Attention without feeling?
Paying attention to the world is the bedrock of storytelling. When Elmore Leonard was asked how he could write such pitch-perfect dialog, he said, “I listen.” Fiction is not reality, but if it isn’t real, it’s wrong. Remember what Chekov said about a rifle above the mantle in chapter 1 (that it must be fired before the book ends)?
If readers can’t feel the heft or see the light glinting off the barrel’s blue steel, the gun is a mere prop. Unless the characters in a story touch off some fuse of feeling in readers, creating the intimate music of empathy or fear or attraction or repulsion, the work will fail. To do that, a writer must pay attention to the sensory and emotional details of whatever in the scene is meant to light that fuse.
The poet Mary Oliver was the life partner of Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, and when Cook died (after forty years together), Mary wrote a book, Our World, surrounding many of Cook’s unpublished photos with her own poetic reflections on the life and love they shared. She wrote about learning to attend to the world by observing Cook’s method of taking photos, brimming with keen attention to and care for what she saw. She wrote this: “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report.”
In his book on creativity and Zen, Abbot John Daido Loori relates an experience he had while learning photography from the great photographer Minor White. On pages 16 and 17, Abbot Loori describes precisely this attention-with-feeling that Mary Oliver is talking about. He is reporting Minor White’s instructions about how to photograph with utter attention and openness:
Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition. If when you move away, the resonance fades, or it gets stronger when you approach, you’ll know you have found your subject. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Don’t try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter. If, after you’ve made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it. Otherwise, continue photographing until you feel the process is complete.
“Until you feel a sense of completion . . . until you feel the process is complete.” This sort of feeling attends both to the subject of the photograph—bow to it, honor it—but equally to oneself—feel your connection to the subject, that is, your awareness in the present moment that you have in fact formed some kind of link with your subject.
Attention and feeling for what?
What is this attention in a writer? I experience it—although I don’t consciously conjure it—when I am as alive as I can be to the inner thoughts and feelings of a character who is engaged in his or her own scene. At the same time, I find myself–again, without consciously intending it–tuned into my own emotion about the scene, and about my life. In that engagement without self-consciousness, Mary Oliver’s attention-with-feeling makes the writing shine, a wonderful moment, fading quickly. Later, I may need to rewrite or even to abandon what I wrote (“kill your darlings”). It doesn’t matter. Those moments of attention-with-feeling are their own reward. Beyond that, occasionally, they yield writing that works, no, soars; work that can be kept.
You might like an example. In an important scene in my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup (the psychologist main character) has to decide whether to let fourteen-year-old Grace, abandoned by her mother, be put into the child protection system, or to care for her himself. I’d been immersed in this scene for more than an hour, struggling to figure out how Ed, wrestling with his own depression, would respond. I wrote these lines of dialog (the first speaker is the attorney who will carry out Ed’s decision, whatever it is); I’ll interpolate my own emotional response where it illustrates the point of attention-with-feeling:
The attorney poured himself a second Scotch. “We need your decision, Ed.”
“I can’t decide something this big so damn fast.”
“We’ve been talking for an hour. Grace’s mother is dying.”
“That’s not my goddamn problem, Jerry.”
[I felt a twinge of guilt at that line.]
The attorney sipped his Scotch; over the edge of the glass, he peered at Ed. “No?” he said, then shrugged. “No, you’re right. It’s not your problem, it’s little Grace’s. She’s the one facing life in the Children’s Home.”
Ed grimaced. “Screw you, Jerry. I’m sick of—”
[Another twinge. I had the odd sensation that I was recoiling from something—something I hadn’t planned for the novel—and doing it through Ed.]
“You’re sick of other people’s problems landing on your doorstep.” Jerry turned and gazed out the big windows at the darkening mountains. “I get that. I’m the all-purpose lawyer that everybody thinks can solve any goddamn problem they bring in the door.” He turned back to Ed. “I can’t, and I hate it.”
Ed shook his head. “Don’t try empathy bullshit on me, Jerry.”
Wham! The twinge morphed into a punch in the gut. I knew what I recoiling from: Years before, in my work as a psychologist, I’d reached a certain point where I felt overwhelmed by the needs of my clients. I’d wanted to push it all away, find some place of quiet, of no-demand. Perhaps I’d secretly wished to be belligerently selfish. But my character Ed wouldn’t be belligerent. He was conflicted, sure, just as I had been, but he was a decent man, trying his best to figure out the right thing for Grace. In other words, Ed was not me and would not express what might have been my unconscious anger. My writing was twisting him into something he wasn’t. I erased the whole scene and began it again.
Attention with feeling for the scene, but also for oneself . . .
Attention with feeling. If I’d kept writing without attention to my own emotional reaction, not only to Ed’s and Jerry’s conversation, the scene would have betrayed Ed’s character, his truest instincts. Given the larger plot, I would have derailed the story, perhaps beyond salvage.
Does this matter in our busy world?
Fictional characters are fictional, but they must be true to themselves, no less than you and I must. So go: Spend five minutes talking and listening with your beloved, with full attention with feeling, then answer whether it matters for fictional characters—and whether the people in fiction might teach us how to attend fully. Take a favorite poem and read it aloud. Gaze at a beloved painting, or behold a landscape that delights you. Do these things with your full attention and openness to the feelings they provoke in you.
Then answer whether it matters.