(Portions of this week’s post previously published on May 26, 2013)
Paying attention, the act of being fully present to our outer and inner worlds is the writer’s work. Susan Sontag advised aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world,” calling it the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argued, “invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly). But it’s not that easy to be silent in the noisy world we live in. I’ve come to embrace silence, but I had to practice it intentionally at first. Like so many, I was mired in the demands of my busy life, the rush-rush world that our culture is with its emphasis on speed, efficiency and instant communication. My attention was pulled in a dozen different directions. Even my writing suffered.
Embracing silence, learning how to be quiet, has become an important discipline for me. Just as writing is healing, so is silence and learning to be truly present in the world around us. My noisy mind quiets; I regain a sense of calm and openness, and I notice things I had previously overlooked. Little by little, I have learned how important silence is to my writing and well-being. It’s why, every morning, you’ll find me on our deck sitting in silence, my only companion a small, affectionate terrier. It is my ritual now, beginning the day in silence and watching the world awaken, listening to the chatter and chirp of birds, noticing the changing moods of nature in the early morning light. These mornings have become my meditation, my prayer, a practice of embracing silence and paying attention. It is a ritual that buoys my spirit and informs my writing, opening my mind to new ideas and insights.
My experience isn’t unique. I was experiencing something that poets had always known. Ted Kooser, writing the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison said:
“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…”
As a poet, the act of writing each day was important to Kooser’s healing, but so was his routine of walking in the early morning. Throughout his book, we discover a touching portrayal of a poet recovering from the ravages of illness and treatment, whose spirit and sensibilities were reawakened in his solitary walks. He too began to notice life around him once again and the beauty of the natural world.
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 and attentive. As he began to notice the life around him again, we “see” his recovery, but it’s the spiritual recovery we are most touched by, not the physical one.
The poet Wendell Berry habitually spent his Sunday mornings in a kind of walking meditation, observing the world and writing poems that became his collection of “Sabbath poems” which spanned two decades. In the preface Berry writes, “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…the poems are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware…”
Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
(In: A Timbered Choir, 1998)
…but first you must have the quiet. Quiet—embracing silence—invites us to pay attention, to opens our hearts and minds to all that is around us. In the poem, “Gratitude,” Mary Oliver, asks–and answers—eight simple questions.
What did you notice?
The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…
The poem continues, in a pattern of a question of the narrator and her response, a treasure of richly described observations of the natural world. At the end of the poem, she poses one last question:
What did you think was happening?
And answers: …so the gods shake us from our sleep.
(From: What Do We Know: Poems And Prose Poems, 2003)
Whether shaking us from our sleep or rescuing us from the demands of an over-busy, over-hurried life, paying attention, as Oliver and others remind us, is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s inside or right in front of our eyes. For the artist, the poet and writer, silence is indispensable, but for all of us, artist or not, we need these moments of solitude and of silence. In Open House for Butterflies, a children’s book written by Ruth Krause and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, there’s one particularly lovely drawing of a small boy sitting by a stream. The caption reads: “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”
Why not re-discover the gift of quiet? Meander along a wooded trail, near the sea, sit by a stream or take a long early morning walk in your neighborhood. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and movement. Write about what you see—one single observation. Describe it and let it take you wherever it takes you.
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