Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White

WineRev: Nyetimber Classic Cuvee

Wine reviews by an appreciative amateur.

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Sweet gold grass spikes my ankles as I walk through the makeshift car park. “A hay field full of Range Rovers,” I text my boyfriend. “Couldn’t be more Ibiza if it tried.”

At the top of the dusty camino a villa looms: eye-stretching expanses of white surrounding a massive stone tower. Jasmine bushes leak perfume over the steps to the entrance. “This is what the south of France smells like,” the woman ahead of me says, a small blonde child hanging from each hand. “I wish I had a camera that could capture smells.”

Palm fronds shiver against the enamel sky, magenta bougainvillea splashes a wall.

Through an open door lies a vaulted central room with corridors running away in three directions. Someone has stuck an expensive astronomical telescope casually in a corner. Perhaps the same person who parked the double-suspension white carbon fibre mountain bike on the stairs. Down a corridor, past a door marked “Sniper” I emerge into a courtyard. A Moroccan-style tiled pool shimmers. Gleaming white Funktion One speaker stacks guard the DJ booth. At one end of the lawn women in striped jumpsuits and scarlet lipstick mix Grey Goose cocktails and pour lemonade for the kids careening between emerald grass and turquoise infinity pool.

This is an Ibiza that rarely makes the travel section, much less TV specials. It’s an atavistic yet hypermodern melange of bohemianism and raw capitalism. Psychics, ex-soldiers, acupuncturists and entrepreneurs mingle poolside. Naked children dash past women whose faces fed Harley Street retirement funds. A seal-coloured whippet takes a graceful piss on a gold pouf.

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Nyetimber Classic Cuvee bubbles palely in my glass. The afternoon sun softens by degrees. Strangers strike conversations. If all goes to plan, Daniel will be the 58th person to make a commercial space flight. While he waits, he’ll sell you a seat on the shuttle, or a speedboat he designed. “Get rid of public transport,” he advises. “Only allow Formula One.” His other proposal for cutting carbon emissions? “Buy me this house. I promise to not heat it. That will reduce my footprint.” He sparks a Marlboro Light with an unapologetic grin.

I compliment Victoria on her Omega watch, a gift from her days as an employee. “Omega is owned by Swatch,” she adds. “When you work there, you always have to wear two watches. The higher-end one on your left wrist; Swatch on the right.”

From her I also learn that Calvin Klein employees are contractually required to have straight hair and nude manicures.

Lotta catches this: “I play tennis. I can never get my nails short enough.”

She was poached out of sporty early retirement (sold her restaurant in Chamonix) by Nyetimber CEO Eric Hareema. Because “you can’t ski every day” she now lives in France and is the brand’s European business development manager.

Selling English sparkling wine in the home territories of Cava, Prosecco and Champagne is an ambitious, even ridiculous venture. Yet Nyetimber makes oddly perfect sense in a tableau that calls to mind the Exile on Main Street sessions, minus the heroin. It’s posh, eccentric, rebellious and privileged, like the Stones. Too polished wouldn’t cut it but Nyetimber neatly strikes the note between luxe and louche. As Victoria remarks, there’s no competition when you’re being yourself.

Song: Rolling Stones ‘Loving Cup’

Quote: “Everything itself. / The sea is water. Stones are made of rock. / The sun goes up and goes down. A success / without any enhancement whatsoever.” ~ Jack Gilbert ‘The Other Perfection’

 

Poem of the Month – A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

I first encountered Jack Gilbert’s poetry in The Sun (American literary magazine, not British tabloid). A sentence from ‘A Brief for the Defense’ stuck with me, nagged me through summer: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”.

As one blessed with much comfort and satisfaction, I wonder at my privileges, wonder at the randomness of life, wonder why millions suffer through no fault of their own, and others live in shocking luxury through no virtue of their own. Gilbert’s taut, evocative, defiant poem comes the closest of anything I’ve read to elucidating the tension between grief and high delight. Gilbert doesn’t moralise or draw conclusions. Though he refers to both God and the Devil, for me the poem is Zen. Ultimately, none of us is in control. The secret, if there is one, is to laugh anyway, to listen for sound of oars in the silence and watch the island sleep. And to refuse to allow our lives to be defined by the worst of times.

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A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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