Attention!

An important part of being a writer is being observant. Writers constantly take in details through their senses–sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch–and put them back out again. These observations are a writer’s raw material.

You can’t expect to describe something in a compelling way if you fail to pay attention to the world around you. This is true for all genres of writing, but I tend to notice the effect most strongly when I am writing poetry, because poetry is often composed of distilled observations.

Through the very act of going out in the world prepared to observe and remember, writers can increase their receptiveness to the world around them. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes that she always carries index card with her to write down her observations and insights:

“I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a few words to remind me of it.”

Like Lamott, I find that when I prepare myself to observe and remember I am often pleasantly surprised. The act of attention is one of the greatest gifts writing has given me, I think. There are moments when it produces a strange sense of doubleness, as I focus on a meaningful experience but also on the sensory details and physical sensations it produces.

This can be disconcerting, but the alternative–to shut off the part of me that sees and remembers, the part that is attuned to my surroundings and seeks to find words for my experiences–would be like suffocating a part of my own brain.

It’s too easy as we go through life to fall into routine and stop paying attention to the world around us. Writing forces us to cease absorbing details like a complacent sponge and actively work to take in, remember, and record our observations. How can we find meaning in our experiences if we let them pass us by?

Anne Lamott says that all you are able to offer as a writer is all you’ve noticed. That’s why it’s so important to be fully present. How would you want to observe the next person you meet if you knew beforehand that he or she would someday be your best friend or the love of your life? What details would you want to remember if you knew that today was a turning point in your life, and that nothing would ever be the same?

In your life’s story, you can’t know ahead of time which moments will be the ones that will change everything. You can only observe, and remember… and maybe some day you will see how to fit these details into a larger narrative, whether it is your own or one of a character you’ve created.

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