Attention, like death but not taxes, is agnostic of caste, class, wealth, race, gender identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, and so forth. You can’t purchase more of it. You have to do the hard work of cultivating it, noting what amplifies it and what hinders it, growing self-aware of the small but insidious distractions that proliferate, clutching and nudging you away from thinking and contemplating and working at a deeper level for extended periods.
I’ve noticed how difficult it’s become for me to stick with reading a long work of fiction. I don’t have the same struggle with most non-fiction, but it’s become rare for me to finish a novel, any novel. And I have the same observation regarding my writing. I can get inspired and produce a blog, and sometimes a really good blog; but it’s still that, a blog, a piece of only a few hundred words, a non-fiction opinion piece. And I’ve convinced myself that this situation is not good.
And then there’s the “so what” factor that admonishes me to notice the pressure I put upon myself, the pressure to start and finish fiction books, the obligation to start and finish writing them. Or to start and finish writing another book, period. As if I have an obligation to write as many books as I can before I die, as if it’s my purpose and that I’ll have failed to fulfill my creative potential should I remain psyched out and inattentive and bored with every idea I create and outline not long after I get started with the first draft.
I could blame technology for diminishing my attention span, for attenuating my focus—but have I not observed these distractions within myself since childhood? The constant cascade of thoughts, the obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, the ever-present gaggle of internal voices guiding me in every direction except toward the chair where I’m to stay put with my fingers typing away and my mind ensnared in the flow of gushing creative work?
I fear writer’s block, of feeling as though I have nothing to say. I fear writing something poor or mediocre, that no one will enjoy reading or be interested in finishing. I recognize how caught up I am in the outcome of a written product.
I ponder whether I’m “supposed” to write non-fiction instead of fiction; considering that perhaps fiction, both read and written, is the exception for me and that I’m naturally wired to gravitate toward non-fiction, that my insatiable hunger to learn is grounded in non-fiction, in a search for truth found more in non-fiction than fiction. And at the same time this feels like a justification and a cop out.
There could be linkage between the challenge of getting caught up in a long work of fiction and the summons to write a long work of fiction. Do both flow from the same undercurrent of curious determination? Are both of these streams constantly at my bidding, pressing against the dam, eager to be unleashed and begging me to stop being afraid of them? And where is pleasure in all of this—the pleasure of reading, the pleasure of writing?
And there’s that devil’s advocate voice still, telling me to question why I’ve been so convinced for most of my life that I’m supposed to be a great fiction writer. And another voice, telling me that this devil is trying to convince me to give up, to take the easy way out, that it wants me to surrender to mediocrity and not face my deepest longings and dare to fulfill them whatever the outcome. To step away from the torture of wanting to be a writer.
Who am I if not a writer? I’ve no idea. And if I ever lose the ability to use my brain, and can no longer consume content nor create content, I think it would be an incomparable existential crisis.