I’ve been on a bit of a George Saunders binge. For those who don’t know, Saunders is an American writer most known for his short stories and, more recently, novels, including the popular Lincoln in the Bardo. In his latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders lays out his system for writing. What caught my eye most is this: “What’s interesting to me is that revising by trying to make better sentences over and over has unintended effects, ones that we might characterize as moral-ethical,” Saunders writes. He goes on to explain the foremost quality that makes writing shine is presence. “Are we, the writer, there or not? Is the person across the table, the reader, there (to us) or not?”
The foundation of Saunder’s writing system is in paying close attention—to the work; and to the reader, with whom he is in conversation. The more attentive Saunders is to his process, the better. There is a direct correlation between Saunder’s presence, his enjoyment of the writing process, and its eventual outcome.
It is not surprising that Saunder’s approach caught my eye. He is echoing what so many of my intellectual heroes have said before.
The psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm writes of productive activity, which depends on supreme concern, caring, and concentration. Robert Pirsig, who authored Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, offers a value system based on what he calls Quality, or the connection between an actor and her act. The more Quality, the better. The philosopher David Whyte’s work hinges upon the conversational reality of nature, or the fact that our identities are in constant conversation with everything around us. A deep life, writes Whyte, is merely a deep conversation. Perhaps most direct is the poet Mary Oliver:
Instructions for living a life.
Tell About it.
Paying close attention is not just about doing good written work. It’s about doing good work, period.
Teaching. Coaching. Parenting. Loving. Training. Managing. Leading. Creating. Everything benefits from paying close attention. I’d go as far as to say that paying close attention is the foundation to doing good—and by doing good repeatedly, you start being good—in all aspects of life.
Why write about this, and why write about this now?
Because so much of the current ethos is flowing in the opposite direction.
There are quick fixes or “hacks” for everything. There are “hot takes” on all subject matter, from murder to politics to the Royal Family of England. These hot takes happen most on social media, but sadly, they are becoming increasingly common in major publications too. We are, as the cultural critic Neil Postman first wrote in 1985, “amusing ourselves to death.”
It makes you wonder: perhaps a predominant reason that so many people are unhappy—and so many communities and societies the same—is the degradation of paying attention. As Saunders (and all the others) said, it serves as the foundation of a moral ethical system. Take out the foundation, and what’s left is fragile, at best.
What to do? Be a radical and rebel. How? By paying close attention, and doing everything you can to build a life that promotes it. Is this too small of an act? I don’t think so. I mean you’ve got to start somewhere.
“The place to improve the world,” writes Robert Pirsig, “is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”