Cinematic Attention for a High-Def Life

Cinematic Attention for a High-Def Life

Any perception you can observe directly in real time can be used to train a variety of attention-related skills.

I like to make a game out of turning ordinary activities into opportunities for practice.

There are a number of exercises I use when watching a film — whether it’s one I enjoy, dislike, or have seen before.  

Many Things at Once

Excerpt from "Kerry James Evans: From Combat Engineer to Poet," by Dana JenningsThe New York Times: ArtBeat, October 22, 2013: 

Like a combat engineer, a poet is aware of many things at once: narrative, musicality, line length, image, rhythm, syntax, etc. A poet is always looking for a balance of literary elements to keep the poem alive. For example, three long sentences in a row will leave the reader out of breath. Too many polysyllabic words can cause a reader to trip over his or her tongue. However, when a poet finds the right balance with concern to formal technique, the poem’s meaning has a better chance of being understood.



by Kerry James Evans, from Five Poems (Narrative Magazine)

 Gary, Indiana

I belly-crawled through rubble
and ash. Sidewalks
shattered against the curb,
and the asphalt
wintered itself like madness
leaving a wolf after the kill,
after the throat bleeds
out onto the ground.

I licked bullets from brick walls,
abandoned the car
at a steel mill. I dropped
from the sky like mortar fire,
like the youth
of this town—sponged
from a five-gallon bucket
and the liquor stores still open.

Kerry James Evans reads his poetry at the Florida State University Warehouse Reading Series.

Evans, K. J. (2013). Bangalore. [Copper Canyon Press, library]

The Shape of the Story Rather than the Shape of Life

Schiller Park, June 15, 2012

Excerpt from "What Is Real Is Imagined," by Colm Toibin, The New York Times, July 14, 2012:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

What occurs as I walk in the town now is nothing much. It is all strange and distant, as well as oddly familiar. What happens, however, when I remember my mother, wearing a red coat, leaving our house in the town on a morning in the winter of 1968, going to work, walking along John Street, Court Street, down Friary Hill, along Friary Place and then across the bottom of Castle Hill toward Slaney Place and across the bridge into Templeshannon, is powerful and compelling. It brings with it a sort of music and a strange need. A need to write down what is happening in her mind and to give that writing a rhythm and a sound that will come from the nervous system rather than the mind, and will, ideally, resonate within the nervous system of anyone who reads it.

I don't know what she thought, of course, so I have to imagine. In doing so, I use certain and uncertain facts, but I add to the person I remember or have invented. Also, I take things away. This is a slow process and it is not simple. I give my mother a singing voice, for example, which she did not have. The shape of the story requires that she have a singing voice; it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.

But the singing voice is a mere detail in a large texture of a self that gradually comes alive - enough to seem wholly invented and fully imagined, although based on what was once real.


Make Good Art

Excellent advice. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Neil Gaiman's commencement address to the University of the Arts (2012):


I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work. 


I don't know that it's an issue for anybody but me, but it's true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it. Except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't wind up getting the money either. 

No Regrets

The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down and I never regretted the time I spent on any of them. 

The Diminishing Returns of Being a Perfect Freelancer

You get work however you get work, but people keep working in a freelance world—)and more and more of today's world is freelance—)because the work is good, and because they're easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. 

People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it's good and they like you. And you don't have to be as good as everyone else if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.

Stumped by the Form

Bert Geyer's visual representation of the form of a sonnet (photo by Bert Geyer)Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer:

"The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that's precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process."

See also:

Almost a Voice

"In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community. Blake spoke of taking dictation. I am no Blake, yet I know the nature of what he meant. Every poet knows it. One learns the craft, and then casts off. One hopes for gifts. One hopes for direction. It is both physical, and spooky. It is intimate, and inapprehensible. Perhaps it is for this reason that the act of first-writing, for me, involves nothing more complicated than paper and pencil. The abilities of a typewriter or computer would not help in this act of slow and deep listening."

