Writing while shopping, biking or feeding the cat

Sitting down to write can feel like walking in your front door and being greeted by a pack of friendly dogs, a mass of paws and fur and beseeching eyes and eagerly wagging tails. They bound into the quiet space of “I’m at the blank page now,” raucous and insistent. That e-mail I’ve put off answering is suddenly there with a leash in its mouth, begging for a walk. Those bills, those projects, that news flash and ping from Facebook, that birthday card, that urgent note I’ve spent all day remembering and forgetting—they all crowd in too.

When time is short and those dogs of distraction abound, I focus on the "seeing and sensing" part of writing, the part that's so still, it  doesn't excite the pack.  When I’m in my body instead of my racing mind, absorbing the way the barrista has folded a stream of foam into a delicate leaf, then running my finger over the warm smoothness of the cup, I’m pulled into the deep, necessary space that comes before writing: the moment. Right now.

Filling up the senses, looking long enough to see even one detail afresh, is  a portable “busy day/busy life” practice I use day in and day out: To notice one thing, and to write it down. If time allows, the daily writing can grow, making connections, refining lines. And if not, small is enough. If I’m paying attention, I’m able to write. Everything is built from that attention, which doesn’t need a desk or perfect setting—just the ordinary.

In a beautiful essay on the New York Times’ website in December, the novelist Silas House wrote about weaving a connection between seeing and writing, and how he builds his stories from the minutiae of his life by experiencing it through the eyes of his characters. It's that same practice of paying attention, tuned in a slightly different way.

As he rides his bicycle to work every morning, House writes, he’s focused on the traffic, but also on the character in the novel he’s writing:

“The book is set in Key West, so naturally [my character] rides his bicycle all over the Florida island. When pumping those pedals toward my office, I am not myself on an orange-leaf-strewed campus. I am my character, pedaling down to the beach after a long day of working as a hotel housekeeper. I see the world through his eyes. I imagine what he is thinking. I use that brief time to become him.

“I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law….”

Attention alone isn’t writing, of course, and I caution too-busy writers, myself included, that seeing isn’t writing, and thinking isn’t writing and talking about writing isn’t writing. Writing is writing. But its angels are in the seeing, in the details. Right at the kitchen sink, or in the grocery aisle.