We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.
I forget this all the time, all the time. If I remember to do what the poem ask for 0.1 percent of day—slow down, look closely—then that’s a great day. An enlightened day. Usually, though, it’s nowhere near even that.
The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.
For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time.
Part one: Neglect everything else.
Part two: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.
Of course, it’s not distraction—it’s work, and it’s wonderful when it goes well. I’m sure other, more disciplined people can do it without needing to rush, but I have to. The moment you think okay, it’s work time, and face down the words, you rush past all the other things asking for your attention.
Part three: Keep the Apple homepage, because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.
Just remember, this is how you earn a living. Really hardworking people at the publisher’s are relying on your next book for their bonuses, to feed their kids, pay their mortgage. You owe it to them not to let years fritter away fruitlessly. First and foremost, of course, you owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your book—but if that isn’t getting the job done, remember that it’s other people’s livelihoods on the line as well, not just yours.
These are just some of the sticks I use to beat myself into opening up the file. Once I do, I’m safe. I’m home free.
I do think there’s some relationship between maintaining focus, looking closely, and the act of writing itself. The more you practice really looking, the more convincingly you can build a set for a scene. You become used to looking at the relationships between objects and people and light and time and mood and air. That’s what you’re doing when you’re having a James Wright’s hammock moment, and it’s also what you need to do to bring a scene into being. I think all writers do this. I don’t think I’m remarkably gifted at it or anything, but if there is an overlap between the skill of perception and the skill of populating a scene with objects and people, then this would be the connection.