I avoid Houston freeways when I can, but last week there was no help for it. I had to make the trip into town.
Experienced Houston drivers instinctively include some sitting-around time in their calculations, and sure enough – halfway into the city, traffic came to a halt. Perhaps a truck had jack-knifed on a ramp. Perhaps someone distracted by her makeup or his Blackberry had plowed into the back of another car. This being Houston, it even was possible another police chase had gone bad.
In any event, until things sorted themselves out I was going to be bumping along at five miles per hour behind a rusting-out silver and blue van plastered with the biggest collection of bumper stickers I’d seen in months. In a sweet bit of irony, the rear bumper itself was missing, so the stickers were pasted in a riotous patchwork of color and design over the van’s windows and doors. There were new stickers and old stickers, peeling stickers and layered stickers. It was a perfect traffic diversion.
Lately it seems bumper stickers are becoming passé, but it may only be that I live in the wrong place. I’m surrounded by folks driving Escalades, Mercedes and Camrys who aren’t going to insult their bumpers with tacky decoration. Given our increasingly contentious society, it’s possible other people have decided not to tempt fate with publicly displayed opinions. Still, I miss seeing those bright blue and green stickers that implored us to “Imagine Whirled Peas”, or the great Austin classics, “Keep on Truckin'” and “Onward Through the Fog”.
Today’s bumper stickers seem trite, far too predictable and just slightly boring. The minivan had them all: pro-Obama, anti-Obama, a Confederate flag, a Mexican flag, protestations of love for ducks, fish and guns and a few naked-lady profiles for good measure. I wondered if the van owners were in the bumper sticker business – they certainly seemed to have something for everyone. Still, it was a little sad.
In Berkeley in the 70’s, a time and place that may have been the zenith of the art form, bumper stickers used to be sharp and funny. There was such variety we’d sometimes take an outside table at our favorite Euclid Avenue coffee shop and watch for unique specimens, acting for all the world like a strange flock of birders. Sitting in Houston traffic, remembering the smell of Eucalyptus and taste of French roast, I penned a nostalgic bit of doggerel on the back of an envelope.
Back in the day
As the old folks now say
there were stickers for bumpers galore.
Acerbic and wry,
good for catching the eye,
they helped truth get a foot in the door.
I wish now I’d kept a notebook, a list, a record of the truths we found. The best are unforgettable. “Where is Harold Stassen When You Need Him?” “Iambic Pentameter Rules”. “Don’t Let Your Karma Run Over My Dogma”. And, of course, that only-in-Berkeley bumper sticker extraordinaire: “Intellectual Coolies of the World Unite ~ You have Nothing to Lose But Your Mentors”.
Only once in Houston have I been stopped in my tracks by a bumper sticker. Getting out of my car one evening at the local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a flash of color in my side mirror. Turning around, I saw a woman emerge from her own car and then stop to dig in her purse next to a vibrantly red bumper sticker with yellow lettering.
Of course I had to ask. As it turned out, she’d attended a writers’ workshop in Colorado. One of the presenters had passed out the bumper stickers to reinforce his message: beginning writers spend so much time reading about writing, attending writing workshops and talking about writing they spend very little time actually – well, writing. As the woman said, “I do tend to get distracted. At least the bumper sticker gets my attention.”
The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe may never have seen a bumper sticker but he understood the power of distraction and made much the same point, albeit more broadly and with more elegance, when he said, “Artist! Create! Do not talk!” Whether the advice is elegantly phrased or figuratively thrown in our face, we need to hear it: distractions lead to procrastination, and procrastination leads to a loss of creativity.
Everyone understands what it means to be distracted by dishes in the sink or a family pet begging for attention. Everyone knows how easy it is to procrastinate – to face an empty page, a blank canvas or an empty afternoon and suddenly decide that now is the time to clean cupboards or change the oil in the car. But while the demands of ordinary life take their toll, the human propensity to substitute talk for action – or to engage in ceaseless chatter – can be an even more insidious obstacle to the creative process.
Today, chatter seems ubiquitous. The “talk” Goethe advises against no longer is confined to sitting in a cafe, whiling away the hours in languid discussion or heated debate. We have internet chat rooms and forums, social networking sites, texting, Twitter and internet television – a flood of distraction lapping at our desks. What we do about these new realities, how we manage them, is an increasingly critical question.
If you’re reading this, you’ve no doubt experienced first-hand a great truth of modern life: the internet is voracious in its appetite for time. Pour a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, sit down to read a few blogs, discover an interesting link, follow it, find another link, and before you come back to consciousness a half-hour, an hour or even more is gone, never to be recovered.
If you use Twitter – and I do, as a means of publicizing new blog posts – you may have found yourself removing someone from your “follow” list simply because it’s impossible to read or sort through the hundreds of tweets they send. One day I logged on to Twitter and discovered my first three pages were filled with tweets from a single person. I couldn’t help thinking, “How much time does that much chatter require?”
I quit Facebook because I recognized it as a time sink, but I made up for it during the past five months of BP obsession by lurking at The Oil Drum and their IRC chat room, often late into the night. While I’m not a gamer, the list of blogs I enjoy reading has steadily increased even as my ability to read them all regularly has decreased.
After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction because I didn’t realize that it evolves. Something that used to be safe, using the Internet, gradually became more and more dangerous. Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.
Reading farther into his essay, I had to laugh at his rationale for avoiding the iPhone. As he puts it,
“The last thing I want is for the internet to follow me out into the world.”
And as one who’s recognized from the beginning that work place solitude is one of life’s greatest gifts to a writer, I appreciate and understand his latest attempt to cope – substituting hiking for running. In Graham’s words,
I used to think running was a better form of exercise than hiking because it took less time. Now the slowness of hiking seems an advantage, because the longer I spend on the trail, the longer I have to think without interruption.
Obviously, Graham’s musings are meant to encourage not only writers and programmers but also painters, photographers and entrepreneurs – anyone who wants to develop and nurture their creativity. Just as Goethe’s “Don’t talk!” doesn’t imply a need for literal silence, Graham’s suggestions regarding cyber-distraction don’t demand giving up the internet. What both men do emphasize is the need for a certain discipline, an attentiveness to the structures of life, a willingness to forego what is assumed to be “ordinary” in order to achieve production of the extraordinary. As Graham says,
(It) sounds pretty eccentric, doesn’t it? It always will when you’re trying to solve problems where there are no customs yet to guide you. Maybe I can’t plead Occam’s razor; maybe I am simply eccentric. But if I’m right about the acceleration of addictiveness, then this kind of lonely squirming to avoid it will increasingly be the fate of anyone who wants to get things done. We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say “no” to.
Increasingly, I find myself saying “no” in order to speak a “yes”. In the silence of a home without television and in the space of a world without Facebook, Graham’s words resonate. Pondering them, I smile, realizing with delight that one of my own favorite lines from his essays would fit perfectly well on a bumper sticker.