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The Attention You Give; The Experience You Create

Photo by Toby Oxborrow
Photo by Toby Oxborrow [1]

Many people bemoan the self-involved writer on social media, the one who is constantly vying for attention and over-promoting their own work. This puts other writers (you, perhaps?) into a conundrum: you WANT attention for your work, but only in an elegant manner. Self-promotion, with grace.

This week, I read The Checklist Manifesto [2] by Atul Gawande. He tells stories about people managing complex situations, where thousands of small actions mean the difference between life and death for those around them. The most compelling stories in the book revolve around surgeries where a patient’s life was dangling on the line, or flights where something goes horribly wrong and hundreds of people’s lives are in jeopardy.

Giving (Not Getting) Attention

The author posits that in cases of extreme complexity (air travel, modern surgery, massive construction projects), the individuals responsible for them needed to strike a balance between simple automated actions that helps prevent mistakes (checklists), and the nimble self-direction that a top surgeon, pilot, or construction manager have earned as experts.

The author made the case for simplicity and established process amidst great complexity.

This had me considering where I put my attention. Gawande made a compelling argument about how simple mistakes are overlooked in a surgery, resulting in the patient dying over something that should have been routine.

When I consider the goals and challenges of the writers I work with, it had me thinking more about how we give attention, and less about how we get attention.


Most people I meet are overwhelmed in some way. The complexity of their lives seems to have hit a breaking point whereby the common refrain is “there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

As I sit here and write this, I just glanced at the cover of The Checklist Manifesto and noticed the subtitle: “How to Get Things Right.” This seems almost like a backhanded reference to the famous “Getting Things Done” concept – where we don’t just worry about “done,” we worry about “correct.”

A qualitative difference.

This definitely seems to resonate with the worldview of writers I know: less interested in ‘anything’ that works, and more interested in grace during the process.

I was chatting with a few writers this week in a course I am running about developing an email newsletter, and the idea of “list building challenges” came up. One author’s conclusion:

“I signed up twice for list building challenges … the how to build a list of 10,000 type… and took zero steps because it just didn’t resonate.”

That word “resonate” is a powerful driver of action – or inaction. It forces us to consider: are you willing to do what it takes, even when it doesn’t resonate?

I had experienced similar things in the past when I saw programs that promised big results. It wasn’t that the steps didn’t work, it was that they were often so bold, so repetitive, had such a lack of elegance, that most people don’t want to go through with them. They fear becoming that person who hands you a business card for their insurance company the moment you meet them at a family barbecue. Or the guy who hits on every single woman he meets, because he feels, “it is a numbers game.”

Yet being “against” these types of actions don’t necessarily give you a proactive direction to move forward. The opposite actions: never mentioning your business; never asking someone for a date, is not the solution.

What I enjoyed about The Checklist Manifesto (besides practical ways to have my team integrate checklists into our daily workflows), was the proof that complex situations sometimes require simple directed actions.

Let’s face it, nothing in my life is as complex as the endocrine surgery that Gawande performs. His larger point have given me a lot to consider: our attention is a choice.

Bookends: Writing & Reading

A big change in my life this year is that I am in the process of writing a book. Like all of you, I had to reprioritize my days to put my most creative time into this task. The result is that my days are framed by bookends:

This time is blocked off in my calendar, and I take specific measures to reduce distractions. For writing, email and social media are closed, and headphones are on. For reading, I go to the library to read, removing all other normal work context entirely.

Neither of these steps are rocket science. They are tiny actions about where I give attention. They sound simple too, yet it means that two work hours every single day, are now given to actions that weren’t on my schedule at all six months ago.

For my life, it proves that where I put attention is a choice. That if I don’t go to the gym because I am “overwhelmed” with email, that is a choice. That if I am “tired of hearing about” some news story, I have the opportunity to shut off media. Actually, my wife and I did that more than a decade ago when we got rid of our TV. People still walk into our home frantically looking around for a TV.

