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

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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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Running, Writing and Creativity

An excerpt from an essay I wrote on my relationship with running, writing, and creativity.

Read the full piece at The Nervous Breakdown

Run time

Run time

I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way.

Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.


What co-creative activity gets your writing flowing? Share in the comments.

Poetry Challenge – East Coker by TS Eliot

Kat & I

Kat & I

Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spent over 20 years under house arrest. She says that one of the things that kept her together was memorising poetry. Once it’s in your head, she added, nobody can take it away from you. Thinking about that inspired me to set myself a poetry challenge: memorise one poem a month during 2015.

That will give me a stock of a dozen poems to carry with me everywhere, always.

For January I’ve chosen a portion of ‘East Coker’ from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. My dear friend Kat introduced me to this poem a few years ago and it has become deeply rooted in my psychic landscape, both for itself and because it reminds me of how blessed I am by her friendship. This is for you my love!


East Coker

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Why the New Website?

IMG_20140215_194542911For reasons known only to the gods of the internet my trusty site cilawarncke.com disappeared. The former digital diary of my professional accomplishments is now white space. It’s a 21st century Ozymandias thing.

Rather than snuffle over spilt milk or, indeed, try to grasp the whims of the www I decided to start afresh. New year, blank slate etc. Thankfully there is minimal competition for domain names including Warncke.

I’ll be piecing this site together gradually, highlighting the various things I write and do, plus posting the odd blog.

Thanks for stopping by. If you need some words written, or just want to chew the fat, email cilawarncke@gmail.com.