Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 35.
Time for a palate cleanser, my friend. That brilliant brain of yours could do with a long soak in a warm bath of Epsom salts. You’ve been up there hammering the punchbag with those piston-like jabs and now it’s time to switch modes. Rest and digest. Consolidate.
What’s the secret to seeing clearly?
Here’s one answer: boredom.
When I had the psychologist Paul J Zak on my podcast to talk about oxytocin, he made this point that paying attention is metabolically costly. It takes effort to focus on something, be that an object in your environment or a fictional narrative. We’re wired to direct attention to potential threats, and potential sources of pleasure.
With the accent on the first of those two categories, by the way. It’s less important to spot the delicious ripe blackberries sitting in the bramble bush than the express train screaming down the tracks you’ll have to cross to reach them.
To look at anything else – really look at it – we have to overcome steadily escalating boredom. We think we choose what to pay attention to, but actually mostly our attention is yanked around by the content of our environment. Try to do your tax returns when there’s a lovely sweet steaming apple pie on the table next to you, I dare you. Or with a raptor clawing at the locked door, trying to get in. Not easy.
And human attention is now one of the most hotly vied-for assets in the world. Companies monetise seizing control of our focus. Look at this. Listen to this. The attention economy. It’s the price we pay for all these ‘free’ platforms and ‘free’ content on the internet.
I’m not saying we’re necessarily less tolerant of boredom than previous generations, just that we exercise much less control over what we pay attention to than we think we do.
And that’s a problem for writers, because it’s our business to notice the world, and to wake our readers up to it. Good writing grafts a bit of someone else’s brain onto our own. It knocks us out of our old patterns and makes us into someone new.
Today we’re going to be adapting an exercise the author Lauren Groff told me on the podcast when I asked her about how she gets such good description in her stories.
So what I need you to do right now – and if you have to pause the podcast while you sort this out, by all means do so – is to find an object in your vicinity. I mean, admittedly that shouldn’t be terribly challenging in itself, unless you’re listening to this while floating as a sort of sentient gas in a realm of unsubstantial miasmas shaped by thought alone. Just grab something, a pen, a coffee cup, a can of deodorant, your keys, a phone. Whatever.
I’m going to set a timer for five minutes, and for that time I’d like you just to pay attention to the object. Look at it. Study it. Feel it if you like. If appropriate, you could even listen to or smell it. You needn’t do this in any special way. I’m not asking you to make an inventory of its features or to categorise or evaluate, but if you find yourself doing that, that’s fine too. Just… don’t do anything else. Try not to look away. Try not to glance at the time or take a sip of tea, or check social media.
I’m asking, for the next five minutes, for your focus to be entirely consumed by this object.
Ok. Are you ready? Get the object in place. Right. Three… two… one… go.
And that’s time. So all I’d like you to do now is to open a new page of your notebook or on your laptop. And for the next five minutes, I’d like you to write. I have no further instructions for you than that. Five minutes. Write.
Are you ready? Three… two… one… go.
And you’re done.
Now admittedly, that was a bit of an experiment. When I’ve done that in workshops I usually ask people to examine the object for a full ten minutes. I can’t remember how long Lauren said people did in the workshop she went to but it was even longer than that.
I don’t know what you came out with in that five minutes. Whether it was related to the object or totally unrelated. Perhaps you felt slightly anxious that you had missed some instruction, or somehow misunderstood the point.
When I’ve done this in workshops, sometimes people produce very detailed studies of the object they were examining, but the reason I don’t give that as an instruction is that sometimes, people will suddenly pour out a bunch of words on something entirely different. Words that they didn’t know were there. It’s like staring at something and allowing the boredom to flow in, the very real sense of what’s the point of this, performs a sort of soft reset on their brain. And in the relief of getting back to the page, something magical happens.
I don’t know. I don’t know what your experience of examining the object was. Whether you found your mind wandering. Whether you wondered if you were doing it wrong or if perhaps you judged me for setting an exercise that feels rather artsy fartsy. Sometimes you discover new things about a very familiar part of your environment – you notice some detail you never saw before. Sometimes the process can be rather uncomfortable. Even five minutes can feel very long.
You might like to reflect on what your experience of time was like while you were scrutinising the object versus while you writing. Both were the same five minutes. But they can be very different mental states.
Anyway. Something to chew over, and hopefully an interesting dip into this idea of selective attention, which we’ll return to tomorrow. See you then.