Attending to Attention

I’m not very good at noticing things. Paying attention.  Observing [1].  Too much in my own head. Many writing books suggest journaling to capture observations [2]. I’ve practiced using a technique proposed by Lynda Barry: the 6-minute diary. It’s fast and illuminating.

Take a piece of paper (or page of a notebook), draw a vertical line to divide it in half, then, a second, horizontal line across the page, about a third or a quarter of the way from the bottom (see the picture below).  In the top left quadrant, list 7 things that “happened” today. In the top right quadrant, list 7 things you “saw”.  In the lower left quadrant, list one thing you “overheard”, and in the lower right quadrant, list one “question” you came up with.  So, 2 minutes for each list in the “happened” and “saw” quadrants, and a minute each for the bottom “hear” and “question” quadrants.  Boom.  Done. 

Practicing this I confirmed my attention is heavily loaded towards what I “see”.  In fact, when it comes to filling in just one teensy tiny sentence I overheard, my mind draws a complete blank.  This, despite the highly entertaining daily trip(s) to the water cooler in a buzzing workplace with upwards of two hundred employees!  For the question section? Well…I have so many. They require more than a minute of concentration to remember them.   

I kind of fell off the wagon practicing this diary technique these last few weeks… and it shows: drawing this morning (see picture above), I captured a meeting I had with a director, a person I have worked with for…shit, 9 years, and I couldn’t remember what type of hair he has?! Is he bald? Does a band of hair ring his ears?  In the picture I’ve left him bald.  The drawing also reveals a power dynamic I felt powerfully in the meeting but couldn’t articulate…but the drawing answers why: I’m sitting and he is standing and gesticulating at me with an open palm (pushing me away).  Interesting. 

But I have to practice…just like playing a musical instrument or running, the skills deteriorate quickly if one doesn’t exercise them. It’s a dual exercise: first, noticing things, second, translating what I see into words on a page. 

There’s a beautiful excerpt from Lydia Davis’s newest book, Essays One, on Literary Hub this week about practicing observing.  Following Davis’s recording of a variety of types of observations, I’m thinking of adapting Barry’s 6-minute method to this:

If I get my shit together and actually practice this, I’ll write about it…no promises though, keep’n it light. 

[1] annoying analyst notes: Actually, it’s that you notice too much.  You rely a lot on interpreting emotions through body language and tone, taking a barometer reading of the dynamics and interactions between people.  It’s a survival technique honed from quite a young age. 

[ancillary] inner critic notes: It’s very simple stupid, you need to practice remembering what you observe.  Slow down.  And write it down. 

[2] I keep a notebook.  Actually, I keep several notebooks…worthy of a post in itself, so will write about this next week.  But when I have “journaled”, the writing seems only to capture my whining…abstract emotional thoughts and ideas and reflections…archeologists of the future unearthing my notebooks will be relieved to know they’ve found a reliable source of fuel for a fire. It would burn for days…

[ancillary] annoying analyst notes: That’s a bit harsh; you sell yourself short.  Archeologists of the future may be very interested in your complaints about marriage and raising kids and the hamster wheel of a 9 to 5 job.  Heck, even your angst and self-loathing may be a crucial clue for…something…I’m sure…

[ancillary] inner critic notes: They’ll fucking burn it.