I have been trying to focus for about thirty-five years. Maybe longer. Maybe my whole life. I don’t remember. The way my brain works made it hard to focus when I was in school. It makes it hard for me to follow directions, to understand maps. Mostly I feel like I am walking on a tightrope and am in the gut-fall moment of unbalance, so not falling takes up much of my concentration.
I know what focus feels like because I have been there, briefly. One time when I was twenty-one, I was in my Eagle Rock apartment doing reader reports for unsolicited manuscripts at the kitchen table, and I looked up and saw a spider web outside of the window, and I saw that it was perfect, that my life was perfect, that I was perfect. My eyes didn’t hurt. Everything was clear.
And so I know it is possible to be grounded and in love with everything, even when summarizing badly written proposals for fifteen dollars an hour.
Thanks to Joyce Maguire Pavao’s suggestion, yesterday I was listening to Mirabai Bush’s interview with Krista Tippett. Mirabai was talking about meditation, and she said you need to be calm, quiet, and stable for any sort of insight to arrive.
Look at that the list of people I had to provide in order to give you the nugget about insight: Joyce Maguire Pavao, Krista Tippett, Mirabai Bush! That’s practically a people train all to get to one thought. You may think I am losing focus here, but I learned a new type of focus from Kate Peuvrelle, my excellence coach (yes, I am an excellent person-in-training), and so this is all going to tie together in my new-understanding-of-what-focused-means way.
One reason I wasn’t able to follow my life-long dream and write a book was because I couldn’t follow a traditional narrative line. It’s the same reason I can’t tell a joke. I have a hard time going A, B, C, D. My mind jumps and connects A to J before I even get to B, and so I would get five pages into a story and already feel bored or lost. I wanted to get off the path of A and go to K, but there was the problem of smooth transition and narrative arc and etc. etc. I lived with the sadness that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything, write, was beyond my skill set.
I used to think this lack of sharp focus was a problem, but now I have re-visioned it into my strength. And I can’t stop writing.
I have, in part, Lidia Yuknavitch to thank. We were walking some twenty-five years ago, and she talked about the white space between paragraphs, about the way space allows the paragraphs to rub against each other and to create friction. There was meaning in the gap. I have been carrying this conversation around with me like a smooth stone ever since. The answer is in the gap; the connection is in the space; you don’t always have to directly link A to B, there is mystery and information in the emptiness between.
Words can only take us so far. Writing about adoption, for example, can be challenging because there aren’t words for many things adoptees experience (the feeling of knowing someone both is and isn’t your mother: the feeling of first seeing a human being related to you by blood), but if I am allowed to use the deep stillness of the page as well as the chisel of the written word, then I have access to magic.
When Kate first taught me soft focus, she had me sit in a chair and she stood behind me, her hands in front of my face. She moved her hands off each side in an arc, fingers gently moving, while I looked straight ahead. When I could no longer see her hands in my peripheral vision, she moved them back until I could see. And then we stayed for a minute or two and breathed and relaxed; I looked straight ahead while seeing her hands in my peripheral vision. I felt my whole body, including my eyes, soften.
Kate told me I was in an optimum learning space and that any time I felt my vision getting too tightly focused, while at the computer, for example, I could recreate that relaxed, receptive feeling by going into that soft focus. I felt calm, quiet, and stable.
I’ve done it with a classroom full of students, and the change in the energy level is palpable when the kids sink into that broader focus. It’s a lovely feeling. It lets you see everything at once without the hard striving for direct knowing.
The artist Jenny Holzer made a sign that reads All Things Are Delicately Interconnected. I think about this probably as much as I think about what I will eat next. It’s my favorite thing about the world: the interconnectedness of things. Of us.
But when you try to write in a linear manner while trying to carry the bucket of the world in your head, you get what people call writer’s block that is, in my mind, not so much a block as a misunderstanding.
You don’t have to write A, B, C, D. You can leap. All things are delicately interconnected. Use the gap. As writers we have tools we don’t even know about because starting in about third grade the teachers ask you to put those tools away (your voice, for example).
I was finally able to write my book because I allowed myself space. I did have a focus for the story I wanted to tell, but I needed to be able to tell it my own way, and that required room. And I let myself have it. I listened to myself. Finally. I wrote what I heard.
I focused on the space between and suddenly anything was possible.
In the interview, Mirabai Bush also talked about radical self-confidence. I love that idea. What if you all felt you had the tools, the permission, the radical self-confidence to put on paper all that was in your heart? It would make for a glorious start to the new year.
Do it. Tell your heart. Because you can.