Guard Your Attention

My old friend Mike Elgan gave some great advice to writers in a recent interview. Here’s a sample:

“Writing is nothing more than organized thinking captured in written language. The thinking is what matters most. When you are thinking about what you’ll write, you’re actually engaged in the craft of writing — you’re doing the most important part of writing. So write in the shower. Write while you’re falling asleep. Write all the time, guard your attention and don’t let anyone steal it while you’re writing, even if you’re not typing.”

I agree and suggest that to write well, one’s thinking ought to be more than organized. It must be well informed, perhaps inspired. Transcendent thought is also organized by written language. If you can read great poetry and say the poet really had his/her thinking in order, you’re missing the point. They went on a journey of the mind and heart, then returned and got their thinking in order to tell us about it. But to be fair, I don’t think Mike Elgan was referring to philosophy or literary writing, but writing in general.

Mike is right about the process. I write for hours when I’m not holding a pen or sitting at the desk. In fact, when I sit down and stare at the monitor without having my idea first, I usually fail. This is where the typing happens, but not necessarily the ideation.

This concept does seem to beg a question: If you are writing while you appear to be doing other things, how do you make the people around you aware of that fact?

I know I seem to be doing the dishes but I’m writing. Please do not disturb.

Guarding attention might be the single greatest challenge facing a creative person in modern life. I wish that writers and other artists would be more specific and expansive about whether they can achieve it, and if so, how. It’s difficult for me. Not just because constant connectivity is a basic expectation of our society, and people interrupt my thought process.

Telephones can be turned off, unplugged. So can the Internet and e-mail. But I have neighbors who truly believe they have an inalienable right to make random and sometimes psychotic noise. Then there are the hard-working gardeners with their lawn mowers, leaf blowers, etc.

Sometimes when it gets noisy where I live, I go to write in a coffeehouse. Occasionally you’ll encounter an ignoramus yelling into his cell phone, but it’s rare. And when you’re peering into a laptop in such a place, no one will ever bother you. Coffeehouses, churches, and mortuaries may be the most civilized places on Earth.

It’s not just a problem for creative folks, you know. Everyone goes out into public spaces and is bombarded by demands on their attention. They go home, retreating to the one place where they have the sole right to decide what to give their attention to, only to find that public has followed them. Others believe their happiness depends on performing for the neighborhood, then demanding that everyone leave them alone.

To guard one’s attention means more than making a space for yourself and flipping off the cell phone. It means creating a state of mind free from the anxiety of the expected disturbance which may or may not come. Because it’s as hard to concentrate when you’re afraid that you’re about to be interrupted as when you actually are. The rush to finish typing the sentence before a car goes booming by, or a neighbor bellows at his escaping cat, leads to anxiety and bad writing.

Guarding one’s attention, then, means finding calm beyond the quiet, and in spite of the racket of life. And I would love to learn from others how to live among The Great Unwashed and find that happy and artistic state of mind.

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