Stuff That Knocks on My Brain and Demands to Be Let In (or Out)

Off On a Tangent

This morning I was writing in my journal, something I’ve been doing most every morning for a while, clearing my head and gathering my thoughts for the coming day. But my mind kept drifting off on a tangent about a project that is waiting patiently on the sidelines, and I kept losing my Here And Now train of thought.

I finally gave up and spent some time paying attention to that tangent, noticing what was coming up, listening to it and writing it down. And I ended up with an unexpected essay that I can submit to one of the literary journals I discovered over the weekend, bringing me closer to my goal of submitting two pieces to outside publications by June 6.

Tangents and Discipline

What if I had chosen discipline this morning over following that thought? Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, What if I had chosen a different discipline this morning? Because paying attention to the distractions and tangents my mind throws up is a discipline, too.

Noticing is a discipline, a process of learning by instruction and practice (from The Free Dictionary).

Ever since I was a child, when I have seen a road winding off around a bend I have wanted to follow it, thinking “I wonder what’s down there?” That is part of my curiosity. Noticing the tangents my mind goes off on and following them is like noticing a road I haven’t gone down and giving myself permission to see what’s around the bend.

Tangents vs. Hooks

One of the things I noticed about myself years ago is that when I get hooked on a tangent, like being mad at somebody, it is a very effective distraction from what is really going on. As long as I am focused on them, I don’t have to pay attention to what’s going on with me.

After getting over being embarrassed at myself, I started paying attention to those times when I go gleefully off on a tangent so that I can ignore what I’m really feeling, and started noticing what it is I’m trying to avoid. It’s not easy, and it can be very humbling, but it sure saves a lot of time and energy.

Those two kinds of tangents and distractions are very different. The first is like a visitor knocking at the door, wanting to share the cookies she just baked and have a lovely chat, but who gives up after a while if I don’t answer. The second is like a gossipy neighbor who bangs on the door, bringing over something fattening to eat while telling me juicy tidbits and keeping me from what I should be doing. One is an invitation, the other an intrusion.

I can accept either one – or not; I get to choose. But I have to use the peephole in the door to notice which type of visitor it is. And if I’m very good, I notice my motivation for letting either one in – or not.

Tangents, Ideas and Creativity

I could have stuffed this morning’s tangent back in its box and forced myself to concentrate. Later I probably would have bemoaned my lack of new ideas.

I wonder: Perhaps people who believe they are not creative get just as many ideas as “creative people” do, but they are just better at ignoring them.

Do you pay attention to the tangents your mind takes off on? Can you tell the difference between an idea and a hook? Do you choose one type over the other? If so, why? Or do you ignore them all?

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

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6 Responses to Stuff That Knocks on My Brain and Demands to Be Let In (or Out)

  1. Michael Broom May 10, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    So what was the tangent that was the project that you hadn’t gotten to? Was this blog a tangent of the tangent?

  2. Susan T. Blake May 10, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Excellent question! Yes, this blog post was a tangent of the first tangent. The first tangent was related to my biography of my late husband’s aunt, and how memories can compress time. I knew it was a tangent as I set off on it, after making a conscious decision to capture it rather than let it dissipate. I didn’t realize I could use it for an essay until I had followed it to its end.

    You just don’t know what’s around the bend unless you follow it that road.

  3. Michael Martine May 11, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    “Perhaps people who believe they are not creative get just as many ideas as “creative people” do, but they are just better at ignoring them.” <– This, so much. 🙂

  4. Susan T. Blake May 11, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    Hi Michael M, thanks for stopping by and for the confirmation!

  5. Jesse May 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    It often takes a bit before I can identify whether the tangent is an invitation or an intrusion.

    Lately, I’m noticing that intrusions come with angst and agitation, invitations never do. When I realize I’m feeling agitated, that’s when I realize I can separate myself from the intrusion, and quit stewing.

  6. Susan T. Blake May 12, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    That’s a very important thing to notice, Jesse! Good for you!

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