Last time I wrote to you, dear reader, I was puzzling over whether or not manufacturing serendipity is possible. Since writing that post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I pay attention to (or perhaps, more accurately, how I put myself in serendipity’s way).
The weekend before last, my Dad’s sat nav elected to direct him a hellishly roundabout route home, which resulted in him appearing unexpectedly on my doorstep.
Over lunch we somehow got on to the topic of creativity (or, more accurately, how we come up with ideas).
My Dad writes plays, poems and songs; but his most prolific creative outlet is the pub quiz. He puts together quizzes for a huge number of fundraising events, social events (and just for his chums) every year.
When he’s putting these quizzes together, I frequently receive bizarre text messages from him, here’s an exchange from earlier this year:
Any idea what you call: the-lady-at-the-table-with-the-carved-legs isms?
What??? Lady table legs???
Oh keep up… what’s the ism that describes the likely mistake in the statement “the lady at the table with the carved legs”??? See what I mean?
That is a misplaced modifier… Like the joke: I know a man with a wooden leg called Smith… to which someone replies: What’s the name of his other leg?
So… people who laugh rarely are sad – might or might not have a misplaced modifier?
Yeah that’s a misplaced modifier because it makes the meaning unclear. A clearer sentence could be either: People who laugh are rarely sad. Or: Sad people rarely laugh. Alternatively commas could help aid understanding: People who laugh, rarely are sad. Or: People who laugh rarely, are sad.
Then there was this:
Can you send me a list of songs which have titles in the title? Like Dancing Queen, My Sweet Lord, etc?
You mean royal titles? Gentry? The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Dude (Looks Like a Lady)? I’ll make you a playlist on Spotify…
What question do I need to ask Google if I want to find names of people and places that have le, la, and les in them? EG La Scala, Le Mans, Linda La Plant…
There’s no easy way to do that… I was hoping that Wikipedia might have a ready-made list but no dice. Here’s some off the top of my head: Ashby De La Zouch, Chester Le Street, Stanford Le Hope. La Roux (singer), Matt LeBlanc, Matt Le Tissier (actually famous sportspeople might be easier to find).
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
Anyway, we were talking about creativity over lunch, and he mentioned that people often ask him where he gets his ideas for quiz rounds from.
I asked him how he responded.
He just shrugged and said that he didn’t really know. That ideas for quiz rounds just came to him.
I mentioned the notion of “paying attention to what you pay attention to” and how important the things we notice (or don’t notice) might be.
I asked him if it could it be that those ideas for quiz rounds, came from the things he noticed?
Here’s what he said:
Maybe… I’m always on the look out for stuff that could be a quiz round –
I’ll hear something on the radio, or see something on TV, or I’ll just notice something someone’s said.
If I think that something might make for a good quiz round, I’ll write it down, and then when I have time I do some research and see if I can come up with enough questions. That or I just text you.
I guess that maybe some people don’t notice things in the same way.Colin Smith (that’s my Dad)
What he said reminded me of something Neil Gaiman once said about where writers get their ideas from:
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.Neil Gaiman
I’ve noticed a funny thing about noticing things:
From the ex-boyfriend (who inspired the post about manufacturing serendipity), to Austin Kleon, to my Dad, to Neil Gaiman.
This week I’ve been reading Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Perhaps because I’ve been thinking a lot about noticing things, I noticed this in chapter 84:
Wandering along the Quai des Celestins I step on some dry leaves and when I pick one up and look at it closely I see that it is full of old-gold dust, and underneath some earth profound as musty perfume that sticks to my hand. For all those reasons I bring the dry leaves back to my flat and paste them on a lampshade. Ossip comes, he stays two hours and doesn’t even look at the lamp. Another day Etienne comes by, and with his beret still in his hand, Dis donc, c’est epatant ca! and he picks up the lamp, studies the leaves, becomes enthusiastic. Durer, the veins, and so forth.
A single situation and two versions…
I keep on thinking about all the leaves I will not see…Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
The character (Oliveira) notices the leaves. He collects them and pastes them on to a lampshade in his flat.
Oliveira notices that Ossip fails to notice the lampshade, but Etienne does.
This in in turn sparks a realisation in Oliveira of all the things he hasn’t noticed. Later in this chapter:
…there are lines in the air next to your head, next to your glance
zones for the detention of your eyes, your smell, your taste,
that is to say you’re going around with your limits outside
and you can’t get beyond that limit when you think you’ve caught anything fully, just like an iceberg the thing has a small piece outside and shows it to you, and the enormous rest of it is beyond your limits…Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
It made me think about all the things I’m noticing and all the things I’m not. How what I notice, (and what I don’t), might shape my reality.
Earlier in May, Austin Kleon created some wonderful Pansy Luchador collages. He highlighted how what he noticed previously might have ‘primed his eye’ – causing him to notice related things, and make further connections:
“Yesterday I saw some pretty pansies on a stoop in NYC, and they reminded me of the masks worn in Lucha libre…
I remember just now that the Joe Brainard show I saw the previous day at Tibor de Nagy was full of pansies.
My eye was primed…”
For designer, illustrator and writer Jez Burroughs, this example sentence in the dictionary definition for ‘study’ primed his eye:
He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.
He noticed that there were thousands of these sentences: “all of which read like tiny pieces of fiction that got lost and wandered into the wrong book.” Armed with 12 dictionaries, he went on to write Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings, a collection of short stories each composed entirely of these curious excerpts, otherwise known as example sentences.
The results are delightful, weird, and touching in turn. This is my favourite:
The English language has over five hundred thousand words, but John didn’t say a word all the way home.Jez Burroughs, Dictionary Stories
Here’s what he said about the process of writing the book:
Spend the better part of a year reading and reconfiguring the dictionary to write a book of stories, and you’ll emerge on the other side with more than just paper cuts and a modestly enhanced vocabulary.
You’ll remember how inspiration and small pleasures can hide in plain sight, patiently waiting for a keen co-conspirator to spring them loose.
You’ll find intimate connections between seemingly impossible bedfellows and the universe will suddenly seem more knowable, if only for a second.Jez Burroughs
I’m heading out to buy a dictionary right now.
PS I was flicking through some old notebooks today, and stumbled across something I wrote down back in October of last year.
…and the universe does indeed seem more knowable.