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What Writers Know About Paying Attention

On Friday, December 14th, as my husband Zach and I settled into a packed theater of Star Wars fans ready for Rogue One, I finally put my finger on why going to the movies is one of our favorite things to do. The theater is one of the few remaining immersive experiences in our digitally distracted society. 

Because we all know it would be wildly inappropriate to be swiping through #ThrowbackThursday posts or doing your online banking while you’re supposed to be bearing witness to A REBELLION BUILT ON HOPE. *Ahem,* fourth-row tweenagers. 

You’re supposed to be nervous-eating popcorn, getting a bad feeling about Cassian’s trigger finger on Eadu, and then you’re supposed to feel all the feels at Leia’s cameo in the final few minutes (Especially now—what a world without Carrie Fisher). 

You’re supposed to be immersed because that’s the best way to enjoy the full experience. 

In our content-rich society, information is everywhere yet immersion is scarce.

It is attention that lives in short supply. So it is attention that becomes our new gold standard, currency made all the more precious because it is a rarity. 

Technology convinces us that we can be in multiple places at once (seven open tabs, group chats, and at the dinner table), that omnipresence is possible. And that is the cost of undivided attention: it asks that we opt out of everything else. But the cost gives way to the gift of full presence, and that is where we begin to truly see each other. 

So what does this mean for writing? I believe it means the gold standard of attention, in a society where content is king, must be earned. And the best way I know to earn a reader’s attention is through the power of detail [tweet this]

To write slant is to write specific, to glory in particulars. These are the true enchanters of great writing: detail that is vivid, tangible, that evokes emotion and engages the senses [tweet this]. Mary Karr’s gorgeous primer here on “sacred carnality” is not to be missed. 

Like most skills, paying attention is a practice; and like a muscle, we can build it over time. Here are a few things I’ve found useful in this effort: 

Look for the Neon

In the aftermath of her parents’ car crash and her father’s death, memoirist Dani Shapiro described this one word—“devotion”—which “announced itself” to her “in neon” in her mind. So she decided to ask herself why, in a practice she calls the “investigative journalism of the present moment.” 

What neon is announcing itself to you in your life? Notice it and follow it. Trace it back to its source and discover what is there. 

Practice the Senses

At a family reunion one year, held at my father’s childhood lake vacation spot, my dad cannonballed off the dock into the water. When he emerged, the look on his face was of one of open-mouthed, unreserved surprise. “I never knew Lake Gerard had a smell,” he said, as if for those three seconds under the moss-colored water, his boyhood had been returned to him in full. He still talks about it. 

Studies show the sense of smell is highly linked to memory; more so than any of the other senses. As you begin writing, what senses can you tap into to set the scene? The sound of a tea kettle or the steady scrape of a snow shovel, the smell of smoke or lavender, chalk or vinegar, the way the light flickered or fell. 

Save the Scraps

Henry James once said, "A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost." So keep a notebook and waste not! [tweet this] Some writers prefer a classic notebook approach, others prefer to go digital. 

I keep two open Notes on my iPhone. One is titled “Impressions, ” a catch-all spot for anything that strikes my interest: a song lyric, a snatch of memory, a freestyled list of details I want to remember. Another is titled “Words to Keep” which is exactly what it sounds like, so the next time someone talks about “smoke signals” or “shadowboxing” I have my very own place to word nerd about it. 

This open list format work for me because, like a sticky note, it is not meant to be an organized document and this gives me the freedom to write in scraps and snatches. You never know when these will come into use later.

Go for the Good Dirt

One of the best ways to learn how to pay attention is to read other writers who have mastered the art of detail. Most importantly, read well and read judiciously—because your sources blend together and break down into what becomes your creative compost. Yes, your very own garbage heap! How charming. And yet it can be if you’re tossing in the good stuff. 

Every novel, every narrative, every thesis or thinkpiece, all of these churn together like coffee grounds and kitchen scraps in the same compost pile. And slowly, with patient turning and over time, a nutrient-rich soil is created. 

If your sources are good, your soil will be good, and any seeds that are planted in it will absorb their richness and health. The reverse is also true: if your sources are lacking or anemic, chances are you won’t germinate that brilliant idea you were hoping to hatch. 

So go for the good dirt and read richly. Read with a pen in hand and underline anything that evokes emotion, anything that sparks fresh. Notice what works, and why. 

Advent is a good time to practice paying attention, and the new year is a good time to look ahead and set goals.

So I'd love to hear from you: What's on your list of writing goals for 2017? How will you be paying attention in your reading and writing this year? What do you hope to explore? Hit reply to this email and/or tag #SLANTLETTER on Twitter and Instagram and let me know! 

As we enter 2017, my hope for you is that this will be your year to live the life of a writer on whom nothing is lost. A very hearty cheers to that. 

Until next time,

Take heart. Write on. You got this. 

P.S. // A Prayer for Writers

SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, whatever you like. 

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