Novelist Silas House recently wrote in the New York Times* that when he is asked how often he writes his answer is, “every waking minute.” He explained that during his day he focused on staying still in his mind, always observing, writing in his head and becoming his characters, even while engaging in mundane activities. He had learned to notice details (the quirky smile of a woman at the grocery) while at the same time blocking out unhelpful diversions. This is presence with a purpose and is how we must engage the world: observing like an animal, taking in the details, the beauty, the opportunities and gifts that a distracted and anxious mind denies us.
After years away from the visual arts, I took a painting class. Our instructor would place a random object in the center of the room and we would recreate it as best we could on canvas using varying styles and techniques. Easier said than done, of course: therein lies the art. Tremendous focus on subtle details was required, a difficult and learned skill.
But this way of seeing deeply stuck with me. The sky was no longer “blue” or “grey,” but contained multiple variations of color, with shades of ultramarine, ochre and magenta. I now noticed the reflection of dew on a blade of grass and the metallic curve of a dragonfly’s eye. My once vague observation of the world had become acute.
Back when the first Spiderman move hit the screens a friend took his preteen to see it. Standing in the long line of parents and kids waiting to get tickets, a line much bigger than those of competing films, he wondered: what was special about this movie? What was its draw? It seemed that everyone loved superheroes. When he got home he researched how many other characters were in the Marvel Comics family and found out there were more than five thousand. That’s a lot of hit movies. He bought a bought a big chunk of Marvel Entertainment stock and waited. When several years later (after a series of blockbuster comic book hero successes) Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion dollars, he cashed out. He had made enough on the single investment to pay for both his kids’ college tuition. All because one day at the movies he was present, he observed, and then most importantly: he acted.
The taking action is the most important step of all.
Back to Silas House: the point of his NY Times article was that too many aspiring writers spend far too much time talking about writing and not enough time actually writing. We have to act. As Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast advises, we must follow the same advice we give our children when crossing the street: stop, look, go. We must pause, observe what is happening around us, and then be decisive. We must do. Start that business, write that play, scale that mountain. Passive observation and blind action take us to the same place: nowhere.
Open your eyes, Bohemians, there is much we miss everyday. Make it a goal, as Silas’s mentor advised, to discover something new every day. And then—by all means—use it.
*The Art of Being Still by Silas House: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0