This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
When my husband came home from work the other day, I didn’t hear our startlingly loud garage door banging closed. I was wading with all my faculties through an Old English text, and I didn’t hear anything until his voice said, tentatively, “Baby?” — at which point I leapt from my chair, shouting surprise, to find he’d materialized in the doorway.
This is a pretty common theme, right? Human brains work like this: we get absorbed in a thing; we forget our surroundings; we can, in this state, become easily startled by the world’s intrusions. Here’s the thing, though: I am always startled by the world’s intrusions, even as I’m also always bracing for them. It’s pretty rare for me to be so focused that I’m not braced for interruption, not attuned to each shift in my environment.
Some of this is just how I’m made: intense and sometimes painful sensitivity to (especially) sound, movement, temperature, scent, and my own body-state are nothing new for me. But for the rest of it… I wasn’t always like this.
As a child, I had hours of focus in me: for reading a book, observing the life of a river, completing homework, playing elaborate games of make-believe. I’ve watched, for some years now, my adult capacity for focus shrinking with the malignant growth of the attention economy, but (by dint of conscious effort) I retained, until recently, the ability to summon it at need.
What’s changed? Who knows; the possibilities are many, and compounding. A year-and-a-half (and counting) of living in a house where my sensitivities feel always under attack. A significant diminishment of my accustomed solitude. A tendency to anxiety-response. A year-and-a-half of pandemic trauma, experienced alongside the entire world. The depression that’s finally descended from all of the above.
The cause is important, certainly, but surviving is more so. Thriving, in whatever ways I can, but most crucially: healing. Which is less an event than an an ongoing process.
For several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about rest: what it even is, how to make space for it. One of the habits I’ve observed that creates rest is focus. Actual rest is so much more likely to be available when my attention isn’t trying to split itself two or ten or twenty ways.
From this understanding, I’ve departed on a quest — gently, slowly, which is difficult — to regain my dangerously fragmented attention.
My creative practice, of course, is a place to start with this. You’re familiar with most of that advice. Turn off the internet, choose an time and stick to it, find a place by yourself, set a timer, et cetera. All of that is useful.
My daily internet habits are another good starting point. Following Cal Newport’s research and some of his advice (while holding at bay his obsession with optimization), I’ve limited my social media, email, and mobile phone engagement to a couple of times a day, and I’m shifting toward conversation (on a phone, on a porch, by letter) instead of more constant and shallow connection (by text, on Twitter or Instagram, et cetera). This is — I was surprised — not easy, and I have to begin again pretty often. But, gradually, it’s helping.
Here’s another thing that helps, while also sideways-benefiting my creative practice: learning. I mean the intentional, semi-formal kind. I mean studying.
I’m not actually any good at studying. In school, I was the kid our educational system tends to serve best: I’m good at memorizing, I like formal learning, I’m white and I grew up middle class. Also, I had a deeply loving home, where both human and material elements supported the conditions I need to thrive. In college, I re-created those conditions suprisingly well. (I also I returned to my parents’ calm home for regular recharging.)
College is where I came to understand — mainly by watching my fellow scholarship recipients — that I had no idea how to study. I read the material, I asked questions, and I paid attention in class. I’m naturally good at consuming, making connections between, and re-purposing information — so long as I’m interested in that information, and have some existing facility. Subjects that don’t fit that description (statistics, for example, or chemistry) I had no idea how to learn. Where I was allowed to do so, I avoided them. Subjects I was good at, but required regular and rigorous attention to excel in (Latin comes to mind) I took as far as they were easy for me, and then I dropped them.
If I didn’t know how to do something already — including, apparently, studying — trying and failing embarrassed and confused me. I had no idea how crucial short-term failure is to long-term success. I graduated summa cum laude, largely because distinction was more important to me than challenge. And challenge, at the edge of your existing abilities, is where the learning happens.
Cut back to me, at 37, deciding to study Old English. Also SQL.
Why these two subjects particularly? Different reasons. Old English I am not unfamiliar with, although certainly I don’t read it. It interests me; it can already hold at least some of my attention. I speak and read much better Spanish, so if I’m going to study a language, why not that? I suspect, unflatteringly, it’s because no one is going to ask me to actually speak in Old English, to understand and to be understood. Spanish, on the other hand, is a living language. In other words, I’m still embarrassed.
SQL is something everyone I work with knows, and uses on a regular basis. I am fortunate to work for a company that allocates time for training, and money to pay for it. I decided on SQL because it’s useful to my data-based job. And because the basics are easy to grasp: they’re very much English, just in streamlined programming form. Building on them follows logically, without too much need for synchronous instruction.
Both of these subjects allow me to build a new structure on skills and predispositions I already have. I’m not starting from nothing. Small successes — very motivating — are easy to achieve. But I’m also not coasting on what I know already; I’m actually learning.
Nor do I have a goal of official achievement. I have tended in the past to conflate “learning,” particularly “learning a language,” with realized accomplishment — in the case of language, speaking or reading fluently. I have tended to get discouraged when I don’t master the subject with relative ease and dispatch.
Understanding that learning is a process, and specifically not an achievement, has helped me to embrace study as an end in itself. As play.
This in turn has motivated me to keep studying: I learn a small skill or a piece of knowledge, I apply it to a text or a database, I get a result. If it’s wrong, I go digging, find what I missed, and try again. I succeed in translating a line, or retrieving the information I requested. I clap my hands excitedly and beam at the empty room. I’m having fun.
And in all of this, I am absorbed. My focused attention, brain and body, is required for learning at the edge of my ability. For the duration of a study session, time, stress, and responsibilities all cease to exist. For the duration of a study session, I am working — and also, perhaps, I am resting.
Studying is also making me a better poet. Or at least — since, what does “better” mean, regarding poems? — I can say objectively that it is helping me focus more when I sit to revise.
I think it’s also allowing me to access new ideas. Studying something not related to art takes my mind off that art (and off my stressors), long enough for my mind to rest and process. It’s maybe like a nap for the creative brain. (Actual sleep is also critical, perhaps including actual naps.)
On the other side of that break, my mind is fresher, more interested, more focused. It’s not suddenly raring to write poem in Old English, or about databases or in the form of a query. But new pathways are opening in my poetry because I’m intentionally opening new pathways in my learning. You could call it sympathetic magic.
Like all magic, it’s specific, it compounds, and it’s work. And like all magic, it’s powerful enough to unlock important doors. Like, for example — and probably I should add “perhaps;” I’m not so far on my quest yet — rest.