Ted McMahon

It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft

Paying Attention

Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday April 14, 2005

Esther told me I could talk about anything I wanted as long as I kept it under 15 minutes. So let me talk with you about paying attention, how it relates to my writing, and perhaps to yours. I'm not here to deliver a lecture, but to share some ideas that I hope will lead to a conversation about how each of you approaches your creative work. For the first thirty years of my life (that is to say, almost exactly half, so far), I was trained to be a left-brain research scientist and physician. I was trained to think in the Cartesian (and Catholic) duality of A or B, trained to discriminate, that is, to notice the differences between A and B. That is one way of paying attention, and I became very good at it. But eventually those exercises left me unsatisfied. Part of me wanted to argue, "Why not A and B? Why not left and right brain?"

I left research and became a primary care pediatrician, and resumed writing poetry. Over the years as I listened to patients' stories, I understood more and more that for us humans it is almost always both A and B, both mind and body, both good and bad. Because choices must be made, while certainty is not to be found, it is important to pay attention to all the simultaneous possibilities. John Keats, in a letter to his brother, called this skill "negative capability." He explained negative capability: "that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"

The practice of keeping multiple possibilities simultaneously in mind creates, for me, a feeling of curiosity, rather than a mental rush toward what logicians call "premature closure," which dismisses some possibilities too early. What does this have to do with my writing? Maintaining a sense of curiosity about the world creates a "beginner's mind" which sees the world in fresh ways and appreciates unexpected juxtapositions. It also helps to keep my inner critic (or Editor, as I call him) at bay until later in the writing process. As an example of the kind of paying attention I mean, here is a poem by Mary Oliver.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
The grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don¹t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn¹t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, 1990
House of Light


It's important to pay attention to the world, but also to pay attention to one's inner life. For three years I have been writing down my dreams upon awakening in the night or early in the morning. Many of you are aware of the work of Carl Jung, who taught that dreams were in some way a connection to the rest of humanity, a process he called the "collective unconscious." These dream-dramas are reflected in myths and stories that are similar across many cultures that are otherwise unrelated. If part of the process of poetry is to connect the writer and reader on many different levels, dream images represent a shared "language" to promote that connection. Here is a recent example:

Bear Hunt

Merely a wrinkle in the knee-high grass
the path is faint but unmistakable.
I trace it through the paddy-fields
to the ragged ridge where the air
smokes with the snarls of chainsaws
and the fallers do their jobs. Hunters
arrive as soon as the trees are gone,
shotguns filled with rifled rounds
loaded for bear. The bear that waits
in the slash, waits until dark,
waits for the first wrong move.

Ted McMahon


"To be a poet you must be crazy about language; and you must believe in the uniqueness of every person, and therefore in your own. To find your voice you must forget about finding it, and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life you will be found to have something to say which no one else can say. And if at the same time your love of language leads you to develop your vocabulary, your ear, and your form-sense, and if you are scrupulously honest, you will arrive at writing what you apprehend in a way which embodies that vision which is yours alone. And that will be your voice, unsought, singing out from you of itself."  Denise Levertov, The Discovery of Voice.

The skills of a writer and those of a doctor are surprisingly alike. Careful observation, the maintenance of a certain distance without abandoning empathy, fascination with "stories," and a sense of wonder about the unfolding mysteries of the natural world are attributes of both. Witness Chekov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, even Michael Crichton.

One final thought: My idea of spiritual practice has moved, and continues to move, toward Buddhism. Buddhism is about paying attention to your breath, to your speech, to your actions. When the Buddha had finally obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was reported to be even more resplendent than he had been in his past life as a prince. The onlookers wanted to know who he was: a prince? a seer? a god? The Buddha replied, "I am awake." And I would say, awake and paying attention.

Thanks for your attention. I believe we have a few minutes for conversation before the next reader.

c2005Ted McMahon

Ted McMahon is a Seattle pediatrician and poet. A graduate of Williams College and Duke University School of Medicine, he currently practices half time in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard and devotes the other half to writing and leading river journeys. Ted's poetry has appeared in the Seattle Review, Convolvulus, Manzanita Quarterly, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 1999 he received the Carlin Aden Award for formal verse from the Washington Poets Association. Ted's chapbook, "First Fire," was published in 1996. He is a co-editor of Floating Bridge Press, publishing the work of Washington State poets, and was selected for participation in the 2003 Jack Straw Writer's Program in Seattle. Ted published his full-length collection of poetry, "The Uses of Imperfection," in November 2003. In 2004 he was awarded a Washington State Artist Trust Grant. He was a runner-up for the 2004 New Discovery Prize, and was a finalist for the 2005 Ruth Stone Prize in Poetry.


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