Attention as Adventure

One definition of a story: it’s a series of moments of attention.

Grant Faulkner

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I worry that I’m losing the game. I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. I’m not sure how to get back.

I had a conversation with a writer friend recently. We were walking over to a class at the California College for the Arts where I was going to speak to writing students, and I got a flash of a memory of when I was a young writer in San Francisco. I remembered how I’d spend my days traipsing through the Mission, reading and writing in cafes, watching people, dreaming, aspiring, wondering.

I told my friend how much I missed that era of being a writer, how I preferred it to my life as a writer now, even though I’m supposedly more accomplished. The world held so much wonder then. I could go into a bookstore and be transformed into a different person by the time I left. Each day pulsed with a possible adventure, the joy of a new thought.

I can still traipse through those same streets, of course, but somehow it’s different. Somehow I don’t have quite the same access. Age? Maybe. But why does age and whatever jadedness it brings on have to be the culprits, I wondered.

Yesterday, I stumbled on a famous line of poetry from Mary Oliver, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Every time I encounter this line, I have to pause and think about what I pay attention to, what I’m devoted to.

One definition of a story: it’s a series of moments of attention.

Am I devoted to the bustle of my to-do list? Am I devoted to the twisting crimps of a day’s petty emotions? Am I devoted to “making it” as a writer? Or am I devoted to things more whimsical, peculiar, sensuous, subversive, lustrous, delectable, and divine?

We are what we think about. We are what we put our energy towards.

We tend to give our attention away easily. A screen calls us like a siren, and we’re helplessly in thrall to its songs. A touch of envy turns into an earthquake of envy. A worry grabs us, then kidnaps us.

The act of attention is an act of assertion, though: we claim our life instead of being claimed by it. If we pay attention to our attention…

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Grant Faulkner

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.