The Power of Paying Attention

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

Well hello there, writers!

How are you all doing out there?

Oh, you’re struggling? Yeah, me too. At least, I’m struggling to write this post. You see, this is the first post I’ve written for DIY MFA since the pandemic started, and when it goes live, we’ll probably still be under some level of quarantine. And I feel a sort of extra responsibility here, as the “wellness” writer for DIY MFA, to provide you with something that will help you address the struggle we’re all feeling. I’d like what I write here to give you solace, or make you laugh, or give you a bit of wisdom to chew on— or, if I’m honest, all three would be great. But here I am in the same boat, trying to keep my head above water. So I went out in search of my own solace/humor/wisdom, hoping for inspiration. 

Unfortunately, most of what I’m bumping up against in the writer-advice space is falling into one of two patterns. In one, the author says, “Hey, writing is hard right now. Maybe even impossible. Don’t beat yourself up; just give yourself time.” Which is great advice, and maybe what most people need to hear right now. Still, I’ve written posts like that in the past— I’m thinking of Writing Through Depression, which went live in the first week or two of quarantine (the relevance was completely unplanned), or How to Keep Writing When Times Are Tough. I don’t think I have anything more to share in that area. 

On the opposite end, I’m also reading posts that say, “Look at all this free time you now have! I’m going to help you manage it and create new habits out of thin air and by the time the quarantine is over, you’re going to have written a novel. Turn off Netflix and get to work, you lazy slob! What will you want to have accomplished when this is all over?” (Obviously, these authors are not speaking to people who are currently on the front lines of this pandemic or suddenly homeschooling their children.) Those posts can be helpful, but mostly they cause me shame. That question, “What will you want to have accomplished when this is all over?” is one I still haven’t been able to answer, and I wonder if anyone has. We’re still getting used to this revolution in lifestyle and how it’s impacted our inner creative worlds. Not to mention, I’ve written posts like that too, though not during a pandemic. Last fall’s series on WHYWHATHOW of the writing process comes to mind. 

So, back to my dilemma: trying to give DIY MFA readers a useful post. Fortunately, a new book landed in my mailbox on the very first afternoon of the quarantine in my county: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. This book provided me with the lens I needed to see my quarantine work differently, and hopefully do the same for you, my readers. 

The problem with the examples I gave above is that both types of posts are focused entirely on time. The “Don’t beat yourself up” type of post gives you permission to self-care instead of write. It allows you time in the longer sense: days, weeks, until you feel ready to resume your writing life. The contrasting “Get off your butt” post is also about time, but at a more micro level: hours, minutes, productive routines. But neither type of post serves us well, because what we really need to focus on isn’t time at all, which we have little control over. No one knows how long this time will last. But there’s one thing we can control, and focusing on it will help. It’s our attention. 

Where is your attention going these days? Where should it be going?

There are ways in which this pandemic is a curse, of course. We have been cut off from the lives we’ve built for ourselves. We have to stay away from loved ones and social spaces. A majority of our jobs are at risk or already gone. Fear pervades our every move; so little is certain. We are experiencing worldwide trauma.

But we can’t control any of those things. So is it worth giving our attention to them? What if instead, we attended to the ways that the quarantine is a gift? They are small ways, but meaningful. For example, most of us are getting more sleep, or at least are able to sleep according to a more natural schedule. We’re eating with our families. We’re cooking more. We’re learning to do more with less, and get creative with our resources. Most importantly, we’re reflecting on every element of our lives, because we’ve been forced to pause them. 

If we focus on what we’re giving our attention to, it’s easy to see how our mindset might shift. We can start doing the things that are most healthy for us— including figuring out the type of writing we can manage right now— instead of focusing on all the things we can’t control. We can figure out how to focus our attention on what matters, instead of trying to fit things that may or may not matter into the slots of our day. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell posits that attention should precede time, not the other way around. She writes, “Tiny spaces [in place and time] can open up small spaces, small spaces can open bigger spaces. If you can afford to pay a different kind of attention, you should.”

Our physical space is small. Time stretches into an uncertain future. But our attention has potential to change our lives for the better.

Well, readers, I hope I was able to give you something comforting and wise. I don’t think I made you laugh yet, though. So in closing, here’s my 7-year-old son’s current favorite joke: 

Q: What’s the difference between a piano and a tuna?

A: You can tuna piano, but you can’t piano a tuna!

Be well, Word Nerds! 

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer and music teacher whose work has appeared in such places as Rappahannock Review, Hippocampus, Mothers Always Write and Confrontation; her live readings include Read 650’s “Gratitude” show at Lincoln Center. As an elementary band director, Leanne can play every woodwind, brass and percussion instrument (just don’t give her a cello!) and has directed over two hundred student performances. She also coaches adults in the art of creative practice through her newsletter, The Joyful Creative. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Leanne lives with her husband and two children in the Hudson Valley. Connect with her at

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