Writing—and paying attention

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The plaza on a different day. Imagine us on the bench at the right, looking over at a bench on the left.

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.

My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.

As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.

I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.

I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.

We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.

So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,

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Haemulon carbonarium, a member of the fish family that Samuel Scudder observed. By Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.

And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?

The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.

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  1. I love this. As you may remember, I taught writing to freshmen at Long Island University a few years, and I’d get them to take their notebooks out and bring back a description, a conversation (word for word and then tweaked), etc. They groaned but did it, and most returned electrified with new ideas.

    It still works for me. I was invited to take my book to a local bookstore and participate in an “author’s day event.” Feeling weird, I went. When I arrived, the situation was so – watery is the only word I can think of – that I almost turned around and left. But the store owner had bought and stocked my book so I sucked it up.

    Afterwards, I wrote the following letter to the writer friend who’d gotten me involved:

    Dear Frances,

    The bookstore is one of three small businesses in a charming walled courtyard – ancient buildings in a well-planned garden of old-fashioned flowers and medicinal herbs. The bookstore itself is a tiny building at the front, its entrance freshly painted pale yellow, reeking of an acrylic odor that clung. The back room, long and narrow, has exquisitely arranged stacks and rows of books, like a design magazine illustration, and two soft chairs and a chess table by the window. In the front room, a miniature desk shares space with, for the occasion, a tiny table with your book and mine and the one by Sara Hathaway. I was struck with how much fit into this doll house.

    The books are mostly well-chosen reference and nice-edition “classics” in beautiful stacks, all arranged and inviting. Our works are in good company! The young owner, Savannah, has a lovely antique Italian face, huge dark eyes and sweet smile, marred by a broken discolored tooth in front that contradicts the care and order of the shop. The event was not planned well – not planned at all, really. Would we read, or wouldn’t we? What time were we supposed to be there? How long were we to stay? My questions were answered with a smile and a murmur.

    Sara and I were there from 11 to nearly 2 and one customer came in. A young woman with thin hair and disjointed speech. She stayed for nearly two hours, talking with difficulty. And she was inventive with the use of her left hand. Turns out she had had three brain tumors, had given up her teaching job, was writing a children’s book, which she described in broken words and eloquent gestures. After a bit, the sweetness and subtlety of her story began to seep past my discomfort, a story complete with dragon whose secret presence reversed or eased the ills of life in odd and touching ways. As she was leaving, Savannah, who clearly knew her, asked her if she wanted one of the books set aside for her. She nodded and pointed at mine. I signed it to “Shanna,” searching for a personal note to acknowledge that I’d connected with her. But – “Good luck?” Clearly not. Nor “Best wishes.” The encounter left me bemused and dissatisfied. And hungry. I went to the corner store and bought a sandwich (promised by Savannah to be “excellent”) and brought it back to eat in the garden. It was alas almost tasteless.

    ​So – you either missed an epiphany. Or not. Perhaps your day was at least more fruitful, if not more interesting! You probably know that Dwight had double-booked and couldn’t make it, but that was probably a blessing. Where on earth would Savannah have put us all?​

    Sallie

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