~ Mary Oliver, from Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems

The Owl Who Comes
By Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two

the owl who comes
through the dark
to sit
in the black boughs of the apple tree

and stare down
the hook of his beak,
dead silent,
and his eyes,

like two moons
in the distance,
soft and shining
under their heavy lashes—

like the most beautiful lie—
is thinking
of nothing
as he watches

and waits to see
what might appear,
out of the seamless,

deep winter—
out of the teeming
world below—
and if i wish the owl luck,

and I do,
what am I wishing for that other
soft life,
climbing through the snow?

what we must do,
I suppose,
is to hope the world
keeps its balance;

what we are to do, however,
with our hearts
waiting and watching—truly
I do not know.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work 

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you 
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house 
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

It was already late 
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

See also: Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden

The Language You Use Every Day

"Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers. Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences. I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, 'Isn't that something?' or 'What a sentence!' Some of my fellow sentence appreciators have websites: Best Sentences Ever, Sentences We Love, Best First Sentences, Best Last Sentences.

Invariably the sentences that turn up on these sites are not chosen for the substantive political or social or philosophical points they make. They are chosen because they are performance of a certain skill at the highest level. The closest analogy, I think, is to sports highlights; you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks. The response is always, 'Wasn't that amazing?' or 'Can you believe it?' or 'I can't for the life of me see how he did that,' or 'What an incredible move!' or 'That's not humany possible.'

And always the admiration is a rueful recognition that you couldn't do it yourself even though you also have two hands and feet. It is the same with sentences that do things the language you use every day would not have seemed capable of doing. We marvel at them; we read them aloud to our friends and spouses, even, occasionally, to passersby; we analyze them; we lament our inability to match them.

One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you're not looking for them."

~ Stanley Fish, from How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

The Intimacy You Get From Practicing

Flamenco guitarist and Zen practitioner Ottmar Liebert, from “Intimacy Through Practice,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast, September 13, 2010:

There’s a part of practice that I think is inherent in all different practices. The type of concentration, the familiarity, the intimacy that you get to whatever you’re practicing, whether it’s archery or Zen or music or how to make a perfect pancake. You won’t get there unless you get intimate with the subject. You only get there through practice. As you become more intimate, you know more about it, where you can say “This batter is too liquid or too solid or too warm too cold. It’ll act this way.” All that comes only through practice. It comes  up often in conversations with my friends about how people go about life these days, that they’re really not willing to practice anything.

The other day we got to talking about jeans. There’s only one of the old fashioned wooden looms in America. I think it’s actually in Raleigh, North Carolina. All the other ones were shipped to Japan, and that’s in the ‘50s. And that’s where you  get the superior denim because people are willing to make things by hand and become intimate with it. Whereas a lot of people in the United States or in Europe will just go, “I’d rather buy ten pairs at Walmart than buy one pair of really good jeans, even though the really good pair will probably outlast the ten pairs they buy at Walmart.” So, there’s a lack of that—you might say depth—that comes from not practicing, from not practicing a craft.

*     *     *     *     *

Raleigh Denim

Raleigh Denim: Handcrafted in North Carolina from David Huppert on Vimeo.


Billy Batson and the Council of Elders

I liked how the top Oscars were awarded last night. Having a pantheon of previous category winners, each carefully matched with a nominee, was a satisfying blend of grandiosity and tenderness. It did ride a fine line between cool and awkward, but the words of praise from the respected role models with established reputations were more moving and memorable than most of the acceptance speeches. I was moved by the reactions of the nominees. I can’t think of any other consolation prize that has allowed participants to walk away with such affirmation and dignity.

What a curse it must be for the entire world to know you crave something that you do not get. Most of us are fortunate to experience a significantly smaller circle of praise and embarrassment.

