Musings on Passion and Paying Attention: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit

I recently gave a craft talk of sorts at UAA, titled “Notes from a Literary Journalist: The Importance of Passion, Persistence, and Paying Attention.” I’d like to pull a few thoughts from that talk to give a sense of my own process in crafting stories and then sharing them with the world – or at least a tiny slice of the world. Of the many elements involved in writing, the “three Ps” have proved especially essential to me, or so it seems now that I’ve been doing this for a while. In this blog entry I’ll focus on passion and paying attention, leaving persistence for another time and entry since it, in my experience, becomes most important when the writer begins the quest of seeking a (publishing) home for his or her stories.

Perhaps because I bring a nature writer’s – and amateur naturalist’s – perspective to the craft and art of writing, for me the entire process begins with paying attention.

Especially when writing personal essays and now a book-length first-person narrative, much of what I’m sharing with the reader is my experience in and of the world. Such stories demand that I be alert to what’s happening both outside me and within. (Even when I’m in more of a journalist mode, I must pay careful attention to the event, person, experience, etc. that I’m reporting on.) Perhaps this seems obvious, but I think I had to learn – or re-learn – what it means to have a focused, deeper awareness while working my way along the writing path. I also think people naturally have that deep, fully present awareness when new to the world (as evidenced by the intense, wide-eyed gaze of an infant) but then most, if not all, of us gradually lose it as we become acculturated. That seems to be part of the human experience, especially in our modern, western, high-tech culture; as adolescents and adults, we spend so much of our time being distracted as we hurry about, make plans, worry, multi-task, go from one electronic device to another, etc., etc.

As briefly touched upon in my earlier posting, one of writing’s great gifts to me is that it helps me – or perhaps better put, requires me – to really pay attention, to be in the present moment. Even now, it’s something I generally do only in comparatively short bursts, most easily when immersed in wild nature. Inevitably my busy mind eventually “wanders” to past or future matters. (Paying attention in my human relationships remains much more challenging; more than one partner across the years has complained about my “selective” attention. But I’m gradually getting better with people, too.)

I reap the benefits not only in my writing, but, more importantly, in how I live. As much as I love writing and sharing stories with an audience, what’s most important is to experience life. Put another way, my most memorable moments are not those I spend in front of my computer, composing a story; rather they are the moments in which I experience wonder, delight, fear, anger, love, or any other powerful emotion (and associated thoughts), while in the company of people, animals, landscapes, or whatever.

And yet, paradoxically, the writing of a story – or the reading of journal notes while working on a story – allow me to vividly revisit and relive extraordinary times in my life. While working on Changing Paths, for example, I was transported back to the Central Brooks Range. In a quite visceral way, I relived my solo trek and encounters with wolf and grizzly and Mount Doonerak; I re-experienced my step-by-step trepidation while crossing large, braided rivers, my battles with mosquitoes, simple dinners of pasta and coffee and chocolate, pounding rainstorms, and conversations with Anaktuvuk Pass’s Nunamiut people. I’m sure many of those experiences wouldn’t have remained so vibrantly clear inside my psyche, my being, if I hadn’t so closely paid attention to my trials and revelations – and recorded them, in great detail, in my journal – because I knew I would later write about them.

I love the phrase that Stephen Trimble uses in his anthology, Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing, to describe the kind of paying attention that I’m discussing: “the naturalist’s trance.” (Elsewhere he attributes the phrase to acclaimed scientist/author E.O. Wilson.) I should mention here that I highly recommend Trimble’s book, even more for his introduction than the stories he’s compiled, written by a variety of top-notch writers. Trimble explores the elements of natural history writing – simply another term for nature writing – through the practices, techniques, and ideas of such accomplished writers as Barry Lopez, John McPhee, David Quammen, Gretel Ehrlich, John Hay, Ann Zwinger, Gary Nabhan, and Edward Abbey. It’s great stuff for anyone interested in such writing, or even writing generally.

As suggested above, the writer’s practice of paying attention should ideally be accompanied by the act of recording experiences, observations, streams of thought, etc. in a notebook or journal. All of this reminds me of the handout that I give to my nature-writing students and from which I’ll borrow here, with a few changes. I created the handout for a class that emphasized writing about place (“from your backyard to remote wilderness”), but much of it is applicable when writing about other relationships, whether with people, wildlife, plants, bugs, pets, you name it. I should also mention that these are “instructions” that I’ve learned to subconsciously give myself whenever something – or some being – has caught my attention and I’m pretty darn sure there’s a story waiting to be told.

No. 1: Get out there, wherever “there” is. Leave day-to-day routines behind. Do something different, even if it’s in your backyard. (Even the house can be a starting place, however, as I’ve learned from my middle-aged passion for birds and bird feeding.) And don’t be rushed. Take the time to settle into place.

