When it comes to advice for writers, there is no shortage of suggestions above and beyond the classic one: write. But perhaps the most useful tidbit comes from Henry James, who famously said in his The Art of Fiction, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”
Long before I came across that gem, however, I heard something similar during one of my few visits to church. I have probably gone to church no more than 20 times my entire life, but given the flawed nature of memory, that number could be 20 or 2000, nothing would surprise me. If I were to add weddings, I suppose that number would increase by a few dozen, maybe even more than that. Again, that faulty memory thing. No matter. I will always remember one sermon in particular, from a Catholic church in Santa Rosa, CA, when the priest said, “Pay attention: you never know when God is speaking to you.” I don’t believe in God (though I’m not an atheist), so in my head I truncated that to “Pay attention.” I don’t believe much in Catholicism either, but that only makes the memory stand out even more.
Another way of saying it would be to substitute “God” with “the universe” or some other such general term for “life” without being so cliched as to say “life” or “the universe.” Note that “pay attention” is not the same thing as “be mindful.” One is being tuned into everything (or simply tuned in) while the other is being tuned in to the particular. It works as a reverse essay. Instead of going from the personal to the universal, the idea is to veer from the universal to the personal.
Take a drive on the freeway and you might get a sense of this. Mindfulness would have us focused on the narrow picture, the present, the now—also known as the road, on what the hell that clown is doing next to you, on not thinking of anything but that moment—thinking, in other words, of nothing.
Paying attention is seeing a bumper sticker like “Don’t die wondering” on the car in front of you and letting your mind go. Or not go, if the bumper sticker says “Choose joy.” Or possibly ramming the car if the bumper sticker is “INFOWARS.” The point is you have swerved from simply being in the moment to the next step, which is to wonder if the universe is trying to tell you something.
It’s hard to explain how I knew this, but it was clear to me the priest was not advising us to explicitly look for signs from above, below, sideways, etc. There are people like that, for sure—people who are not mere fatalists but those looking for meaning in all places. You can hardly blame them, when the surface of the world is so meaningless. It doesn’t take a French philosopher or melancholy teenager to conclude that nothing matters.
The key is the word “wonder.” Wonder not at what a potential sign could mean but if it means anything at all. Was this actually a sign? A literal sign in the form of a bumper sticker? Why did I meet that person today and not yesterday or 10 years ago? What difference would that make? If only that job was open last year when I was unemployed. The possibilities for overanalysing are limitless.
Maybe what it comes down to is instinct. Something will happen, something out of the ordinary, or maybe even something ordinary, and we find our thoughts are arrested for unknown reasons. Or maybe it really is something as simple as not only noticing a bumper sticker, but of seeing it—of having enough clarity of thought to see what is in front of our noses. Seeing as opposed to mere noticing is akin, of course, to being able to hear while listening.
Probably it is not as simple as the priest made it out to be, but maybe that was the point. I wasn’t there to listen, didn’t want to be there at all. I was only at church that Sunday morning because my wife (who is a believer and a church-goer, though she’s Protestant) and I were visiting my parents, and at that time in their lives they were going to church. And like a good son and husband, I tagged along.
The irony is that I was paying attention that day before the priest reminded us all to pay attention, so in a sense I am invalidating the lesson. Or the irony is that I had no choice but to pay attention, because in those days—brace yourself—I didn’t have a mobile phone to distract me from another guilt-inducing sermon. Or the irony is there is no irony or fate or sign or whatever, and that it was just another one of those fun little coincidences that populate our days.
Whatever the case, add what the priest said to what Henry James advised and it looks like this: “Pay attention, and try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” Good advice for all of us—writers and those beautifully lucky people who aren’t.
A priest and Henry James. Probably there are more similarities between the two men than the priest would care to admit, but it’s a wonderful illustration of what the priest said: you never know.