Focus is worth thinking about as a writer. Focus limits but enlarges, like a microscope. When I am focusing on writing, by definition I have to stop focusing on other things. Social engagements, reading, movies, time with family, and hobbies all get the short end of the stick. I’ve never liked this about writing. However, I do appreciate it. Choosing the object of my attention, pinning it down, and examining it in its entirety is both facinating and necessary for me to use it well.
The limits of focusing on one thing, especially writing, for too long is that I lose perspective on the rest of the world- and as a novelist, I’m writing about the world.
What is ultimately thrilling and pure genius, to me, is that people, relationships, hobbies, books, movies, writing, global politics, social justice issues, and the rest of life are undeniably stitched together. So, when I shift my focus from writing to volleyball in the park, I am not leaving my writing behind as much as you might think. I’m taking the chance to focus on spring- how it has come early this year, how sponge-like the grass and dirt are compared to the unforving, frozen ground of winter. I’m taking the time to focus on people- their meaner competitive sides, their subtext-heavy conversations, their healthy celebrations of a well-made shot. I’m also taking the time to use my body well- to see green and friends and opportunity. To hear the swish and thunk of ball, net, and sand. To feel warmth, a chill breeze, and the sting of that ball. To feel, most remarkably, the movement of my muscles and their response my brain. To taste water, taste dust. To smell- one of the most impacting abilities of the body but often the most forgotten- sweat, the coming rain, and the damp sand four inches down.
Sometimes I focus on a movie. I saw The Hunger Games today in theaters. I haven’t read the book yet- I think I may be the only one. Taking the 3 hours to go to that movie this afternoon impressed on me even further how incredibly vital character development is to a lasting story. Katniss Everdeen is a remarkable character- she has internal and external desires, some of them conflicting. She has a backstory and an uncertain future. She learns, she reacts, she changes- but only into what she had the potential to be from the start. In her I could see bits of myself and large pieces of what I am not. I could see things I want to be. All this was delivered almost immediately. Within the first few scenes, we know all this about her and the effect is magnetic. Throughout the movie, we explore it, test it, and learn to trust it- but we see it immediately. The strength of her character development establishes a relationship with us, and that relationship pulls us onward. One of the most enjoyable factors for me about good character development is that I’m being pulled into something that I want. I’m not passive. I relate, I react, I evaluate. I’m being pulled toward something I am reaching for.
Lately I’ve been taking some time to participate in things besides writing. I read A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is as true to life as ever, making an other-worldly story tangible and relevant. On Saturday, I spent nearly 13 hours babysitting 3 boys age 5 and under. Watching them plunge right ahead into consequences all day long was a potent reminder how motivating human desires and how overwhelming human emotions can be. Sometimes, they are all we can see. Sometimes they shouldn’t matter, and sometimes they are all that matters.
Focusing on this blog post, in fact, forces me to focus on these experiences and process them more deeply.
Now, here’s the part I love: as soon as I post this, I’m going to get a blanket, get a mug of coffee, enjoy the breeze and birdsong from the open window, and bring these thoughts and experiences to the main character of my novel. I’m going to take a second (or twentieth) look at who she is, and focus sharply on how I convey that. I don’t want her to be Meg or Katniss- but I do want her to be the strongest possible version of herself.