This week’s Tuesday newsletter is about how we create the world with the kind of attention we pay to it.
This week’s Tuesday newsletter is about how we create the world with the kind of attention we pay to it.
In an essay called “Talking About Bicycles,” C.S. Lewis recounts a “friend” telling him about the different “ages” of his riding a bicycle: first, the bike meant nothing to him, then he learned to ride it, and became enchanted, then, by riding it to and from school, he became disenchanted. Now, taking up the bicycle again, he became re-enchanted.
I think there are these four ages about nearly everything. Let’s give them names. They are the Unenchanted Age, the Enchanted Age, the Disenchanted Age, and the Re-enchanted Age. As a little child I was Unenchanted about bicycles. Then, when I first learned to ride, I was Enchanted. By sixteen I was Disenchanted and now I am Re-enchanted.
I feel this very deeply. I also feel it in terms of the city in which I cycle: I’m not sure I was ever fully enchanted with Austin, but I certainly became disenchanted with it. And now, somewhat thanks to the bicycle, I am re-enchanted with Austin.
There is magic here because there is magic everywhere… if you know how to look for it.
Filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan once said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
That’s the thing about the job: you’re never “off.” If “everything is copy” (Nora Ephron) then you’re always “on,” even when it looks like you’re doing nothing. (Arm yourself with Gertrude Stein, if only as a joke: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”)
I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.
The “always on” thing can feel like a curse, but it’s also a blessing: it means that any boring old experience (grocery shopping, getting stamps at the post office, picking your kids up from school) can become potential fodder for the work, so you’re “always on,” always paying attention, alert, awake to life, alive, casing the joint, looking for stuff to steal.
Sometimes I collage my kids’ homework in my diary pic.twitter.com/4PdS14Smgb
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) December 19, 2021
The metaphor suggests precisely what to do: If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence.
My phone keeps trying to autocorrect “rewilding” to “rewinding,” and I’m choosing to take it as a sign: rewinding can be a kind rewilding.
Rewinding your attention, for many of us who grew up in the wilder days of the web, means going back to older ways of attending. (Clive’s solution is also the solution of Rob Walker and some of my other more interesting friends: cultivate weird RSS feeds in Feedly. And read weird books.)
For me, it also means going back to my beginnings, remembering the weird interests that brought me to my work, re-discovering and maybe re-investing in those interests, and sharing them in the way that has brought me so much…
Update: Clive has dropped a list of 9 ways to rewild your attention!
“Nothing in your education has taught you that what you notice is important,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing.
But everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you.
The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how you write, and what you write,
With your ability to pay attention to the shape and meaning of your own thoughts
And the value of your own perceptions.
Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.
No matter who you are.
Only you can authorize yourself….
No one else can authorize you.
“This doesn’t happen overnight,” he writes. So how does one begin?
Start by learning to recognize what interests you.
Most people have been taught that what they notice doesn’t matter,
So they never learn how to notice,
Not even what interests them.
Or they assume that the world has been completely pre-noticed,
Already sifted and sorted and categorized
By everyone else, by people with real authority.
And so they write about pre-authorized subjects in pre-authorized language.
I have copied this passage out several times now, because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read about giving yourself permission to write, to draw, to do anything creative.
Here is a nice, long interview with Klinkenborg in which he discusses the book’s origin and his teaching.
“What I do now is essentially help students escape from their education,” he says.
They’re taught that what they notice is not important. That the things they pay attention to really don’t matter, because they’re going to be taught how to handle what other people notice, what other people have written, what other people would have said. Well, what if you say to a student, “No actually, what you notice is important and it’s important because you noticed it.” What if you pay attention to the pattern of the way you notice the world around you? What if you pay attention to the perceptions that you have and the character of them, and trust their validity?
Here’s my intro:
The quickest way to improve your creative life is to learn to pay better attention to your everyday world. I love Rob Walker’s mind and the marvelous newsletter he has spun out from this volume. It might be a risky and unconventional choice for a book club because there is no real narrative here—it’s a smorgasbord of 131 exercises and inspirational quotes designed to get you looking and listening and exploring and discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary life around you—but I thought this would be the perfect read to dip in and out of throughout September, a month when we all get busy again after the lull of summer. I hope we can share our favorite quotes and exercises and all the curious things that we notice…
To join our discussion, sign up for the club!
Crimson pepper pod
add two pairs of wings, and look
—Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)
Today I saw the dragonfly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.
Dyed he is with the
Colour of autumnal days,
O red dragonfly
—Hori Bakusui (1718–1783)
I’d never given dragonflies much thought or attention. They are remarkable to watch. Powerful. They can fly in six directions. “A continuous turning and returning,” wrote H.E. Bates in Down the River, “an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight.”
Like all living things, predator or not, dragonflies are vulnerable. Just a few days ago, I found a dead dragonfly floating in the pool. I fished it out with our net, and laid it on a piece of notebook paper to dry. I decided to memorialize it with a few sun prints, which I later made into the collages you see at the top and bottom of the post.
