STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/23/2009
In one of the most memorable speeches from Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Mozart declares, “That’s why opera is important, Baron. Because it’s realer than any play! A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another to represent this second of time. The composer can put them all down at once—and still make us hear each one of them. . . . I bet you that’s how God hears the world! Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us!”
In addition to beautifully summarizing what it is that can make the apparently unrealistic world of opera so compelling, Shaffer’s Mozart suggests something about why the Internet appeals to me so much: At its best, it can seem to bring together an infinite number of ideas and conversations into a sort of music. Of course, playing God has its downsides, and in the case of the Internet we don’t even have a Mozart to help make sense of it all; but I still find much that is inspiring about this brave new world I like to call hyperspace.
When I started blogging almost three years ago, I quickly learned that one of my favorite features of keeping this kind of journal is the capacity for hyperlinking (It’s killing me that I can’t use hyperlinks in this article!). I( don’t just mean the regular sort of blogroll links that connect blog to blog or link to the latest YouTube video; I love having the ability to connect thoughts so easily from one post to another, which effectively can weave a bunch of seemingly disconnected essays into a greater whole.
My psychiatrist wife has always thought I had a touch of attention deficit disorder, but I like to think of mine as a mind that is constantly hyperlinking. Of course, on some level, making connections from one idea to another is the way intelligence works. Douglas Hofstadter, a remarkable polymath with particular interest in the field of artificial intelligence, often writes about “analogy making” as a higher-level sign of intelligent life. A computer can easily be taught millions of verbal definitions, but it’s another thing to perceive that hearing an opera can be like seeing the world from God’s vantage point. In his books Gödel, Escher, Bach and Le ton beau de Marot, Hofstadter uses a wide variety of analogies from the worlds of art, literature and music to illustrate how much our minds rely on analogical thinking. The examples work well because the creative process is so often about making connections.
The farther out I get from the very focused musical training I had in school, the more I seem to find myself interested in all sorts of different creative pursuits. In addition to my primary training in musical performance, this has included composing music, writing poetry, translating libretti, making movies, working in graphic design, and blogging. I don’t make any great claims when it comes to my creative abilities, but I’m always struck by how often the crucial “creative moment” comes when the mind makes an unexpected or previously unnoticed connection between two “somethings.” It’s kind of like an accident you’ve been designed to make. I once would have assumed I needed much more specific training to try some of these things (and more training wouldn’t hurt), but I’ve been surprised to discover that finding successful connections is often more intuitive than I would have expected. It’s not much different than finding that perfect analogy.
One of the most satisfying projects I’ve undertaken was to translate the rhyming and metered text of a French comic opera (Gounod’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself) into rhymed and metered English. The moments when just the perfect rhyme would “appear to me” always felt like little miracles in which I suddenly married the right word or phrase with the right moment. In the case of translation, as Hofstadter beautifully illustrates in Le ton beau de Marot, there’s a sense in which one is always looking for the perfect analogy—how to express in English what Gounod’s librettist expressed in French, for example.
But whether it’s writing a symphony or choosing colors for a quilt pattern, I think the heart of the creative process is generally the same. One’s accumulated knowledge is used to help inspire the most interesting connections. It stands to reason the creative mind is conditioned to be looking for connections—whether that’s the task at hand or not—and I like to flatter myself by thinking this is the reason my attention sometimes wanders from its appointed task.
One of the ways I have always experienced attention deficit has been with reading fiction. Attention-distraction is probably a better way of putting it. When I’m reading a long narrative (especially novels), I find it hard not to keep thinking about details I’ve already read when my enjoyment would be better served by focusing on what I’m reading. I’m always worried I’ve missed something, some important connection. That doesn’t mean people who read fluently aren’t thinking about what they’ve read; it makes no sense to think of “reading” a long work if there’s not a running thread of thought—but I struggle more than I should with keeping my topmost focus in the right place.
On a fairly trivial level, it used to drive me crazy to be watching a movie or TV show in which a familiar face I couldn’t place showed up; I might spend days trying to figure out where I’d seen that actor before. I used to dream about something like the Internet that would allow me to simply look up actors and learn where else I might have seen them. Now that I know the answer to such questions is just a few clicks away, I find it easier not to get distracted by such things. So this brings me back to my love for links and hyperlinks. They can actually put my hyper mind at ease. There’s a sense in which a hyperlink functions like a more transparent and infinitely more flexible footnote. The reader is invited to dig deeper into an idea, find a definition, or follow a citation as part of the natural flow of the prose. At their best, hyperlinks can let a reader make some of the same sorts of connections that the writer has made. And, at its best, the Internet allows for a rich web of connections that could scarcely have been imagined a few decades ago.
I waited more than half my life for the Internet, and I’m so glad it’s here; it fits my way of thinking “to a T.” Perhaps a better-ordered mind could keep an old-fashioned notebook journal and also keep track of all the internal connections from entry to entry, but the blogging medium has made it natural to write in a way that communicates both with my previous posts and with those of others. It’s quite satisfying to be able to make those connections more explicit—and, yes, to send readers off to other interesting hyperspaces. (See, if this were a blog post, that last sentence would have offered the hyperpromise of some unexpected but rewarding destination.)