Working On My Shit: The Art of Distraction
I’m currently working on my novel. I’m also currently working on dying my hair the perfect shade of cornflower blue. I’m also currently working on trying to find just exactly where the hole is in my air mattress as it slowly deflates beneath me.Lately I have found the process of “working” far more interesting than the work itself. According to the ear-worm currently inhabiting my brain–better known as Iggy Azalea– the word I’m looking for is perhaps better known as “the struggle” or “the hustle,” as she so eloquently states in her radio hit “Work.” Put in pretentious art world terms, perhaps I’m also referring to “the process.” But really, I’m talking about the cracks in the sidewalk on the path to the end result. Procrastination. Distraction.
Somewhere between the initial conception of an idea and the completion of the project exists a murky abyss of abstraction in which the horizon line is hidden–or may not even exist. It’s a slice of creation in which anything is possible and everything seems impossible.
There’s someone else now that seems to share my interest in the spaces in between when a work is imagined and finished: Cory Arcangel. Arcangel has recently published a book titled Working It’s a physical book containing a plethora of tweets written by people working on their own novels. Tweets include “#Offline, working on my novel! =) Be back later!” and “A bottle of red, a hot bath, and working on my novel until my man gets off work. Sounds like a fantastic start to the holiday. :)” The book is bursting at the seams with naiveté, which can be off-putting at times–but behind that naiveté is the glimmers of hope that seem to motivate even the most jaded and misanthropic to write.
Reviewing Working On My Novel for the Paris Review’s blog, Dan Piepenbring has a different take on the book: “a sad monument to distraction.” But what exactly is wrong with distraction? I think perhaps, Working On My Novel, despite being slightly more gimmicky than clever when translated from twitter into a physical book, is an ode to the in between period of creation. It’s about the process of trying. It’s about the process of failing in one direction, yet forging onwards in another. Hash tags and typed smiling faces may be annoying as hell, but Arcangel has a point: Working On My Novel is about “exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it’s the story of what it means to be a creative person and why we keep on trying.”
But rather than making me curious about the hundreds of drafts clogging the hard drives of these fellow wannabe novelists, Working On My Novel left me wondering, what is it that we do when are avoiding what we should be doing? A 140 character tweet doesn’t take that long to compose, so what happens after the tweet is sent?
About a year ago I watched Miranda July’s film “The Future.” I painted my nails and passively looked on as July made sad eyes at Hamish Linklater, whose hair suddenly bares a striking resemblance to her own dark curls. I didn’t finish the movie. I paused it on my laptop and forgot to come back to it. A friend of mine later deemed the film “unwatchable.”
It wasn’t until about a month ago that I (permanently) borrowed a coworker’s water damaged (and possibly also mysteriously fire damaged) copy of July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You and suddenly found myself in the midst of a July awakening. So with new eyes blurred by the ever-powerful glare of instantaneous obsession, I got my hands on everything she had ever written. First up was It Chooses You. In my haste to acquire the book I didn’t notice that ittells the story of the summer of 2009–the summer that July found herself struggling to write the screenplay for The Future, my previously abandoned movie night endeavor.
In It Chooses You, July is newly married, L.A. living, and wholly uninspired, attempting to cram the sublime into an ill fitting screenplay. And there she finds herself: in the struggle, the hustle, the process. While avoiding working on her screenplay, she wasn’t tweeting about it, instead she was accidentally creating an entirely separate work, It Chooses You. While I may not have connected with the finished film, The Future, I found myself fully submerged in July’s uncertain yet hopeful prose throughout It Chooses You. So much so that I actually cried while reading the last twenty pages. It’s a funny scenario to be able to examine both the process and the result in two starkly different mediums for one singular project. It’s like watching every individual step of the digestive system: intriguing, sometimes a little gross, perhaps at times surprising, but ultimately satisfying.
The beauty of It Chooses You exists in July’s self doubt, in her procrastination, in her distractions. The process of work is not a clear path of tasks, but a necessary wandering. July dug her heels into the rocky, crater filled arena of the in between and nested there, finding art in the uncertain–in the act of work.
July made art while–doing what else?–procrastinating on working on her screenplay.
However, there’s a key distinction between the type of procrastination filling the pages of Working On My Novel and July’s projects disguised as distractions throughout It Chooses You. And that is getting off the internet. For It Chooses You, July procrastinated on her screenplay by interviewing random people posting items for sale in her local Pennysaver. July left her cramped L.A. workspace to seek out human connection far away from the intimidating glow of a blank word document on a laptop screen. That’s where this type of distraction worked. Because at its core it was work–working outside the seams of any one goal. In July’s case an avoided screenplay eventually did come to fruition–but so did a beautiful book full of beautiful people plucked from Pennysaver oblivion. If Working On My Novel is about running head on towards creation in the world of instant communication then It Chooses You is about seeking out that which can be touched by the hand, tasted, smelled.During the time I have been “working” on this essay, I have also showered, eaten a mango, grocery shopped, texted friends, checked my email (constantly–rinsed and repeated, like following some subconscious set of shampoo instructions), made coffee, done the dishes, slept (out of procrastination not exhaustion), deliberated which would be the perfect wall of my bedroom to hang a poster on, watered my aloe plant, eaten a ham and cheese sandwich, tweeted, started writing a series of poems about Nancy Drew, contemplated doing my laundry but chose not to, spoke to my landlord, petted a stray cat, went for a walk, checked Facebook, etc.
Distraction is simply doing the work to stumble upon the missing pieces. The work may seem infinite and it is just that: an infinite filling in of empty space, applying pigment where there once was none. The work is never ending, that is, until you say it should end and then–finally–you’ve made something. Maybe it isn’t what you set out to create, but it’s tangible and original and entirely yours. It’s like handprints in wet cement: kismet, stumbled upon, not entirely intentional.
These days in our landscape of sensory overload, with its various social media platforms and rapid-fire communications, I think we’re always a little bit distracted. And yet what-we-are-doing-while-we-are-not-doing-the thing-we-are-supposed-to-be-doing is often times far more interesting than what-we-should-actually-be-doing. It’s about embracing distraction. Tell people you’re working on your novel. Make an intricately detailed quilt. Tell people you’re working on your novel. Watch the entire seventh season of Grey’s Anatomy. Tell people you’re working on your novel. Build a tree house in your backyard. It’s the smudgy in between of a project in which self-doubt and uncertainty live–but it’s also the home of originality and clean air. In wandering through this borderless space, a goal–a novel, a screenplay, a poem–may seem even farther from one’s grasp and yet I believe this is the one space that will truly never asphyxiate possibility. So while I’m working on my novel I am also making bad art, strong pots of coffee, and questionable decisions. (And maybe just occasionally tweeting about it.)