Pay Attention


A pre-literary-award-party speech by novelist Jeffrey Eugenides appeared in the New Yorker online a year ago. It's titled "Posthumous" and advises young writers to be true to themselves and to work as though they're already dead, "... as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate..." (as Eugenides quotes Christopher Hitchens).

Early in his talk Eugenides offers a brilliant prose-poem explanation of why to start writing:

... it wasn't out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you're receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother's orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn't. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it. ...

Key to it all, the central imperative: "You were being told to pay attention."

(cf. NotEasy (2001-03-31), TheClassicist (2004-09-09), DangerousLiterature (2006-03-03), This Is Water (2009-05-21), Coming Back to Your Breath (2011-09-25), Bringing Back a Wandering Attention (2013-02-13), Being Still (2013-05-20), ...) - ^z - 2013-12-05