We live in a niche market world now. It’s a silly tradition to select one performance from the year and pretend it was the best. If you see movies outside the mainstream, you know that many truly artistic performances go unnoticed by the majority. So much talent never finds a large audience.

But we like to build pedestals. I’m not sure that’s an entirely bad thing. Around the time of the presidential election, I heard Harry Shearer talking about how he can’t do worthy impersonation of Barack Obama until he figures out who Obama is impersonating. It’s true, isn’t it? Consciously or unconsciously, we are all emulating the people we admire.

My favorite acknowledgment last night came from one acting goddess to another. Sophia Loren said that Meryl Streep’s name has become synonymous with the highest standards of her craft. It made me think about how much influence we really do have in creating the perception of ourselves in the minds of others.

Who would you most want to summarize and approve of your efforts and accomplishments?

What would you like your name to mean?

What one thing could you do today to increase your odds of ever finding even a small audience of respect?

Something About My Life that I Already Knew

The Ghost in Love “I love to read a book which, not only I enjoy, but suddenly they say something about my life that I already knew but I’d either forgotten it or I’d never framed it that way. As a friend of mine calls it, it’s the Oh factor. You feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach. That’s right or I never thought of it that way or whatever it is. So when I’m writing, a lot of the time I’m writing not necessarily to elicit the Oh, but to say to the reader, Have you ever thought about it this way? I don’t know if this is the right way or this is going to lead to the right way, but have you ever thought about it this way? And if that leads to the Oh, then I’m happy.”

~ Jonathan Carroll, in conversation about his new novel, The Ghost in Love, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (12.04.08)

“We first meet the Angel of Death in a local cafe as he takes a meal with ghostly Ling. But Death plays only a peripheral role in all this. As he explains to Ling, Ben's fate ‘is out of our hands. Plus, we're fascinated to see what will happen to him now ...’ You'll be fascinated too, if you're alive to the experience of immersing yourself in the most seriously entertaining writing of the day…Whatever the genre, Carroll creates novels so fascinating and intelligent and seriously delightful that no other writer in English can touch him.”

~ Alan Cheuse, from “Death’s Absence, Writ Large and Small,” All Things Considered (12.09.09)

That Empty Space

Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

-- From Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech (12/08/07)

I Don't Have the Faintest Idea

“I’m very much of the school of sitting down with the blank page or the blank screen and going through an agonizing process of admitting that I don’t have the faintest idea of what I could write a novel about. It never begins with a concept or with a story. It tends to begin with a point of view and then I have to discover whose point of view is delivering these visual impressions. With this book, the second chapter of the published version was originally the first chapter and all I had of it were a series of really moody visual impressions of Lower Manhattan at Lafayette and Canal in winter. And I didn’t know who was the camera. And so I had to—in some way that I don’t really consciously understand—I had to interrogate that material and out of it I got my Russian-speaking, Cuban-Chinese kid, Tito. Then I had to discover his backstory.”

William Gibson, discussing his book Spook County on KCRW’s Bookworm

Serve the Story

“Don’t do it if you don’t love it, and be enthusiastic about your work. Really invest it with everything in your being. Do what has to be done. If you have to get up at 2:00 in the morning because an idea strikes you, get up at 2:00 in the morning and don’t wait until you get up at 6:00 or 7:00 or 8:00. Do it when it’s there. Be alive to your career. Be alive to the story. Stories deliver themselves in their own way and in their own time and if you’re not there to receive it, you miss it. It’s gone. Be there. And be there continually in your writing. Be a conduit. Don’t think it’s you making it. Be aware that you’ve been given the gift of the story. Serve the story.”

Bruce Joel Rubin, Learning from the Masters (The Dialogue Series)


I am a dancer. I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.

To practice means to perform, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living. Even as I write, time has begun to make today yesterday--the past. The most brilliant scientific discoveries will in time change and perhaps grow obsolete, as new scientific manifestations emerge. But art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.
- Martha Graham, I am a Dancer