I wondered what happened to the dragonfly, if it got disoriented or flew too close to the water, or died in the air of some other cause in the air and fell.
I’ve since found out that if you see a dragonfly drowning, you can rescue it and hold it in your hand until it gets its wings dry.
“They do not bite or sting people… They are nothing but good and fair, a sufficient reason for summer to exist.”
When its wings are dry, it will fly off.
* * *
“We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” When I was reading about how gymnast Simone Biles’ walked away from her Olympic event in order to protect her mental health, I became intrigued with something gymnasts call “The Twisties.”
Here is how Emily Giambalvo described the phenomenon in The Washington Post:
The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
The first two paragraphs from that article were so poetic, I broke them into verse in my notebook:
Suddenly, you lose your basic skills. The familiar becomes strange. Your routines collapse. Muscle memory is lost. Everything is upside down.
Obviously, the dragonfly didn’t have the twisties or the yips.
But I might.
Maybe we all do.
When everything is upside down, it can be very dangerous to continue as usual.
One must take care.
Take care, y’all.
Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown. “I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.
The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.
Which made me think of a line by John Tarrant I quoted in Keep Going: “Attention is the most basic form of love.”
In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he laments the deterioration of his reading habits due to his time online:
Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Dividing creative work into “deep” and “shallow” seems fairly harmless until you start assigning one more value than the other. There’s a time and place for both.
In my own practice, I often get far more ideas in the “shallow” mode, poking around twitter and skimming articles, than I do in “deep” mode, staring at a blinking Microsoft Word cursor with my noise-canceling headphones on.
That said, my brains feel just as scrambled as anybody’s. But as much as I like to blame my problems on the internet, if you go back a few years, dive a little deeper into history, you find that the sense that life is getting shallower is not just a contemporary phenomenon.
In a recent essay, Hari Kunzru points out that there’s an ancient history of people being worried about the quality of our thought and attention. (Plato, for example, thought writing would cause us to lose our memories.)
“[T]he proliferation of early print publications changed reading habits,” Kunzru writes. “Instead of devoting one’s attention to a small library of precious books, it was now possible to dip into things, to divert oneself…”
Distraction can sometimes be a good thing. In the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot wrote:
Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.
Writers are unique kinds of readers because, for them, reading is rarely an end in itself, but a means of generating more writing.
Emerson, for example, read voraciously, but he read in a way that was useful to him, a way that generated his own writing. In Robert D. Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, he recounts how Emerson skipped and skimmed and sped through books, looking for things to steal, learning to “divine,” books, “to feel those that you want without wasting much time on them.” He told other writers to “turn page after page, keeping the writer’s thoughts before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of.”
And when you come across something that seems worth stealing in a text, one way to absorb it and really extract the meaning of it is to copy it out by hand.
Here’s Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street, saying that reading is like flying over a road in an airplane and copying is like walking it on foot:
The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front. Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.
Benjamin used a land metaphor there, but in her introduction to Illuminations, Hannah Arendt used a sea metaphor to describe Benjamin’s method of appropriation, or building up texts using quotations:
Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate it the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even… everlasting…
Which reminds me: yesterday during an interview, someone called me a “minor poet.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I’m an extremely minor poet.”
“No, no, no,” they said. “A MINER, like a coal miner, digging for the poem in a text.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “That, too.”
We had a good laugh.
* * *
More reading: “The fishes of thought.”
The story goes that the painter Al Held said, “Conceptual art is just pointing at things,” so John Baldessari decided to take him literally, and commissioned a bunch of amateur painters to paint realistic paintings of hands pointing at things:
Of course, all art is, in a sense, pointing at things! The artist sees something and she points to it so you can see it, too.
The intention, the purpose, is not to show your talent but to show something…. I had a very great urgency to show, to share. The cat brings you in things, you know? It was that kind of thing. I discovered things and wanted to share them.
Something similar from Corita Kent: “I just make things I like bigger.”
Sterne emphasized that she pointed away from herself. To Bomb magazine: “I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.”
It’s the same for writers: Good writing is often just pointing at things.
In his most recent newsletter, Oliver Burkeman suggests that people who want to make writing less hard should just think about showing people something that you’ve noticed. “Look, over there,” your writing should ask, “can you see?
“When you write,” says Steven Pinker, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.”
“Which sounds obvious,” says Burkeman, “except that it makes immediately clear how many writers are doing something else.”
Academics are often more focused on showing off their knowledge, or their membership in an exclusive circle…. Journalists are often trying to inflame your anger, or rally support for some cause.
“The reader wants to see,” Burkeman says, “your job is to do the pointing.”
It is the same for blogging, says Robin Rendle: “blogging is pointing at things and falling in love.” (I like his ordering: not falling in love and then pointing, but pointing and then falling in love. Loving something by paying attention to it.)
As I wrote in Steal Like An Artist,
“Step 1: Wonder at something.
Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.”
Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.
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