Dani Shapiro
May 13, 2010

On Paying Attention

Lately I’ve been noticing that my attention is often split.  I’m on the phone and checking email.  I’m driving and checking my iphone at red lights.  (Only at red lights!)  I’m listening to my son with half an ear.  I’m in the middle of my yoga practice but also taking mental notes about what I need to do after.  Talk about not being in the present!  I know I’m not alone in this.  It’s a cultural malady, or I should probably say, a cultural reality, and it’s heading in one direction only: everything is moving faster and faster.  Now that I have an ipad, I find myself, even when reading,  suddenly taking a break to check my email every five minutes–as if an internal beeper has gone off.  Apparently I’ve been concentrating, had a single-minded focus for too long.

I could talk about what this is probably doing to all of our brains, and our children’s brains, and their children’s brains… but what most interests me about the way that my attention feels split, or even splintered, is how it might or might not be affecting my writing.  I have a friend who uses a computer application that actually shuts down her ability to go online for several hours at a time–sort of an internet babysitter.  She swears by it.  I’ve been tempted to try it at times, but am still interested to see if I can discipline myself.  Sometimes I work long-hand.  That certainly works, and I highly recommend it.  There’s nothing like the slow and tactile feeling of holding a pen, feeling it glide across the page, the ink itself, the crossing out of phrases, the circling of words, the use of arrows and asterisks rather than the neat-and-tidy cut and paste function.  Really, even as I type this now, I’m longing for a pen and a notebook.  I started Family History in a blue and white spiral bound notebook purchased at The Andover Bookstore in my husband’s home town.  This became a bit of a fetish for me, and several years later, when I began Black & White, I stockpiled these notebooks.  I still have a half-dozen blank ones in my office closet.  I like the messiness of longhand.  I like the way the pages begin to look indecipherable to anyone but me.  I like being able to doodle.  But mostly, what I respond to is the slowness.  Sitting in a chair with a notebook balanced on my lap forces me to pay attention to one thing at a time.  And when I do that, I am propelled into the moment.  Into the present, and deeply onto the page, where, as a writer, I am most fully alive.