How a Wandering Mind Fuels the Creative Process

How asparagus led one author to think like Edison and Einstein and write his first novel

I grew up in the center of the self-proclaimed asparagus capital of the world—Oceana County, Michigan. While that moniker isn’t entirely accurate, the county does represent a substantial portion of the 20 million pounds of asparagus the state of Michigan produces each year.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Orson’s Publishing and is republished here with the author’s permission.
My father and his family contributed to that huge haul, starting long before I was born. As a child, I’d watch this, the operation, everyone’s role in it. On occasion, I’d even help out, walking behind the cart with a five-gallon pail, picking the few spears passed over.

But in 2009, he called upon my brother and I to harvest the asparagus crop for him. And while I can’t tell you how many acres of asparagus my father had that year, or at his asparagus height, or even how many pounds my brother and I hand-picked and tossed into crates over that eight-week span, I can tell you this: That year, there was just one lone field, and harvesting that lone field sucked.

Really, ask any farmer already deep within the asparagus game—the thing is fucking difficult, from planting to harvesting. Not only does each asparagus seed need to be planted ten inches below the soil surface, but it takes three years for that seed to be harvestable, and then yet another year after that for that seed and its field to be considered mature and capable of producing enough to be picked 25 to 35 times within the asparagus season’s seven-to-eight-week window.

What I can also tell you about 2009’s asparagus harvest is that that lone field was mature. In fact, it had been there and harvested—in conjunction with several other fields of my father’s—for years by a lovely family that split time between Texas and Michigan, and, who, that particular season, had been hired on to harvest asparagus for a neighboring farmer whose additional plantings years before had finally been deemed ready.

By comparison, my father’s small asparagus operation was on its way out. It had to be. His staff of years had rightfully seized a better opportunity; his children were getting older (I was 19 in 2009, my brother 21) and wouldn’t be around much longer to assist; and asparagus is much too demanding for a 49-year-old side-gig farmer to do it alone. So he’d begun the transition to less labor-intensive crops, slashing asparagus for wheat and corn, to crops harvested by one person, on one morning or on one afternoon.

It made sense. It still does.

These sights. The intense sunlight. The consistent chop of the cart’s engine. My busy hands. They all did their part, I believe, in completely numbing my brain. And it was the exact state that my brain… needed in order to wander its way to my first novel.
And of 2009, of that one field, of the last asparagus hurrah, I can also tell you that the weather conditions may not have been ideal for asparagus, but, if they indeed were not, it had to have been pretty damn close. Due to the fact that asparagus spears can grow half an inch per hour under ideal conditions, I do remember some afternoons where we’d have to trek to the field, snap on those rubber gloves, sit back down on that motorized asparagus cart, bend once more at the waist, and snap the same spears at the exact same point we’d snapped them that morning.

It’s just how it had to be. It’s how asparagus goes.

For hours, my brother and I would putter along at maybe two miles per hour, bend, snap and pile the pickings into the plastic crates flanking each of us. At the ends of rows, we’d turn the cart, stretch our backs, re-align the cart, nod at one another, and repeat, reduced to nonverbal communication by the sound of the cart’s engine.

Scenery along the way depended on the time of day. The dampness of morning brought with it an influx of animals—birds poking for worms in the soil our clumsy hands overturned, field mice scurrying about, the occasional lost deer looking for the nearest tractorless orchard. The afternoon, then, brought with it desolation—few animals, if any, uninteresting cloud formations, a dust trail from the F-150s and S10s traveling the gravel road nearby.

These sights. The intense sunlight. The consistent chop of the cart’s engine. My busy hands. They all did their part, I believe, in completely numbing my brain. And it was the exact state that my brain—coming off of its first and only creative writing class (spring semester of 2009), which of course immediately catapulted me to professional status—needed in order to wander its way to my first novel.

The title of that first novel was named after the family it chronicled: The Messengers. The story began with Gabriel Messenger, the son of British parents who immigrated to the United States when he was a child, who enlisted on the Union side of the American Civil War and found himself instead sent west, to Colorado, to keep Native Americans at bay.

Chapter Two, then, jumped ahead thirty years in order to focus on Gabriel’s son, a politician in Arizona. Chapter Three jumped ahead another thirty years, to Gabriel’s grandson, Raphael, who lived in Chicago and had a run-in with one Frank Nitti.

Chapter Four: another thirty years; another Messenger. Chapter Five: another thirty; another Messenger. And so on, woven through history all Forrest Gump-like, until it finally arrived at present day, in West Michigan, when the last of the Messengers leaves the United States, effectively book-ending the family’s journey through America.

… what occurs when your mind “wanders,” is that your mind is actually just working on something else—some other problem, some other memory, some other task on your conscious or subconscious to-do list. Your mind doesn’t just shut off while wandering.
While I won’t for a second compare it to something as complex as, say, House of Leaves, I will say with pride that I still think that it was a well thought-out first effort from an eager and inexperienced 19-year-old young man.

But do I deserve a cookie for those thoughts, for piecing together these storylines while sitting atop a motorized cart, picking asparagus? No.

