For some people Disney World is paradise. But recently when I went there, it was all too much for me.
The crowds. The flash. The movement. Attractions and distractions that are the whole point of being there. I cannot focus. I cannot think. There is a parade blaring nearby and lines to stand in and the need to go to the next event to have fun and more fun, and there is a garden of vibrant flowers, ooh pretty, but there is Goofy waving, will Goofy be offended if I fail to wave back?
But my problem goes beyond Disney World. The whole world seems like a park full of flashy distractions competing for my attention. There is so much of everything: so many television channels, so many websites, so many video games, and so many books I have not read and want to read. I go to CNN on my computer and each headline is like a flashing billboard designed to alarm, titillate, baffle, or charm.
The world seems like a fragmented, clamoring, and chaotic place, which is part of why I love writing so much. More than anything else, writing narrows the world into something I can manage. Writing is a place where I can sit still and be silent and fill myself with existence, and breathe.
Writing induces a trance-like state. Despite my trouble focusing on things in the outer world, I have been told that I am “one in a million” because of my ability to focus on writing for many hours without being tempted to surf the web, watch television, or stare at the clock in the hope that it will soon be over. When I write, I write. But as soon as I leave my writing, the world flies apart. There are too many options.
To make matters worse, at home I have a compulsion to carry all my technological gadgets around with me: my Android phone, my Kindle, and my iPad so that I will have my bases covered, depending on what my whim suggests I do. Should I read, play a game, surf the web? Download a free game that I will later regret getting because of all the annoying ads? Tweet about my cat?
The buffet of options fills me with a false sense of freedom, when the truth is, having too many options induces paralysis. I end up doing nothing or when I do decide, I am aware of all the other things I could be doing, so that it is hard to focus fully on what I have chosen.
I am tempted to write and only write. It focuses me. It makes me sane. The problem is, I need the outside world. I am not a closed system. Anything I experience or read has the potential to trigger an insight or inspiration for a story idea.
I want to go out and forage for new experiences to enrich my writing, then pull back into myself and create. Besides, while I am a writer, I am also someone who likes to learn. I crave new knowledge and unfamiliar perspectives.
I am curious. I want to know the specific names of the aquatic birds that roam the lake outside my apartment. I like going to art museums. And even when I am dragged off to places like Disney World, I am hoping to learn, to absorb new experiences for creative purposes.
The question is how to do that without becoming overwhelmed. The world is big. There is so much I do not know. There are thousands of books that, if I read them, would give me a new perspective or illuminate a part of existence that I will never experience first-hand. But there are too many. I cannot read them all. I must choose.
Complicating the choosing is that there is an arbitrariness to what triggers creativity. The things I expect to inspire me – like Disney World – rarely do. I am inspired, sometimes, by reading books I hate or doing things that most regard as a waste of time. There are novels I would never have written if I had not played certain video games. Or made certain mistakes.
Disney World, with its explosion of attractions, should have inspired me. But after I came back from Disney World, I felt like I had missed it. I reacted to the glut of stimuli by withdrawing into my thoughts.
When I came back home, I took a walk around my apartment lake and sat on my favorite bench and watched a duck crawl out of the water. It waddled up the hill toward me. I admired how its head bobbed as it moved. It stopped, lowered its head and inspected the grass, dipped its beak in quick succession, then lifted its head as if searching for something, its eyes wild, alert, and waiting.
I got caught up in its movements, sometimes graceful, at other times jerky. I had an overall impression of beauty and wondered why we are taught to admire form but rarely the movements of animals. And I thought, this is what it I was missing at Disney World. This is what it feels like to focus.
If I am going to spend time in the real world, I want to focus on it the way I focus on my writing, taking in one experience at a time and one book at a time without worries about all I might be missing. Letting the world in all in at once is too overwhelming. I need to open windows between me and it rather than shattering whole walls. To be inspired, I need to let the world in one duck at a time.
While I might like to read thousands of books at once, I would rather focus fully on one book at a time, which promotes depth of experience rather than a desperate grasping for numbers. To know one thing deeply is more fulfilling than knowing a lot about a little. That means drawing frames around parts of the world the way a painter does with a canvas. The universe is too big to wrap my head around. But zooming in one one part of it is at least a step toward understanding the whole.
And maybe that is the highest purpose of art: to capture the universal in the specific; to create meaning from my small corner of existence; to extract the music of the cosmos from the movements of a duck.