It’s quiet. Except for the steady hum of the heating unit, the only sounds I hear are the tweets of the birds outside the dining room window and the occasional car engine. It’s daylight, but I know that because of the light in the room, not because of open curtains. This morning I’m practicing something that works for me and the muse mojo just about every time I try it: sensory deprivation.
When I say “works for me,” what I mean is that I’m more focused and on task when I don’t have distractions like television or the sight of a neighbor walking his dog. Each time I open the curtains at the front of the house, there is always something exciting to see. What was the man across the street taking form the back of his minivan late yesterday afternoon? And who was the woman bundled up in a purple hooded jacked walking briskly by? And that little squirrel who jumped up on my dining room window ledge and peered in was so cute! Cute isn’t the best of adjectives, and yet that’s how he appeared to me, all chirpy and curious. His face seemed to say, “Oh look! There’s a table and some orange chairs. Whodda thunk it? At last I’m getting a view inside this house.”
We know that squirrels can’t think, at least not like humans do, but that’s how I read his expression. Wonder how squirrels rank on the scale of human intelligence. In all my years of studying human and animal behavior in psychology, I don’t recall reading anything about squirrel intelligence. Chimps, yes. Squirrels, no. I guess there’s a reason for that. And yet they can’t be too dense. As evidence, look how they plan ahead while we humans go blithely along, confident in the knowledge that there’s going to be a Piggly Wiggly or Wal-Mart nearby. And speaking of chimps, some people say that they can speak. They can communicate, yes, but their ability to use language is limited. Seth, my 18-month-old grandson, knows more words than an adult chimp, and his vocabulary is going to keep on growing. Psycholinguists say that an average 18 month old can learn a new word every two hours! Sultan’s vocabulary won’t grow beyond a few hundred words. Sultan was, by the way, a chimp used in a experiment by Kohler, a gestalt psychologist, who taught us (figuratively speaking) a lot about insight learning.
See what I mean? Shutting off the world for a bit is the best thing to do if one is to do anything serious writing. I’ve always known this, but I recently had it verified by Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. Not a how-to book of advice, the slim volume is a compilation of stories and experiences that demonstrate something about writing. Whether in an isolated cabin or a small room bereft of all but the essentials, she worked alone without distracting sights and sounds. On one occasion, she taped a drawing of an outside view on her wall to look at whenever she wondered about the outside world. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
I know I’m no Annie Dillard so no one needs to remind me of that. However, I can learn from her and from anyone else who has something useful and beneficial to teach me. What she reinforced in her book is to cut off the world and focus on the work. And that’s what I’m going to do…just as soon as I get through grading these papers. In the meantime, I have the above picture in my mind, a sight that lies a mile away.