Monday, August 19, 2013

How Good is Your Attention Capability? (It's Often Key to Good Writing)

I love positive brain games, and I've been playing them on a fabulous site for optimizing brain function called Lumosity. Go to their site to learn about the company (excellent bona fides) and sign up if you're interested (I can't put a link in this post because for some reason, every time I try, it goes to my own lumosity activity instead of the basic site--hmmm, maybe these brain science geniuses need to do a few tech tweaks!)

Anyway, within the categories of brain activity I selected that I want to focus on (problem solving, flexibility, memory, acuity, etc.) is Attention, which is consistently THE hardest category for me.

I live in my head a lot, like many other writers. I've known all my life that when I walk down a city street, I'm totally aware of the ambiance, the energy, the colors and sounds, and the light or dark feeling that surrounds me in an aura-ish, or a gestalt-ish way, and I can reproduce that feeling in words.  But if you ask me where a particular shop is that I walk past every day, I probably don't even know that it exists, much less where it is on the street. 

I've considered asking the government if I can get disability payments for this inability (along with some $$ for the no-sense-of-direction problem that also just has to be a physical, neurotransmitter glitch in my brain), but have decided to just work on it to improve it instead.

One of the reasons I want to improve my Attention Capability is that it is so important to notice physical details and retain them for authentic writing. Not just for description of place, but for context in characters' reactions and feelings. Names of shops and their physical appearance, for example, can have power and meaning in the context of a character's experience. 

Of course you can take pictures to help you remember later, but that doesn't have the emotional immediacy of noting the meaning to you in the moment, or the specific feeling that particular name or shopfront or outfit a person is wearing creates in you that is memorable. Real details can be SO powerful when it comes to conjuring experiences and feelings on the page.

This week, at the Brainpickings Weekly site, there's a wonderful article on Attention, called The Art of Looking: What 11 Experts Teach Us about Seeing Our Familiar City Block with New Eyes. Annie Dillard is quoted, beautifully lamenting how urban living can rob us of this key element in experiencing life and expressing in words how that feels, but the article also offers an endorsement of a book that can help us open our eyes to what learning to pay attention to details will do for us:

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates – and itcan be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) – a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different "experts," from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year,

It does look like a beautiful book, on a subject that is important to any writer (especially if you live in an urban location and also mostly in your head!)

Do you notice all the details of your environment or no? Are you aware of how you use these kinds of details in your writing? What do they do for you??


  1. I need to focus on details too. Usually I'm not paying attention as I focus on thinking about what has to be accomplished that day.

    1. I SO get that, Natalie! If you've got a way to squeeze in fifteen minutes a day to play easy computer games, try the Lumosity site. I'd love to know what you think!

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  2. I've been tempted to try Lumosity, and now I may have to sign up. I usually have no problem remembering details. I trust that they're there in my brain and so far I can pull out what I need. But keeping my attention? I get very distracted. Hope there's a game to reign this in.

    1. I'm jealous, Em. Do you find the details you remember resonate with your characters on the page?

      The Attention games on Lumosity do focus on a necessity to pay attention--distraction is the enemy, all right. You might get a lot out of the process, and enjoy it, too. I do. The more you play, the more you improve, and neuroscience has shown that repetition of particular neurological activities actually changes brain function and even structure to accommodate that function, so it does seem like a good thing.

  3. HI, Linda,

    Thankfully, I remember everything. I live in the city and take it ALL in. I do have my iPhone ready for a pic, but my memory is long. I thrive on atmosphere. It shows in my writing. Details are VERY important to me ... they have to be ... I am an artist and interior designer. Now a new facet in my creativity is writing. And I do LOVE this medium.

    A true artist, whether writer, painter, musician, must always live in the moment and squirrel away details for later use. I think it's GREAT that you are tying to improve and you found a terrific book to help you...

    I am impressed that you still wish to learn and grow... THAT, in itself, will make you a better writer/artist. We must never be stagnant...

    ALl the best!

    1. Thanks, Michael, same to you! And congrats on such a terrific memory for detail. Very nice!

  4. Linda, this is awesome. I think Dick is with you. He notices nothing. Okay... you notice the ambiance, he misses that. I find it funny to ask him, did you see that man that just walked past? "What man?"
    What color was that truck? "Was there a truck?"
    I thought it was him... now I know it's an affliction that is spreading in Seattle. I'm having us play this game! lol
    Thank you for the great read today. A perfect coda to my day.

    1. Funny. I can relate! (Ok, I DO notice the trucks that go by) Yes, you should play the games. I'll bet you'd be a whiz at both the attention and the speed ones!!

  5. That's so true! I'm always in my head and I never notice anything. In fact, I have the terrible habit of forever walking around with earphone plugged into my ears, so I have this wall of sound that completely disconnects me from my environment. I love it because it leaves my mind completely free to wander, to day dream, to nit pick whatever story I'm working on.

    This is actually quite an eye opener, makes me wonder what I'd see if I stopped listening to my music and day dreaming, and instead looked around a little more. Thanks for sharing that!

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