The art of distraction

The art of distraction

With a much-needed gap between meetings, on a too-busy working day in London just before Christmas, I bundled my friend and colleague in to a taxi. I despaired of finding the kind of space we needed for an important creative and strategic conversation, so on an impulse decided to do a flying visit to the Tate Modern art gallery. My friend had never seen the Rothko paintings before, and so we sat together before those pulsating monoliths of intensity and just marvelled. Saul Bellow once said that art has to do with ‘the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction’. It worked for us. Even in our between-meeting haste, we relaxed and opened.

Later, the excursion got me thinking about what is essential to produce any work of real quality. Basically, I think that we need to switch off distractions; we need a different set of priorities; and we need the solace of habit – of a regular discipline. Sadly, this doesn’t sound sexy and appealing…

Lots of people offer glib advice about switching off external distractions – shutting the office door, turning off the smartphone, shunning email, cancelling appointments, unplugging the TV and so on. While this is difficult enough, such social distractions are not as perilous to creativity and to producing anything of quality, as self-distraction – what the poet Mary Oliver calls ‘the intimate interrupter’. Oliver noted that all kinds of creativity demand solitude and concentration, yet so often the interruption comes not from another, but from the self itself. I find this the most difficult to guard against. It is as though something in me seeks to end my immersion in my subject, and sabotage the concentrated state of awareness that often leads to epiphany.

It is as though we are like water, preferring the easiest course. Yet creative insight comes from the consecration of difficulty. In order to be truly creative, we need to develop the capacity for hanging out in uncertainties and doubts. A key priority is to regard difficulty as fascinating. Sartre once described genius not as a gift, but as the way one invents in difficult circumstances. Too often, the everyday self that gets distracted prefers to think about phoning the dentist, or ordering some groceries, or planning a visit to aunty Beryl’s.

Which is why we need discipline. This is perhaps the central commitment of a creative life – to attend to the project in hand, no matter what… Before Kaizen became a technique in the 80s Total Quality Movement, it was a way of attending to results through regular practice – even for only minutes of the day, at the same time of day. Establishing habits of daily practice is not so much about producing art, as about the art of living and working well. In creative work of all kinds, waiting for inspiration to strike before taking action is like waiting to get fit before going to the gym.

Put these ingredients together and we might break through our distractedness. Through grace we might even create something extraordinary. But there will be a price to pay. In Oliver’s words:

It is six a.m., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

Add new comment