“Focus. Focus,” I heard a young mother counsel her daughter at the grocery store. The girl was six or seven and snapping her head one way and another, giving attention to surrounding shoppers and the things they were shopping for: spotted apples, tall bottles of oil with silvery spouts, bright blue cans of fava and kidney beans, sunflowers, avocados that really did look like alligator pears.
The store was fragrant and musty: ripening bananas, tiny squares of pizza still warm from a toaster-oven, the late-summer heat pushing through the doorway, coffee being processed through a grinding machine as tall as most adults. And other sounds: wheezing old men, the intermittent blast of an air conditioner, babies calling, laughter, the beeps of the check-out process.
I don’t know what the child was supposed to focus on—perhaps a shopping list, maybe her untied shoelace or where she she saw her brother last. But she was having trouble. Had she been on the edge of tripping and crashing into shelves of canned beans, that’s one thing; but if she was thinking about becoming a writer, she was right on track.
“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” says Annie Dillard. This is necessary for any of us who don’t want to drive into telephone poles or trip on our shoelaces. But it hampers our ability to notice those details that make our writing vibrant and textured, those details that are in our peripheral vision, or hearing, or touch: Did you notice that summer breeze? The prickle of cheap carpet feet in your cousin’s den?
Psycho-neurologist tell us that if we gave even passing, nano-second attention to every bit of sensory data that surrounds and bombards us, our brains would short-circuit, and we would lose our minds, go mad. Choosing what we hear, taste, and see keeps us mentally integrated, as well as safe. But too much focus can steal the rich details a writer needs to tell her story.
“Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.,” writes Alexandra Horowitz in On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. We must become “investigators of the ordinary.” If we don’t, we will depend on others to tell us what’s there—a condition neither safe nor satisfying. And, for a writer, a recipe for boredom—for both the writer and the reader.
Stop focusing, give attention to peripherals: Smell the coffee in the corner, listen for the grind, reach across the bin and hold the leathery ripe avocado. Pay attention to what doesn’t matter. Writers must let in as much in as we can—without going mad. Or tripping on our shoelaces.