On Paying Attention / by Karie Luidens

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to see the great spoken word artist Buddy Wakefield live at the Hugo House here in Seattle. And I was foolish enough to take notes during his performance.

I settled into my seat a bit early, smack in front of the stage and just one row back. Close enough, in other words, that the red-green-blue stage lights kaleidoscoping to white on the microphone caught me in their edges: my feet glowed blue, my lap green. I’d have a great view of Wakefield.

I should’ve realized he’d have a great view of me, too.

It’s sometimes awkward to take notes at a literary reading—the last thing I want is to distract my fellow spectators by scratching away in the dark with a pen. Here, though, I thought I’d be safe. “Hugo House: a place for writers” is the host’s official tagline. Surely I was surrounded by poets and prose-artists eager not just to enjoy themselves but to learn. Surely I wasn’t the only one with a writing implement in hand.

I may have been, though. Those on either side of me held only beer bottles from the cash bar on the far end of the room. Oh well. A place for writers! I clicked my pen into place, ready to jot away.

I scrawled interpretations onto a notepad in my green-glowing lap.

Wakefield took the stage to much applause and after a bit of banter launched into the poetry that’s won him multiple awards around the world. He began with my favorite of his poems, “Emergencies.”

“We can stick anything into the fog and make it look like a ghost, but tonight, let’s not become tragedies…” he intoned. 

I studied his rhythm, his wordplay, his gestures. I scrawled interpretations onto a notepad in my green-glowing lap. How did he accomplish this drama? What made it so great?

What I’d failed to take into account was the scientific principle known as the observer effect: the act of observing influences the phenomenon being observed. 

The poem progressed and he artfully pantomimed some phrases. Soon enough he was acting out this line: “Tonight, poets, let’s turn our wrists so far backwards the razorblades and our pencil tips can’t get a good angle on all that beauty inside.”

His eyes locked on mine as he mimicked the motion of my pen tip writing its way across a page. I froze.

His eyes locked on mine as he mimicked the motion of my pen tip writing its way across a page. I froze. Suddenly aware of how spotlit I was on my own chair-sized stage, I held my breath. 

Was my note-taking somehow as destructive as wrist-slicing?

“Emergencies” bled fluidly into a version of “Free air!,” which I recognized from his performance at TEDxUSU. “Y’all, we do not need more passion,” he preached, “what we need is rest. And breath. To relieve us from the compounding stress overriding us. Humor me, now do this with me, just take a deep breath through your nose, go.”

I realized I was still frozen and allowed myself a deep influx of oxygen.

“Good, do it again,” Wakefield said.

The room collectively sighed, paused, and inhaled.

“Yeah. Now go ahead and continue doing that. Forever. You’re gonna need it.”

So I kept breathing and he kept reciting. I looked down at the pen in my hand: perhaps I was killing these moment by working through them instead of just absorbing them like so much ineffable air.

There’s a whole mess of advice out there about writing well, most of which amounts in my mind to advice for living well. Read insatiably. Carve out the time and space to focus. Absorb everything you experience as potential inspiration.

One tip that resonates with me is recounted by Joan Didion in her chillingly beautiful memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. She describes how her late husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, always carried notecards so he’d be ready to record any observations or ideas as they occurred. He warned her “when I forgot my own notebook that the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write.”

Constantly writing can be a way to pay attention, yes. It can also be a way to avoid the present moment, can’t it?

Hence the notebook and rattling collection of pens that reside permanently in my bag. Hence, sometimes, my impulse to capture everything in words while its happening. 

In this case, though, it seemed Dunne’s advice for writing well conflicted with Wakefield’s advice for living well. As more of his poetry flowed over me and I continued my conscious breathing, a few of Wakefield’s other lines flashed to mind. I’d read them in his blog earlier that afternoon:

Miracles? Really?
How ’bout reoccurring moments
that highlight how much
we have not been paying attention.

Constantly writing can be a way to pay attention, yes. It can also be a way to avoid the present moment, can’t it?

I clicked the pen closed and lay it to rest in my lap. For the remainder of the evening it glowed that faint green, but it wasn’t really in the spotlight tonight. I was there to experience spoken word. Wakefield had taken the stage, and now he had taken my full attention. 

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this. 

Henry David Thoreau
personal journal, April 24, 1859