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Attention and Waiting

Vanessa Onwuemezi

‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.’

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

The title ‘writer’ or ‘author’ sometimes sticks in the throat, not because there is anything negative about the terms in themselves, but because for me and many other writers, the primary interest is not writing but living. The writing comes because of the attention given to life.

Simone Wiel
Simone Weil

Attention, what do I mean by that? Weil valued a particular kind of attention, one that is not ‘concentration’, the straining of muscles towards a goal, but is a subtraction, a negative state, a removal of the thoughts, prejudices and desires that usually colour our vision, to allow things to be as they are. Thinking on the subject of writing and wellbeing, I settled on the elements of the craft that have been instrumental in my learning to write and learning to live. The balancing of two seemingly passive activities: attention and waiting.

The commonplace idea of success advocates going through life on the offensive, forcing it to give up what it owes. It follows that we approach a situation or a person by first evaluating what they can give us. This can translate to writing too, resulting in our mining every situation and even our own lives for literary potential. This can work well for a while, but eventually you become tired. I suspect that the term ‘writer’s block’ is one that reflects this attitude towards the world, one in which a writer can only snatch at or fight towards what they want, battling through the thickets only to reach a block, an obstacle.

I have had periods where I’ve been unable to write, my mind seeming like a void, a deep well into which I drop a penny and hear no splash or reassuring echo of water. I have come to learn that this ‘problem’ is one of attention. The world was calling out to me but I wasn’t listening. I was busy, or focussed on a problem in my life, and was unable to carve out quiet moments where I did absolutely nothing, where my mind was empty, attentive and waiting. It was full of thoughts and worries. The mind becomes the ‘block’ which it itself then seeks to remedy.

Stack of stones

Years ago, I was a volunteer for Samaritans, an organisation that offers help to those in emotional distress by giving a number to call and a volunteer to listen at the other end of the line. Their ethos is that the person who has called them has ultimate self-determination, it is they who decides whether to live and how. The Samaritan, the listener, is there to listen, only listen. This is harder than it sounds; day-to-day ‘listening’ to someone is really waiting for them to stop speaking so that we can speak, or giving out advice, judgements and opinions. It is rare that we efface ourselves completely in the act of listening. When I actually did listen, the truly rare occasion of it, I became a vacuum into which the other person was drawn. This is to say that most callers already knew the answers to their own problems and just needed my attention, an empty space, and respite from the burden of their own thoughts.

In this same vein, the stories that we want to write are already there being offered to us writers, if only we would stop looking for them – it’s like screaming into the receiver and expecting to hear the other person speaking back. I have learned when to stay quiet, listen and wait for the words. My writing life has become a balancing of activity and non-activity, effort and non-effort, doing and non-doing, of course there is the writing, but also when there is no writing, there is waiting for the story to come without grasping at it.

It is not easy. I like the idea of wearing myself out so that I can feel as though I have worked. However, if ‘being well’ as writers is of value to us, then it is better to hold ourselves in an attentive stance towards the world. When I am writing the opening of a story, I want the reader to ‘be there’ in it; therefore, I have to practice ‘being here’ in my own life. As Weil once said, ‘life, reality, offers itself to us every day’. 

Vanessa will be hosting a Short Story Masterclass at the 2023 Being a Writer Festival

Vanessa Onwuemezi

Vanessa Onwuemezi is a writer living in London. She is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize in 2019 and her work has appeared in literary and art magazines, including Granta, Frieze and Prototype. Her debut story collection, Dark Neighbourhood, was published in 2021 and was named one of the Guardian’s Best Books of 2021. It was shortlisted for both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Edge Hill Prize in 2022. Her short story Green Afternoon was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2022.

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