Surrounded by… surroundings.
Nothing exists without context, without environment, without surroundings.
The silence before and after a song is what allows us to hear music. How many paintings would be seen without the walls and nails to hang them? Or at least the familiar aesthetic of a Google image search page.
Our associations and assumptions surrounding the contextual environment within which we experience something will always feed our experience of that thing itself.
For better or worse, our habit is to define something through its context.
A meal, by any other plate…
Who could deny the different culinary experiences between a meal taken by candlelight and mahogany, with live jazz to the side, and the same meal taken off paper plates on a blanket, at the beach at sunset? One’s not better than the other – but the two otherwise identical meals would certainly be of different flavors.
As with food, so with the act of creation, of artistic birthing, of writing.
The context of writing, the environment in which one writes, will always have an impact on what goes on the page.
An image floats up of Thoreau scribbling away at Walden inside the self-constructed walls of his cabin in the woods, his forest life bleeding onto his pages – yet even writing of less spectacle is touched by environment and context.
With good reason do college students flee their dorms to find sanctuary in a library to write a paper. Granted, overt distractions play a role, but the matter is deeper than that – inhabiting spaces, we inhabit the mindset we associate with that physical location. Quiet a dorm as much as a library, remove the other students, and still it wouldn’t be as easily conducive to writing as a library.
Different associations create a different mental and emotional landscape.
Shall we obey the inclination of context?
And so, perhaps the best response is to align ourselves with the environmental associations that fit our intention.
Oftentimes, that’s the course I take with my own writing and work.
In a bustling coffee shop, on a laptop, hooked into the internet, the side of business management flows like water. Updates are made, logistical issues are smoothed over, upkeep is upkept – yet when I turn to write, the wheels begin to slow and jam. The management side continues to call, and I struggle to hold attention on what I’m writing.
So outside I go – a park, with an earthtoned Moleskin and a purple fine-tipped Sharpie (who could resist the joys of purple ink?). Under a swaying canopy of sun-drenched leaves, with birds flying overhead and hopping alongside the grass on which I lay, logistical issues fade away, and the words begin to flow again. Luddite clichés aside, it’s undeniably easier to sink into a creative space outside of a hustle-and-bustle atmosphere, surrounded instead by peace and nature.
So, riding the tides, those are the places I put myself when writing is what’s on the menu.
Joshua Bell’s subway adventure.
And yet our tendency to create experience through environmental context sometimes plays to our disadvantage.
By now, many of us have heard the story of Joshua Bell – one of the world’s greatest living violinists – playing a series of magnificent pieces on the world’s most valuable violin during morning rush hour against a wall in a Washington D.C. subway station.
Those 45 minutes, one of the greatest musical exhibitions that a single human being could perform at this point in our social evolution, went almost entirely unnoticed by the nearly 1,100 people rushing by.
In the setting of a subway rush hour, where no one expects to see or hear beauty, we become blind and deaf to one of the greatest artistic spectacles one could witness today.
What else do we miss?
So how much do we indulge the tendencies of context? And what else are we missing out on, thanks to our contextual assumptions?
What do I sacrifice in leaving coffee shops when it’s time to write creatively – what creative energy do I deny myself in doing so? Perhaps I’m just leaving untapped a rich and inspiring – and different – creative context when I flee the hustle-and-bustle.
The peace and serenity one experiences laying under a canopy of trees at sunset lives within, not outside in the trees. What would it open up to reach that place from inside, instead of seeking it outside the self? What if our states of being were not so dependent upon the context we find ourselves in?
How many artists would flourish, if they simply embraced and aligned themselves with the ‘proper’ contextual presentation? Or, on the other side of the same coin: what other Joshua Bells are standing right now in the banality of our everyday world, pouring out their soul – waiting to be heard?
Where do you think context adds a particular richness to an experience?
Where do you think we’re most ‘fooled’ by context?
Join the discussion, and share your thoughts in the comments!
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