Paying attention


Readers of this blog will know I have been thinking a lot about stationery recently. (Actually, that is something of a lie: I am always thinking about stationery).

This fetish has prompted me to wonder on more than one occasion that I engage in writing poems as a way of feeding my notebook-habit, rather than the other way round. Cloaked in this joke is the serious observation that years of note-making practice has taught me: it is not really about the notebook; it is about the noticing.

Somewhere (you’ll have to trust me on this) I have a one-page entry which reads: ‘The woman in the anorak at the swimming pool’. I agree, it’s not much of an observation.

But, in its way, it has become monumental to me, a touchstone which reminds me why I do this.

Picture the setting. It’s a Monday night in the depths of winter. I am watching my kids at their swimming practice, as I do every Monday, at the local baths. I am sitting alone on some tiered seats, a respectable British distance from the other parents, some of whom are eating, some chatting, and some shouting to their children below.

I notice the man in charge of the swimming practice has a whistle and a black, skin-tight tracksuit. He is also shouting. My kids’ group is in the lane nearest to the tiered seating. I have a very good view of their progress.

But, being me, my mind wanders. I fidget. (This is in the unimaginable age before mobile phones and Facebook). I look at my book. I close my book. I pretend to listen to the trainer. I fidget some more, finding with surprise that I have brought my notebook with me. I begin to flick through the entries, pages of lists and weird phrases I have no memory of writing.

Then I see her.

At the end of the pool, at pool-level, is a small seating area. It is only ever filled by the parents who get to the training sessions first. The woman who has caught my eye is the mother of a former friend of my daughter. We would have spoken, years ago, in the school playground. I have not seen her for some time. I notice she looks tired and a bit drawn. Like me she is not chatting to other parents or eating. She is watching her daughter intently, between glances at the pages of a magazine.  She speaks to no one.

At the end of the session, she smiles briefly at her daughter, waves, and puts on a blue anorak. Then she vanishes.

All I have in my notebook is: ‘The woman in the anorak in the swimming pool.’ I do not need any more. Like an iceberg floating on the surface of the water, it contains all the information I need: the smell of chlorine, the noise, the vast sense of isolation of a Monday night in December.

Originally I thought it may go in a short story. I may never use it for anything (in a sense I just have).

I may one day forget it.

If this anecdote does not persuade you, perhaps this will. The best article that I have seen on the transformational power of the notebook-habit is Notes from a Marine Biologist’s Daughter by poet Anne McCrary Sullivan. It is a beautiful autobiographical essay which hymns the importance of taking note of your surroundings, including your own processes of creation and the creative people around you. For McCrary Sullivan the chief of these was her marine biologist mother of the essay’s title: ‘She taught me attention to the complexities of surface detail and also attention to what lies beneath those surfaces. She taught me the rhythms of tide and regeneration, and the syllables of the natural world rubbing against each other. In doing so, she made me a poet.’

If you keep a notebook it is going to be filled with quotations like this one by the time you finish reading it. The question she asks is: ‘How might we teach attention?’ -which presupposes that a) it is worth teaching and b) that you can. But that is another blog post.




  1. Prosaically …when describing the start of Autumn and new school term… ‘A bouquet of sharpened pencils’, from a line by Tom Hanks in ‘You’ve got email’.
    As a stationery cupboard monitor in Primary school-the most rewarding job I have ever had- I still love the feel of a crisp, clean, blank note book as symbolic of future hopes and writing aspirations.
    Most of us are too afraid to spoil the pages. I shall read Sullivan’s work. Thanks


    1. Hi Fiona. I know what you mean exactly. The article is well worth a read, not least for some lovely poetry quotes re teaching and pedagogy. Dewey etc. Marvellous.
      As ever with thanks


  2. Along with noting lines as they come to me in a notebook, I often sit in the moment, smell it, freeze it and place it in one of the filing cabinets in my head. At night, when I’m lying in bed meditating and a memory from the day floats, I acknowledge it, open a filing cabinet and let it join the others. Then, I can pull any one of them out when I want. My mind is like a circular room, filled with cabinets wall to floor and there is space in the middle, space where I sit cross legged at night, breathing in the present, the space, away from the day and the images. For me, I need that space, that distance between the many memories and the now! That’s what makes the memories special, each unique.


  3. Hi, Anthony! I just wanted to thank you for your blog. I find it weaving its spell around me, slowly and insidiously drawing me in, so that its arrival in my inbox is greeted like a present to be eagerly unwrapped. 🙂


  4. Ant
    A comment on the process rather than content:
    For me, a notebook can have an almost mystical quality, but it has to be one that I love and only for when I want to record expansive thoughts. (Those of us born into the personal organiser generation may have to have blank paper with us, lest we forget. I notice that the rich or obsessed can buy leather-bound notebooks. That’s a big investment for 80 pieces of paper.)
    My ‘always-with-me’ notebook is a folded A4 piece of paper that I will have in my back pocket, along with a mini biro. (Much better than a phone or tablet.) Then the best bit is trying to work out at 9pm, what I meant by the scribblings and deciding – in the cold light of evening – if it is worth developing.
    Perhaps also writing down ‘woman in the anorak’ stops us having to worry about forgetting it. It’s now captured, so I can concentrate on my kids in the knowledge that I can come back to that thought later, when I have time to reflect.


    1. Hi John. It is great to hear from you. Anne Lamott has a similar idea to yours: the index card. Easily slipped in and out of pockets. Sometimes I use these too. It doesn’t really matter though. As you say, capturing is the thing. Then coming back to it later. Or not. As ever with many thanks, Ant


  5. Great blog, Anthony – again. Like the image of image-as-iceberg-tip.

    Good to read, too, the comments (and I didn’t know Amy keeps bees. We’re just about to bring a colony into our lovely new topbar hive.)

    And thank you for the intro to, and lovely words of, McCrary Sullivan. Will follow that up.

    The art of paying attention? Can it be taught? – For me, it’s the whole of the work (in my case, underpinned by 40 years of Zen practice).


    1. Hi Roselle. It is great to hear from you.The article is a great one. I think you will like it.40 years, wow. I do think it can be taught. Not in one go, obviously. More on this anon. As ever, x A


  6. I’ve noticed that more and more bloggers write about the importance of notebooks in their lives. Notebooks are making a dramatic comeback now that we all type on our laptops, smart phones, iPads, and other tablets. Handwriting in a notebook, even like you say for a quote or an idea, is very liberating.
    Thank you, Anthony, for the story, too.


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