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It takes me forever to write a column. As I begin making notes about an initial idea, I’m reminded of something I saw or read or heard, and that starts the long and meandering process of going on all sorts of tangents. My curiosity diverts me to places both electronic and physical, anywhere from a quick plunge into Google to a serious road trip.

I can’t call this research, because that would imply a purposeful pursuit of information. What I’m talking about is a conscious activity of wandering without a destination, allowing a space of time that is wholly unmapped.

I know this sounds indulgent and unrealistic. What about deadlines, bosses, clients and hourly rates? And on top of that, we are trained to strive for efficiency and speed, taking the most direct route from A to B. My own tendencies to stray off track are always coupled with guilt (and an acknowledgement of how painful it must be to have Attention Deficit Disorder). I tell myself to proceed in a logical fashion, to finish, to be “productive.” But then I glance up at my bookshelves or my walls or my Internet bookmarks, and I see how much I have grown. If I allow myself to consciously engage in the process of wandering, I find that my work is bigger and richer, and my knowledge base is deeper.

I want to encourage you (and remind myself) to create and allot mental space for this activity. Rather than berating ourselves for going off the path, can we give ourselves some credit for our desire, and even our ability to digress?

I’ve become familiar with my own patterns of digression. Perhaps you’ll find these familiar in your own working process. I recognize them as falling into two categories: left-brain and right-brain.

When I write in my favorite café, which has free wireless Internet access, my digressions are primarily left-brain, fueled by Google, Yahoo! and Amazon window-shopping (with an occasional purchase). The combination of caffeine and an infinite number of links has a powerfully stimulating effect on my analytical brain cells.

My previous column “Presenting Contemporary Art: International Maps of Culture” is the most recent example of circuitous routes. I started off by thinking about the ways in which we, as U.S. citizens, represent and interpret other cultures. I remembered an essay in the New Yorker magazine written by Susan Sontag just after 9/11. I found the piece online, and, after rereading it, realized that it was not appropriate for the column. However, there was a reference to an article about her in the New York Times, which I happened to have saved (Sunday January 2, 2005). That article quoted briefly from her essay “Against Interpretation.” One particular passage was relevant to my column, but of course I couldn’t reference it unless I read the entire essay, which I also found on the Web (www.cis.vt.edu/modernworld/d/sontag.html).

Straying a bit further, I learned that Sontag was responsible for bringing Roland Barthes, an author whom I have often quoted (having learned about him from another digression years ago). I also read that Gore Vidal had once said that Sontag was more intelligent than she was talented. Somewhere along this journey, a box popped up on the right side of my screen that invited me to take an IQ test. I skipped that path, but I did spend a few minutes making notes about how the Internet had used Sontag, who had recently died, in a pitch for a commercial.

For all of this, my column finally contained a total of two sentences referring to Sontag. But I gained new knowledge that will influence future work, and I hope this reference (or some close cousin) will find its way into your left-brain databank as well.

When I am doing visual work, my digressions are typically right-brain. For example, as I prepare my photographs for an upcoming book project, I take side journeys into Photoshop’s “Help,” or I rummage through files of old images. A phone call interruption causes me to take a few minutes to review my latest camera phone videos, but my favorite meandering occurs in the physical space of my studio.

In offices and studios where visual (and more heavily right-brain) work is taking place, there are usually arrays of physical visual artifacts that are not directly related to current projects. In addition to the family snapshots, people tend to collect and display objects that serve as sources of inspiration. To me, the best collections are constantly evolving; I like to think of them as evidence of ongoing digressions. I have allotted one wall in my studio to be specifically for digression.

I tack, tape or nail objects to the wall. There is no order, no theme. Instead, it is a place where I can collect items and pictures that simply interest me visually. The pieces come from recent trips across the country or across my backyard, and range from dried-up rosebuds to postcards of Richard Serra’s five-foot tall etchings. When I look up from the depths of my work, I see surprising connections and patterns. This can elicit a revelation about my project, but more likely it will lead to a few minutes of looking out the window, or a walk to a nearby thrift shop or bookstore. As with my writing, these references and diversions may not be included in current work, but they will be part of my visual repertoire.

In the end, of course, one has to focus, commit and strip away any digression. You, the reader, never see my actual process of digression. (But now you can imagine how many more pages were written before being distilled to this.)

After all, the best work portrays only that which is essential. Every element is purposeful, and nothing distracts. This reminds me of a lesson about type design: every character must be subservient to the overall typeface, never jumping out or calling attention to itself, so that it does not divert the reader from the content. I can’t quite remember where I read this comment, but I’m sure I could find it.

But I digress... CA

© 2005 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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