Preparing Our Attention

This time of year, I spend a lot of time considering where my attention should go in the next calendar year. I actually do a deep analysis of my work in the past, and consider my specific goals for the next 12 months.

Beyond writing & reading, my attentions have also turned to what it means to collaborate – to support others whose work I believe in. What does this look like beyond a strategy of a firehose of ReTweets? How can I truly support someone?

For my work, it means collaborating more closely with one of my interns (who just became a grandmother – congratulations Diane [3]!); feeling more invested in the challenges of a local bookstore [4]; reconsidering what it means to be on social media; re-envisioning what it means to run a meetup group [5]; and carefully considering how, after 10 years of volunteering there, I can better support an elementary school in Harlem [6].

When it comes to attention, how do we make difficult choices about where to put ours? How do we use it to create MEANINGFUL action; to proactively create the world we want to see; to not surrender it to the passivity of consuming media, being barraged by marketing, and the endless stream of clickable headlines [7]?

Too often, we cry for our overwhelm, yet whittle away our attention on things that don’t matter. We give attention to checking email before our craft.

How do we focus our energy more on the craft, more on the reader, and more on the effect of one’s work as those two things connect?

The Experiences You Create

What is the experience you want to create as your life as a writer? The experience that you create for yourself – an identity – a narrative of who you are. And the experience you create for others who come in contact with your work, your stories, your ideas?

Sure, the book is the experience you hope to create. That goes without saying, right? But a book is an object – a thing. Alone, it can become an island in the world. We think the ultimate output is the book, but go to a used bookstore. Look at stacks of dusty books that are out of print. Or the many books online that have no reviews.

How do you build bridges to this island?

I read an article this week from James Hamblin titled “Buy Experiences, Not Things [8].” Much like The Checklist Manifesto, it has be considering where I put my attention.

As a writer, you get to choose the experience of how you write, how you publish, how you launch a book, and how you live as an author. There is a flip side as well: what are the experiences you create for a reader? Or for someone who has not yet read your book, but hears of your stories and ideas?

From the article:

“Over the past decade, an abundance of psychology research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions.”

What are the experiences you create in how you engage with others around your work: from inspiration; to exploring the work of others (whose context informs your own); to whether you spent your “promotional” mind Tweeting up a storm vs holding a single “salon” with friends and fellow writers. These are all choices, regardless of the promises of “best practices [9].”

We find mindsets that try to force our experiences:

To create greater diversity, challenging these mindsets is critical. The unique choices you make provides you an IDENTITY, as well as an experience of who you are (and can be) in the world. Again from the article:

“Experiential purchases are also more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior.”

This also goes for your readers, and it gives some indication as to why social media and the idea of a platform where you engage directly with readers is so compelling:

“Experiential purchases are so much better than material purchases. Those waiting for experiences were in better moods than those waiting for material goods.”

The article states that experiences that are social are intrinsically more enjoyable. Consider the experience of being a writer, of the effect the work has with readers, not the publication/launch/sale of a book:

“What is it about the nature of imagining experiential purchases that’s different from thinking about future material purchases? The most interesting hypothesis is that you can imagine all sort of possibilities for what an experience is going to be… With a material possession, you kind of know what you’re going to get. Instead of whetting your appetite by imagining various outcomes… people sort of think, Just give it to me now.”

When you look at authors who are notorious for being able to engage with fans, this is what they know: EXPERIENCES matter.

I met Neil Gaiman last week when he came to my town to give to be interviewed on stage. I met him before the event outside and we chatted for a moment, and later that day, he ReTweeted something of mine [10]. Then later again, he responded to a Tweet [11].

If you check his timeline [12], he did this with many others. What I can’t help but wonder about is: if I had to spend most of my day traveling to a small town in New Jersey, be interviewed on stage, do a meet and greet beforehand, disrupt my work schedule, and my family schedule, would I be also able to respond directly to Tweets two hours later, then again four hours later?

How do you manage your own attention to create experiences that matter for your work?


About Dan Blank [13]

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia [14], where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.