On Paying Attention

One of the greatest gifts of a mindfulness practice as a writer is that mindfulness teaches you how to pay attention. And writing is all about paying attention.

41K7pfxbA2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Poetry godess Mary Oliver has this to say on the subject in her divine A Poetry Handbook:

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers–has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”


1232Here is what happens when a writer pays attention, courtesy of the incomparable Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Windone of my absolute favorite reads and one that overflows with incandescent details and observations:


“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”


“. . .sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?”
“Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.” 



You can’t write like that unless you set a magnifying glass over the intricacies of your own human self and of those around you–the parts of you and of being human that you understand, and especially the parts you don’t. Writing like this–the ability to make incisive observations with words that are at once fresh and deeply familiar–comes from a willingness to inhabit oneself completely and to dive deep into human experience, in this case, the intimacy of our relationship to the books we read and the subtle depth of everyday interactions. This requires stillness, both internally and externally. Words such as these can be written in a great many places, but they do not get written between emails and Tweeting.

I imagine these passages being set down late at night in Barcelona, in a flat that, if you lean just so over the balcony railing, has a great view of La Sagrada Familia. There is red wine and a warm mediterranean breeze. And if Fermin is anywhere nearby, Manchego is involved. Carlos leans back in his leather desk chair, enjoying the faint whiff of good Cuban cigars that trickle in from his neighbor next door. He strokes his chin in the silence of his study, fully inhabiting this moment. He wonders: Why does it seem easier to speak to strangers? 

Robert Doisneau. ‘Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris’ 1958


He searches his memory, hears the voice of the woman he sat beside at the bar a few nights ago, enjoying tapas. He’d told her about a painful childhood memory over patatas bravas and chorizo. It had been easy. Freeing, even. Free. Ah, there it is: he could just be himself, not a New York Times Bestselling author. Just Carlos, who would like another round of sangria, muchas gracias. The words tumble into the silence of his study, out of his fingers and onto the page. …a stranger sees us as the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are…

Somewhere outside, a girl is laughing, the sound like small, pealing bells.

So how do we, as Mary Oliver says, stand long enough among the flowers so that we can access a treasure trove of mindful moments and trains of creative thought? 

By paying attention in our daily lives, by being mindful, our known and felt experience becomes the vehicle through which we tap into our own wellspring of memory, knowledge, and emotion. Being a keen observer in all our interactions and experiences allows us to make the kinds of satisfying connections and startling realizations that gift a reader with the experience of feeling known and waking up to the world around them.

How do we take our mindfulness practice into our writing sessions?


First, we get quiet. This is essential. We don’t have to be in a quiet place, per se, but we must be somewhere that allows us to shift our internal compass to our true norths. If you feel closely, you’ll find that there’s a silent clicking into place when you reach yourself, as though your outer self were a space ship docking at a station high above Earth.

We look inward. Mindfulness means fully inhabiting the present moment in a moment-to-moment awareness of both the internal and external environment. When you’re writing, the internal will take precedence. Go there. Dive deep.

We tune in to sensation, utilizing all five senses to fully inhabit our skin.

We invite ourselves to be expansive, to go beyond our usual boundaries, borders, and walls. This means that we welcome whatever comes our way–pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral: it’s all good. The perfect phrase can be found here, as well as clarity and penetrating insight.

“The language of the poem,” Oliver says, “is the language of particulars.” Happy hunting.


Breathe. Write. Repeat.

insta MFW logo

As usual, you can sign up for my newsletter for exclusive posts on the writing life, meditation and mindfulness for creatives, and more. If you’re a lady writer, please join us on the Pneuma Facebook Group for daily inspiration, motivation, and community. If you’re interested in working with me as a writing coach, don’t be shy: email me and I’ll get back to you ASAP. You can also check out the Pneuma Creative site for coaching, editorial, and class info. Happy writing! 


Psst: flower art by unknown – let me know if this was you!

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