Signal and Noise

Somehow the jazz drummer weaves a way through the percussive explosion and finds the beat; they find the signal in the midst of what we perceive as chaos.

Right now, I’m generating text. I know signals exist among the words I’ve been setting down, but you know what? I’m also afraid that’s not true. I’m afraid I’ve only composed a pile of nothing. The problem—or really the opportunity—lies in diving down into the words; no, in moving with them. Because this is, as in so many situations, a dialogue I enter into with the environment in which I find myself.

A tracker sees the marks that indicate someone or something has passed through the terrain. What look like random scratches to the rest of us the tracker sees as pattern, and in that pattern finds meaning, finds consistency, finds a story of a living being’s journey.

How often in the writing or literature courses I taught did my students read an assigned text and decide it was meaningless, consider it random jibberish? I tried to get them to find a path in what they perceived as a trackless wilderness.

I’m talking, or course, about discernment; I’m talking about sifting through sensations to find structure.

I look at a tree and see a mass of leaves, but a botanist looks at that same tree and sees order in the shape of the plant; in when and where the tree branches part from the trunk; in the shape of the crown—whether it soars or sits squat and low to the ground; whether and how it widens; where it tops out. In all of these, where I see only a blurred wall of perception and sensation, the botanist discerns order, finds the signal in what I consider noise.

I can break through my perceptual limitations in various ways. Sometimes I get new information that puts what I’ve considered ordinary in a new light. It allows the structure to appear, as when I find the missing piece of a puzzle, the squiggle that fits into a larger shape with those four or five or six pieces that had fallen on the floor and been kicked under the table. Without that discovery, I never could have known how that section fit together; I had to gather more details for the gaps to become a continuous outline.

But other times, the insight arises from how I look at the puzzle pieces. Sometimes all the pieces have rested in my hands forever, then I turn the right piece in the right way and the structure suddenly explodes into view; the nonsense becomes a pattern. The noise turns into a signal clear as Caribbean water, and everything from the surface all the way down to the bottom becomes visible.

You can call those “leaps of insight,” but they amount to finding the order that was always there. It happened because I turned my mind loose; I stopped insisting on the view I’ve held and allowed myself to consider significant what I once thought insignificant (“not a sign,” not something capable of bearing information that matters).

Creativity starts there. Creativity starts in the willingness to go beyond my mind’s conventional response to information, to sensation, to data. To reach around my mind’s tendency to distinguish, in predictable ways, what holds meaning from what clutters up the scenery. My willingness to release the ordinary way of naming the structures around me and letting my mind build structures anew or at least new compared to how we’ve looked at them before.

Sometimes the structures I suddenly “discover” have existed for eons but were discarded by the current culture. Sometimes the signal isn’t new at all, just a way of looking that we’ve forgotten or disrespected. Sometimes structures get buried and have to be excavated in the same way archaeologists uncover a site that seemed only a random feature; and at that site we find what others or nature had buried a long time ago.

This is how and why creativity disrupts the literal view we’ve held. This is what makes creativity dangerous and exciting and frightening and hopeful. It reminds us that our sensations and our brains get trained; it reminds us that under the structures we’ve been taught to see lie treasures of perception that can rewrite us, and the universe.

Over and over again as a writer, I make this journey. At the outset of each excursion I have moments when the signal seems completely lost, when I despair that I’ll ever find it, or even that a signal ever existed. I can easily convince myself that I’ve been chasing nothing buy noise. At these points, faith or patience or stubbornness—or a practice that coaxes them from—holds me together.

Sometimes the trail peters out and only noise remains, but he world is thick with signals unheard, undiscerned, and forgotten. And the search for signals always matters because when I stop searching, I encase myself in habit and static.


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