You to Mow the Lawn You Should Do It, Unless the Lawn Is a Metaphor
When I was a kid I had a favorite quotation and that favorite quotation was from Albert Einstein, who said: “Great minds are easily distracted.” I never knew the context of the quotation: Was Einstein providing an account for the circumstances that brought him to his greatest mistake (i.e. the so-called cosmological constant, a bit of math he invented which helpfully and erroneously assumed a non-expanding universe)—a mistake that physicists and mathematicians have described as brilliant, the kind of mistake you’d want to be known for? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Because what I do know is as a kid I saw this quotation as a ready-made excuse for putting off, say, my science fair project about cryogenics (poor houseflies) and my chores, especially the lawn mowing, which I hated because our lawn seemed to unfold endlessly, a spatial field governed not by zoning codes but by Big Bang cosmology. Because I had better stuff to do! I had essential distractions to attend to! I wanted to draw comic books and get my detective agency off the ground and finish collecting all the best words out of my dad’s Funk & Wagnells dictionary—didn’t anyone care that I was only halfway through the Ds? My parents, unconvinced by my sense of my own genius, weren’t swayed by my appeal to Einstein’s authority. Summertime you’d often find me pushing the fuming mower in tight little spirals around our plum and cherry trees.
If there’s a point in any of this—and I may already have lost the thread or, heck, started in the wrong place all together, but so what?—it’s that for better or worse I’ve spent much of my life believing in the virtue of distraction. In distraction as evidence of creativity and intelligence and self-authorship and the admirable ability to be carried away by the strange and the tangential and the surprising debris that collects at the edges of brainspace, mine and yours alike. Too often it feels to me like the world lives inside of models for operational efficiency: We seem always to demand the world deliver itself to us in units of meaning that might be easily utilized and quantified, moved around by forklift. (The world seems to want badly to be a mown lawn.) I believe that part of our responsibility as storytellers and writers is to offer an alternative to this kind of rote thinking. Productive distraction—which I’d define as the knack for letting oneself slip, almost as if by magic, out of the nigh-inescapable and pulverizing truth of strip malls and TV melodrama and economies of scale and languages made dead by corporate language engineers—well, I’m all for productive distraction if it lets us escape these things and find something new to see, or to see something anew, and to find some new mechanism for describing what we’re seeing. (And isn’t this finally Einstein’s point, that there’s a certain kind of available genius in never being satisfied with What Is, that creativity comes out of the nagging feeling that there’s always some new discovery at the very edge of imagination, a feeling which must be paired with the willingness and sensitivity and courage to pursue it? ) What this means for me in practical terms is that when I’m writing—especially when I’m charging through a first draft, which frankly is the only way I know how to write a first draft—is that I’m hoping for some distraction to deliver me from the too-predictable patterns of my own thinking and the world’s. I need to be surprised. Really, I need the distracted, sidelong whatsits of inspiration. The unbidden stuff, the thingums that feel almost like mistakes in that first draft, but which become indispensable in revision, often even the very essence of a story or project.
If I’m writing and it feels like things are lining up neatly—that is, if I’m feeling too strongly a sense of narrative or thematic coherence or too certain about who a character is or how she’ll behave, if I’m not feeling the itchy discomfort of not-knowing or the thrilling sense that I’m discovering something—then I know I’m not on the right track. It’s at that moment that I know I need to slow down and get distracted.
My advice then: Loosen up, put your phone away, and let yourself be distracted by everything on the outskirts of your knowing.
GREG BROWN, a native of the Great White North, hails from Nanaimo, British Columbia, where he is coordinator of the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival. He holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is a recipient of the Roy Daniels Memorial Essay Prize and you can find his critical writing and stories in Postscript, Paragon, StorySouth, Lenses: Perspectives on Literature, and Tate Street, where he currently serves as contributing editor.