Intention: Make a commitment to record your experience on paper. Perhaps because I came to writing as a journalist, I consider note taking essential. I won’t – I can’t – rely on memory. [I will add here that in recent years I have in fact come to depend on that trickster, memory, while exploring and writing about my boyhood years in Connecticut. Memory and memoir really are tricky things and worth a posting in themselves whether by me or some other writer down the line. But that’s writing about the past. In the present, I greatly depend on notes.]

Bring along the necessary gear: notebook and pencil [or pen], all your senses, an attention to detail and an open mind. It also helps immensely to allow yourself a sense of wonder and delight in the world. And humility. Be open to the unexpected; allow the possibility of surprise.

Often it helps to spend some time tuning into the surroundings. If possible, slow down. Allow yourself the experience. Stop thinking and start feeling. Open up to the world, using all your senses. Start paying attention.

At some point you might ask yourself: what’s going on around me? Inside me? What responses, feelings, thoughts are my experience/outside stimuli producing? Notice any memories, dreams, or other connections that are stirred. Of course once you’ve begun to do any such “inventory,” you’ve pulled yourself out of the experience. As Trimble puts it, “Each experience begins as raw sensation. But as soon as writers attend to it, sensation becomes perception and starts to move out of the present and into the past. The naturalists begin to ponder, analyze, and make choices.” So even in this stage, choices are being made, by the simple fact of where you put your attention.

In some circumstances, then, this curious, paradoxical thing begins to happen. There is, in a way, a moving in and out of experience. From experiencing to perceiving to choosing and back into experiencing. The experience, of course, is primary.

I can’t emphasize this last point enough. It can be a big mistake to pull yourself out of an experience too soon in order to begin recording or even “pondering” it, because you risk missing or diminishing the power of what’s happening. While hiking in the Chugach Mountains this past summer, I encountered a wolverine, an animal I’ve longed to meet for years. Though I had my journal with me, I wasn’t at all tempted to begin taking notes until after the wolverine had departed. Yet somewhere inside I instinctively instructed myself to pay close attention to the details of the animal and our interaction, knowing that I would write about the encounter. Immediately after the wolverine loped off, I rushed to my journal and begin writing furiously.

I could go on and on (and I do in my “Writing about Place” handout), but you get the idea.

* * *

Equally as important as paying attention is passion. In fact (despite what I wrote to begin this blog) I’m not entirely sure which comes first; each probably feeds the other. In any case, I have a working theory – or maybe it’s simply a belief – about passion that guides my own work. Simply put, I believe that the best writing – at least in the creative nonfiction genre – is done by people who are passionate about the ideas, relationships, issues, places, etc. that they explore in their stories. This makes intuitive sense to me. Could it be any other way? Yet many beginning writers – at least many of those people who have taken my classes and are new to creative writing – don’t seem to understand it.

Over the years, a surprising number of students have struggled for ideas, for stories to share. That amazes me, because I see stories everywhere. So what I tell them is write about the stuff that matters, the things in life that stir delight or rage or grief. I see the fruits of this approach most clearly in the “free writes” or stream-of-consciousness exercises that we do in class. I am consistently impressed with the quality of writing that results when writers, including those new to the process, focus on what’s important to them, whether family or critters or wildlands or cultural and political issues.

I think too about the writers who’ve touched me deeply, writers to whom I turn again and again for inspiration and insight and because their ideas resonate – or, conversely, because they have somehow encouraged me to rethink my own understandings and ways of seeing. It’s not something I can prove, but I feel the passion in their stories. And I’m sure that at some level, their passions have touched and fed my own, whether they are nature writers, theologians, philosophers, scientists, journalists, psychologists, historians, novelists, or poets. The forms, styles and subjects of these writers are remarkably varied, but all bring a kind of fervor to their work.

As a newspaper journalist, I sometimes had to write about events, people, or issues in which I had little or no personal interest. There was, I admit, considerable merit to that. If nothing else, it taught me discipline and sometimes opened me to possibilities I never would have encountered on my own. And since becoming a freelancer, I have certainly taken on writing/editing projects that didn’t particularly excite me, simply to help pay the bills. But passion has always fed my creative writing. Because so much of nature writing is deeply personal, it’s the perfect avenue for writing about the things that really matter.

1 thought on “Musings on Passion and Paying Attention: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. "…write about the stuff that matters, the things in life that stir delight or rage or grief."

    Great quote, Bill. Thanks. The ideas that I've successfully turned into pieces of writing have been about things that matter to me. An idea I'm drawn to, that I care about, tends to grab me around the throat and not let go.

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