Paying Attention

Gabriellame1_bvcI’ve written about Mindfulness in the context of understanding when animals are communicating, and learning to understand at least some of what they’re trying to say. That’s hard for a verbally focused human, but can be essential for the human’s safety. Almost nothing an animal does comes out of the blue–they’re quite clear about their intentions. The problem is with the human’s ability to see and interpret those intentions.

This speaks (in a manner of speaking) to a wider issue with humans’ relationship to the world. All too often we don’t even realize how much we’re missing, or that there’s anything to miss. We plow on through, doing what we want to do, and using animals, or abusing them, just because we can.

Those of us who are writers have a strong vested interest in waking up to what’s around us, and paying attention. Even beyond the question of personal safety and moral conduct, our writing benefits from it. We see more, and understand more. And that makes our writing deeper, more complex, with more range and variety of characters, setting, theme, all those good things.

One of the most frequent comments I make on editing clients’ mss. is, “Think this through.” In first draft, when the priority is to get something down, anything, just to keep things moving and keep the words coming, what’s there can be quite rudimentary. Characters say what they have to say at that particular moment, whether or not it matches what they said in previous scenes or even paragraphs. Events happen because that’s what the plot needs to happen.

But when it comes time to revise, that’s when the writer has to think about the ramifications. Why does this happen here? How does it follow from what’s happened before? What effects will it have on what happens after?

This means paying attention. Knowing what questions to ask, and how to frame the answers in the larger context of the story, as well as within the sentence or paragraph or scene.

Interacting with animals is good practice for this. When we’re around our fellow but nonhuman sentients, we have to be more aware. To notice things above and beyond the obvious. To understand sometimes quite complex nonverbal communication.

In a herd of horses (or a pack of dogs, or a collection of cats), everything is context. Where each horse is standing, and how he or she stands. Angle in relation to each other and the landscape around them. Body posture: head up or down or neutral, ears forward or back or in between, eyes wide or shut, staring or blinking, nostrils flared or pinched, lips and jaw slack or clenched tight, tail quiet or flicking at flies or lashing in temper, front feet still or pawing or stamping, hindlegs relaxed or restless or lashing out…

There is so much to be aware of. So many options. So many combinations–and almost nothing has to do with vocalizations.

Horses aren’t always perfectly aware, either. They can fall asleep or check out mentally–but something will always call them on it. Another horse moving into their space, or a predator erupting from ambush, or something as simple (to human perception) as a gust of wind rustling the grass, or a bird taking wing.

Then the horse bursts into awareness, and usually into flight, because, after all, she is a prey animal. Horses do not like surprises. Surprises can kill.

There’s a lesson in this for the human. And for the writer, really paying attention, really noticing what’s going on, can be a figurative as well as a literal life-saver.

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Paying Attention — 7 Comments

  1. It’s also why I have so much enjoyed training dogs. They are always telling you how they feel, what’s going on with them. So often we humans either don’t pay attention, don’t understand what we’re seeing, or project human motivations onto our animals. We say, “the dog is lazy,” or “he’s just trying to get away with it,” when the dog’s body language is practically screaming something else.

    We humans do the same, although culture and personal history can mute our natural primate expressions. That’s so fun to write about, when you can have layers of communication and non-communication, everything from written or transmitted speech (stripped of vocal tone, cadence, and body language) down to minute changes in pulse rate, odor, other physiological processes not normally within conscious control. And everything in between. Unreliable narrators are such fun to write, but in a sense, every character is unreliable because of internal inconsistencies.

  2. Thank you, Judy, I love this one.
    Attention and awareness are so important. I just never tied that in with my writing. Your post here just helped me see that. Now it all makes sense.
    Thank you.
    – Hannah (Firle)