The Fine Line of Focus

IMG_4819-1What is your favorite writing moment?

Mine has to be when I’m writing in response to a prompt (could be some detail in a story I’m working on or something entirely new) and I feel that special tug. Something has grabbed me, something that intrigues me, that seems meaningful, even if I’ve no idea what exactly or why. All at once I’m alert, curious to see what’s going to happen, energized, happy as a clam on its favorite rock when the tide is in.

Sometimes this happens after I’ve been free-writing, going with whatever wafts through my mind. Other times it happens when I’ve been concentrating on details of the prompt itself.

Once in the flow, both kinds of focus are needed to keep going:

  • tight, concentrated focus on the detail of the prompt
  • soft, wide open focus to the multitude of ideas and connections that race through a mind in any given moment

It’s like walking a tightrope, one of my choreography mentors once told me. Lean too far over on either side and you’ll fall off.

If you fix your mind too much on the prompt itself and ignore unexpected thoughts and associations flashing in and out of your brain, then the prompt becomes fixed and leads nowhere. Even worse is rejecting those ideas because they seem silly or weird or downright embarrassing.

My experience of my own creative process and of helping students explore theirs, has convinced me that you have to use all those crazy ideas, and work through them if you want to get to the next step and move deeper into your project. To my mind this is one of the main reasons for the dreaded writer’s bl**k.

On the other hand, if our minds are too much in the mode of fast flowing river and we allow ideas and associations to flow freely without remarking or noticing specifics, simply delighting in the surprise of the unexpected images, we’ll end up with a bunch of disparate ideas and images that have no meaningful connections.

We need both kinds of focus.

Harry Rajchgot responded to my recent post on Looking Sideways, by describing a game he used to play in the metro. That reminded me of a couple of exercises I used in my movement classes for developing focus and spatial awareness. Now, as a writer, I enjoy them as a way to get into the moment and find focus and flow before I sit down to write.

The Exercises

1. Keeping your gaze straight ahead, start turning very, very slowly. Very slowly. You must keep moving and you must keep looking forwards at eye level. Your gaze is soft, traveling smoothly as you turn, remaining directly ahead. Don’t become fixed on any one thing. Notice everything that is yellow (or blue or red or pink – choose any color). Your eyes notice the color and move on. Slow and smooth.

Did you see more yellow than you expected?

Where were you surprised to see yellow?

Did you find it easy to soften your gaze and let your focus travel smoothly while still picking up details?

2. The second exercise is based on the same idea: turning with eyes focused ahead. Start by noticing every item that appears in front of you as you turn. Again, keep your focus moving slowly and smoothly. Don’t fix your gaze on any one thing even though you really ‘see’ each item and notice detail.

Now the next time you’ll still focus ahead, but also notice what is just coming into your peripheral vision as you turn. (If you’re turning to the right, what is coming into view on your right?)

This time, look ahead but notice what is disappearing from your peripheral vision. (Turning right? What is disappearing to your left?)

You know what’s coming now, don’t you? Move around slowly, changing direction and keeping aware of what is happening in your peripheral vision on both sides.

How did becoming aware of your peripheral vision affect your frontal focus? Which did you tend to concentrate on most?

Do you know that using peripheral vision can not only help you get into your writing, but can also help you relax, improve your eye health and even your basketball (or any sport) skills?



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