How to pay attention

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on how to pay attention, published in the online magazine Re-Form.

I’m constantly struck by how often writers remain convinced that the act of writing is sitting in a chair and having their fingers move across a keyboard. Or how often people walk around their cities with their noses glued to their cellphones. Nothing could be more alienating!

In order to write, you first have to figure out what you want to say. And in order to have something to say, you need to use all your observational skills. This last point is what drew me to an article in an online magazine called Re-Form. Headlined: “How to Pay Attention,” the piece offers 20 exercises that all writers (or, indeed, all people) can use to improve their attention.

My favourite tip? Number 10: “Poeticize the irritating.”

Citing the poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith, author of the book Uncreative Writingthe author suggests walking a few steps behind two people engaged in conversation for several blocks. (Maybe I should follow some inveterate cellphone texters?) Here’s why:

Goldsmith takes a cue from John Cage’s contention that music is everywhere if you just learn to listen for it. “Poetry is all around us,” Goldsmith writes — and that includes the poetry of two strangers blabbing, their conversation “punctuated by red lights, giving the speech a certain pace and rhythm.” The same applies, he continues, to the many cellphone talkers who seem to be contributing nothing but noise to sidewalks and airports everywhere: “I like to think of it as a release, a new level of contextual richness, a reimagining of public discourse, half conversations resulting in a breakdown of narrative, a city full of people spewing remarkable soliloquies.”

Seriously, though, this interesting, provocative article holds a lot of valuable suggestions for all writers.

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