When I was twenty-one I spent a summer in Indonesia. Before Indonesia I wrote but I didn’t draw. I didn’t have the patience and I wasn’t very good.
After Indonesia I spent hours drawing. I wasn’t a whole lot better but I was more patient. Indonesia slowed life down for me. Indonesia reminded me to pay attention.
And then I forgot.
Now, I’m too impatient to draw and, most of the time, I fail to pay attention. I find that frustrating because I know life is better when we pay attention. And I know creativity flows from that attention.
On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, is a book about paying attention.
In On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz sets out on eleven walks around eleven blocks with eleven different experts in search of eleven different perspectives on paying attention.
She walks with her dog, her 19-month-old son, a geologist, a naturalist, a sound designer, an artist, a typographer, an animal behavior specialist, a space designer and a doctor.
I read this book because Maria Popova of brain pickings.org said it was “one of the best books of 2013 and among the most interesting I’ve ever read.” This is high praise considering Popova’s extensive reading list and brilliant mind.
I also read it because I want to learn to pay attention. And I thought Horowitz’ book could help me.
On Looking works best as a reminder. A reminder that the world exists only as we see it and that we limit our experience of that world by where we place our attention.
We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we do have blinders.
Creativity is about looking with different eyes, seeing the unknown in the everyday, finding the new in the familiar. In short: Learning to pay attention.
But paying attention, according to Horowitz, is complicated.
Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. I reckon that every child has been admonished by teacher or parent to “pay attention.” But no one tells you how to do that.
It seems like we shouldn’t need to be told how. It seems like paying attention would be the most natural thing in the world.
But it’s not.
It’s not because the process of aging is, in part, acquiring the skill of non, or selective, attention.
Even as we develop from relatively immobile, helpless infants into mobile, autonomous adults, we are more and more constrained by ways we learn to see the world.
We summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars, and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort not to be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day.
We do this to survive. We are bombarded by stimuli: inner and outer, so we factor out in order to move forward.
But we pay a price.
We miss a lot.
The work of the artist is to see that which most of us miss.
The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or before thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage […] To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.
When we assign value to one thing over another, when we give name and function to everything in our world, we stop seeing much of the world. Our job is to widen the gaze and soften the knowing.
To slow it down and open up.
It did seem like the more we just stopped in one spot […] we just started seeing more things.
Paying attention is simple. It’s stopping more. It’s noticing more. But paying attention is also hard. Because we’re busy and we’ve learned not to.
The work is to to return to the world we have forgotten to see. To remember to pay attention.
And be astonished.
And tell about it.
For more on the art of observation check out On Looking. The Untethered Soul is a brilliant book on how to pay attention. You can also listen to this interview of Maria Popova with the author of On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz. I offer highlights of that interview here.