Creative Meditation: On Disorientation and Art
We are wired to want to know where we are in the world. We want to know what time it is. We want to know what direction we’re headed. We want to feel steady on our feet.
But it’s hard to be steady on your feet when you’re on an adventure. And our writing, our creations, are all adventures.
As much as stability and clarity are desirable, states of disorientation provide a different kind of kaleidoscope to see life through. To see life at a tilt. To discover worlds that would ordinarily go unnoticed.
When you’re disoriented, you lose your moorings. You lose track of where you’re going, or even where you came from. Travel disorients. Love disorients. Illness disorients. Death disorients. You’re in a place or a state that is unfamiliar. You’re not in a stable, reasonable world. Nothing seems fixed, and perhaps not even safe.
And that can be the best thing for your creativity.
Viktor Shklovsky introduced the concept of defamiliarization in his seminal essay, “Art as Device.” Defamiliarization is the artistic technique of forcing the audience or your readers to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance their perception of the familiar. Defamiliarization serves as a means for individuals to experience the everyday with a new twist, whether it’s through artistic language that reveals the world anew or a new form for a story.
Disorientation is simply a state of transition. It is a search for reorientation. It is a bridge.
There are many different ways to explore disorientation, whether it’s by meditating or taking drugs or staying up all night or exercising for long periods. Such perceptions, illusions, hallucinations reorder experience and create the conditions for poiesis (from Ancient Greek: ποίησις), “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.”
In an infamous letter to his publisher-friend Paul Demeny, Arthur Rimbaud, boldly defined his vision of poetic creativity around a “derangement of all the senses”:
“The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed — and the supreme Scholar! — Because he reaches the unknown! Since he cultivated his soul, rich already, more than any man! He reaches the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has seen them. Let him die as he leaps through unheard of and unnamable things.”
Think of your favorite stories and note when the narrative took you someplace else, when it startled you, shocked you, seduced you, pricked you, jostled you.
Perhaps it was the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in the first Star Wars, a drinking hole on the remote planet of Tatooine populated by a wild assortment of aliens that Obi-Wan Kenobi called a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Or perhaps it was the wild, expansive stream of consciousness in William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury or James Joyce’s otherworldly linguistics in Ulysses. Or maybe it was the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) twist on the dance floor.
While it can be difficult to create in states of disorientation because disorientation can paralyze and overwhelm, disorientation is simply a state of transition. It is a search for reorientation. It is a bridge.
What if you try to create a state of disorientation when you sit down to write? Don’t look at the world as if anything is what it seems to be. Pretend you’re in a land where no one understands your language. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson said.
It’s refreshing to take a break from always knowing where you are.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.