Pay Attention!


That’s something daydreamers like me dread hearing.

Back in school hearing that phrase usually meant that I had been staring into space, thinking about some exciting adventure deep in an underground cavern that had taken me far away from the doldrums of geometry or some other tedious subject that was boring the pants off me. Hearing, “Pay attention!” meant someone else had noticed my mental absence and had decided it was time I started suffering like the rest of the class.

Nowadays, it means the same thing – still daydreaming – except now it’s usually my son parroting those words that I’ve said to him a million times, although he’s improved it by adding his own delightful twist. Trevor puts his hands on either side of my face and turns my head so I have to look at him before he says, “Mom, pay attention.” Without this step I may stay firmly planted in my head, ignoring everyone and everything around me for hours.

I can’t help it; daydreaming is an essential part of being a writer and one I don’t neglect.

But so, I’ve come to learn, is paying attention.

During her keynote address at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, Clare Vanderpool, Newbery award winning author of Moon over Manifest, talked about how her mother always pointed out historical sites to her when they traveled and whenever some significant current event happened, her mother always told her to pay attention:

“This is history”. Remember. Clare Vanderpool

Similarly, Gary Schmidt, two-time Newbery Honor winner and author of Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars, spoke at the conference about the importance of paying attention during his keynote address, although his source of inspiration came from his border collies that he walks with every morning before he starts his writing day. He said that border collies can teach you a lot about life: “Pay attention. Surprises are delightful.”

It’s so easy in our culture to miss it all  – PAY ATTENTION!” Gary Schmidt

Sara Shepard, best-selling author of the Pretty Little Liars series, discussed the importance of paying attention to surprises while writing when talked at the conference about how to write a series. And she is a planner. She said that writing such an intricate series where there are so many secrets, red herrings, etc., requires a great deal of planning ahead and outlining, but she always allows for those moments of intuition that just happen as you write.

“Allow for moments to happen while writing.” Sara Shepard

Karen Cushman, Newbery award winning author of The Midwife’s Apprentice, said something similar during her keynote address at the summer conference about looking for surprises in our first drafts. She said that sometimes accidental repetitions or interesting images we’ve created can lead to surprises we didn’t intend – she once accidentally gave the ocean an address.

We as writers are the ones who will be telling future generations what our time – right here, right now – was all about, what will we say?

Will we be too easily distracted by all of our media devices and busy lives to slow down enough to observe the world around us, to share what we see? To let other lives impact us?

A few weeks ago, when I was parking my car, I saw a little girl trailing behind her mother, dropping bits of candy from a box clutched under her arm. She turned to pick up the one of the bits she’d dropped, but her mother tugged at her hand to keep her moving forward. The little girl stumbled forward in her over-sized rain boots, but her eyes swung back to the dropped candy with a sad sense of longing on her face.

That image of the little girl stuck with me all day. I can still see her bouncy curls and loping gait. I don’t know if I’ll ever use that moment in any of my writing, but I’m so glad I stopped to observe that interaction instead of rushing into the store and missing it.

There are simple moments like this all around us every day. Instead of taking out your phone the next time you’re waiting in line, look around you and observe your fellow human beings. Pay attention. You’ll be amazed at the surprises you find.


11 thoughts on “Pay Attention!

  1. I really liked this: “Allow for moments to happen while writing.” Sara Shepard

    I would add to that, have the patience and trust while you allow for those moments. That’s where I feel like I’m at now, allowing the trust…

    1. ha! haven’t we all been that mom? and that little girl at some point as well? that was the beauty of the scene to me.

  2. I love the little girl image and your reminder to look around and observe, which is so important for writers. I keep thinking about Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor I heard discuss technology in a lecture this summer. She said something about how whenever we’re alone, we have become accustomed to pulling out our phones and texting someone. We miss so much rich material for our work (as well as many human connections) that way! I have made an effort to keep certain times and places phone-free, including the kitchen table and the walk to and from school.

    1. Such a great idea! we’ve also had to ban devices from the dinner table – who would’ve thought that ten years ago, right?

      1. Too true. Sherry talked about keeping the car and the kitchen device-free, and I love those rules. My only exception is if it’s knitting night and I get a text from a neighbor wanting to carpool and needing to know my timeline… but then I stand up and move to the other room, or at least away from the table, before answering.

  3. it’s such a cycle! i pay attention then get sidetracked thinking of something i notice then have to refocus and notice another daydream trigger! great observations & advice!

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