This past Tuesday evening, I led the first fall session of The Writers’ Workshop at Stanford Medical School, a creative writing group for faculty, medical students and alumni of the school. I look forward to these sessions. The writing always delights and amazes me, and the camaraderie that develops out of writing and sharing our words aloud is simply wonderful. In the midst of a demanding schedule of study, teaching, seeing patients or research, the writing group offers a little oasis where one’s professional masks can be removed, and poems and stories birthed from the material of life.
We began with the usual introductions and segued into a few short warm-up exercises. As everyone relaxed, I walked to the wall with an array of light switches on it. I instructed them to turn off their laptops, put pen and paper aside, and close their eyes. Then I turned out the lights. “For three full minutes,” I said, “we’re going to sit quietly in the dark without the distractions of our busy, outer worlds. Pay attention: to what you’re feeling, the thoughts or images that spring up, your breath or body, anything that goes through your head.” At the end of three minutes, I turned the lights on one by one. “Now write,” I said, “anything that came up; anything that begged to be noticed.”
We wrote for fifteen minutes before reading aloud, and to a person, the writing was deep, moving, and rich in sensory detail and description. Paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds is the writer’s work. But in the everyday demands of our busy lives or the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, our attention is most often pulled in a dozen different directions. It’s difficult to quiet our minds, to notice and be attentive to the gifts life offers.
Ted Kooser, former poet laureate and a cancer survivor, knows how paying attention to life’s myriad gifts inspires writing and helps us heal. Written during his recovery from cancer treatment, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison is a book of poetry created from the postcards written to his friend and colleague during his recovery from surgery and treatment. In his preface Kooser describes how the book came to be:
“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”
The long walks, the act of noticing and writing each day, helped him heal. In his book, we find a touching portrayal of a poet, a man recovering from , the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities are reawakened as he begins paying attention to the life and the beauty in the natural world.
Each of Kooser’s poems begins with a note on the weather, for example, “Sunny and clear,” or “Quiet and cold at 6 a.m.,” followed by his observations, rich in detail and imagery, and leading to a reflection and insight. For example:
The sky a pale yellow this morning
like the skin of an onion
and here at the center…
and cupped in his hands, the green shoot
of one word.
Despite his recovery from surgery and radiation, Kooser’s poems do not focus on cancer. In fact, “cancer” enters into his vocabulary only a few times, yet the reader is acutely aware of its presence.
My wife and I walk the cold road
In silence, asking for thirty more years…
I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival. Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
Kooser reminds us of the importance of noticing, of paying attention, and being fully present in the world around us. As he notices the smallest details of life around him, we witness his recovery. But it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one.
“Gratitude,” a poem Mary Oliver, whose observations of the natural world are so beautifully described in her poetry, asks–and answers—eight simple questions. She begins by asking, “What did you notice?” and responds:
The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…
The poem continues, a question to the narrator and her response, each a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world. At the end of the poem, she poses one last question, one that takes us deeper into awareness.
What did you think was happening?
She responds: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.
(From: What Do We Know: Poems & Prose Poems, 2003)
Paying attention, as Oliver, Kooser, and other writers remind us, is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes, of being shaken from our sleep, and in doing so, we embark on a deeply spiritual exploration. As Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”
Pay attention. Try sitting quietly in the dark or with your eyes closed, noticing what comes up in your mind as you do. Or meander along a trail, near the sea, in the woods, even a long walk along city streets. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movements. Write about what you’ve seen. Try focusing on just one thing you noticed, describe it, and keep writing, following it wherever it takes you. What do you learn from what you’ve written?
“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.”
–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek