Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing— love and attention?
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, centers on the experiences of a young woman as she goes about her senior year of high school. It’s about growing up and coming to terms with where you are from. It is also, at its core, a film about paying attention. The quote at the top of this post comes from a scene in which the titular Lady Bird reviews her college application essay with her advisor, Sister Sarah Joan, who notices the particular care Lady Bird treats her hometown with in her writing. The devotional attention Lady Bird has paid to a place translates into her writing and helps her to recognize a love that she was not able to name before the writing. Writing, love, and attention— these things are linked. Sometimes we just need a companion to help us to see that. Once that link is made clear, though, it is hard, at least for me, to not think of that relationship each time I sit down to write.
It is no secret that writing can be hard work. Sometimes, it is taxing. Sometimes, it is a struggle. Sometimes, it is just confusing. That is why places like the Writing Center exist. But hard work can also be joyful work. A theory of attention, I believe, can help to make the hard work of writing a practice of love.
Deciding to write means to deciding to attend to a topic or an idea. It requires committing to a process of discovery and showing up for the words that come out of it. There are many ways to begin this process. Maybe for you it starts with a daily journal and a singular prompt. Maybe it looks like a free-writing session that concludes by scanning for the sentence that worked and moving forward from there. Or maybe it’s an outline that helps you to see what you are writing toward. All of these rituals help us to turn our attention to our words, and ultimately, to our ideas.
When we turn our attention to an idea, we have the opportunity to devote our entire selves to it. It’s a lot like intentional presence in sitting with another person. When we do these things, we learn and listen. These are activities that make room for the possibility of transformation.
“Attention,” French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil wrote, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I think of this quote often, especially when I am writing or thinking about writing or procrastinating from writing. It strikes a chord with me because of its recognition of the difficulty involved in the desire to pay attention. We try, but it doesn’t always work. So we show up again— a lot like writing. The practice of writing requires attention, so what has captured yours lately? Have you noticed anything special or mundane or strange today? What do you need to say? And, can you write it down?