Because mind wandering isn’t at all unique—according to Mindful, our minds actually wander on average 50 percent of the time. And, as you’ll discover further in the brilliant Buzzfeed video included below, what occurs when your mind “wanders,” is that your mind is actually just working on something else—some other problem, some other memory, some other task on your conscious or subconscious to-do list. Your mind doesn’t just shut off while wandering. (Tweet it) Not at all. It instead seeks and finds this point of relaxation that has historically proved to not only be crucial to the creative process, but a step to the creative process that’s highly sought-after and infrequently caught, even by the likes of Einstein and Edison.

Check out the video:

Today’s Wandering Mind

If, as the video alludes, a wandering mind is associated with so much historic genius, why is that when I Google “wandering mind,” these are the headlines I’m met with on the first page of results (excluding Wikipedia and Dictionary)?:

  • Three Ways to Focus the Wandering Mind – Mindful
  • Is Mind Wandering a Good or Bad Thing | Psychology Today
  • A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind | Science
  • How to Focus a Wandering Mind | Greater Good
  • BBC – Future – Why we should stop worrying about our wandering minds
  • BBC – Future – Concentrate! How to tame a wandering mind
  • The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking
  • Wandering mind not a happy mind | Harvard Gazette

Only one of these eight options shows mind wandering in a positive light, at least within its headline. The others, as you can probably surmise, appear either negative or neutral. But why? What about Edison? What about Einstein? What happened to chasing that glorious point of relaxation, where ideas begin, are deserted, and then picked back up again?

In the Harvard Gazette article, “Wandering mind not a happy mind,” it’s reported that in 2010 psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert used an iPhone app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings and actions as they went about their lives. Paraphrased from that same article: Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping and watching television. During these activities, the iPhone app contacted the 2,250 volunteers (at random intervals), and asked how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

The findings?

Only “an estimated 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in any given moment is attributable to the specific activity he or she is doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounts for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.”

In other words, human beings today can’t stay in the moment—which aligns with what was mentioned earlier: that our minds wander 50 percent of the time—and, because they can’t stay in the moment, the study says, human beings today are unhappy.

Get angry. Be sad. Be confused. Be depressed. Cry. Because you’re human, and it’s okay, and you’ll smile again whenever it is that you’re ready.
Let’s for one moment say that this is true, that a wandering mind makes a person unhappy. Why then would it be something that was sought after by people we consider geniuses? Could it be that these people were also insane? Could it be that they were so driven by one thing, one question, that being unable to answer that burning question resulted in a life incapable of satisfaction? Could it be that these people were addicted to being unhappy?

I guess so. I guess any of those suggestions could be true. I’ll never fucking speak to Edison or Einstein. But just because you’re considered a genius doesn’t mean that you are happy. I mean, look at either of the personal lives of Edison and Einstein, and you’ll see disability, hardship, marital issues and several other things signaling that, yeah, hey, maybe life was easier to accept with a wandering mind.

But where the hell was Einstein’s mind wandering? To a memory? To what he foresaw as his future? Back and forth to relativity? What about Edison? And where did the minds of the 2,250 volunteers wander to before being yanked from the moment with a question that, I’ll throw it out there, they so easily could’ve lied about?

Look, we can’t hijack the thoughts of one another. If it someday becomes a thing we’re capable of, we shouldn’t. Ever. But to so quickly link a wandering mind to unhappiness doesn’t sit well with me.

At first, I thought that maybe it was a generational thing; that the constant streaming of media and entertainment had dulled the imaginations of today; that all we have to wander to now are memories; and when those are unpleasant, we wander to our smart phone apps, to a re-grammed mountaintop, to a convention floor, to a sweet picture of a newborn, to lives we don’t lead but can so readily access and be jealous of.

And part of me still thinks that’s true, that legitimate mind wandering is no longer a thing, that it can no longer be a thing, and that, sadly, the majority of the population operates this way, steering themselves to a life of “missing out.” But I also know that out there, all quiet on the social media front, imaginations are stretching each and every day, more so than they ever have before, solving so many problems before they even sprout.

The sour taste in my mouth, then, is because the study’s hinting at such is indicative of a much larger problem that humans face: Everyone is expecting us to be happy—all the time.

24 hours a day. Seven days a week. 365 days a year: happy.

“Sadness? What the fuck is that?”

“Depression? Here’s a pill. Get happy.”

“Confused? The answers are at your fingertips.”

“Anger? Calm down. There’s no need for anger.”

Yeah, there is. Get angry. Be sad. Be confused. Be depressed. Cry. Because you’re human, and it’s okay, and you’ll smile again whenever it is that you’re ready. even if it’s because of a goddamn daydream while trapped in your nine-to-five cubicle.

Human beings just can’t be happy all of the time. It’s a nice idea. Really, it is. But we aren’t wired to actually find the collective and individual utopia. We’re too complex as a species, too complex as individuals.

But, whether you’re on an asparagus cart in Oceana County, on top of Mount Everest, or at a factory in Beijing, your mind is wired to wander. It has been since birth. You’re meant to explore, to recall, to make sense of experiences, to make sense of life. (Tweet it)

And how could someone suggest taming that?


Featured image by BreAnna
August 24, 2016
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