I’ve been reading Daniel Goleman’s fascinating book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. What I’ve learned from it is that a whole host of mental skills—memory, learning, intuition, creativity, compassion, and more—depend on our ability to pay attention. That ability is more important than intelligence, ambition, or talent in determining our success.
Goleman discusses three types of focus:
Inner focus is self-awareness, the attention we pay to our own feelings and reactions. Inner focus keeps us in touch with our values and allows us to listen to our intuitions. It empowers us to monitor and manage our feelings—an essential skill to getting through life well.
Other focus is empathy. It means being able to read the emotions of others, to understand their feelings and reactions, to put ourselves in their place. Other focus helps us get along with people, to relate to family and friends, and to work well with others on the job.
Outer focus is systems awareness. It offers us a wider, more panoramic view of the world. Systems awareness enables us to comprehend the larger world around us, to understand the workings of an organization, a community, a nation, and, as Goleman puts it, “the global process that support life on this planet.”
Goleman’s book delves into how these three types of focus work, how they can be sharpened, and how they aid people in positions of leadership. But, as I’ve been reading his work, I’ve been thinking about how each of these types of focus applies to writers.
Inner focus has two functions in the writing life. For one thing, it is what we engage when we write about ourselves. To write well, we have to be able to reflect on experiences from a week, a year, or a lifetime ago. We have to develop perspective about our own emotions and to gain clarity about how and why we react to things the way we do.
The second thing inner focus does is help keep our writing on track. When we find ourselves blocked, distracted, frustrated, or anxious as we write, being able to focus on those feelings, understand them, and manage them is essential to keeping up a productive writing life.
Other focus is equally essential to writers. Everything we put on the page encompasses the experiences of other people. We must be able to put ourselves into the emotional landscapes of others, even those whose lives are starkly different from our own. Whether we’re writing nonfiction about real people or creating our own characters out of sheer imagination, we must be able to empathize, to see the world through different eyes, and to identify with others as fellow living beings making their way on the Earth.
Outer focus is in some ways the most interesting to me. When I first started thinking about systems awareness with relationship to writers, I thought, Of course it’s important. For our writing to be truly effective, we need to understand the larger world, to have a broad view of how groups and societies work.
Then I started thinking of systems awareness in a different way. It occurred to me that every story or poem—and certainly every novel—is a system. As I was completing my young adult fantasy novel, The Land Across the Bridge, I had to keep in mind scores of characters, hundreds of interwoven scenes, and thousands of descriptions and dialogues. I had to make sure the first sentence, the last sentence, and every single thing in between wove together into an organic and consistent whole—just as every fiction writer before me has had to do. That took every bit of systems awareness I could muster!
Thinking about these three types of focus and the role they play in my own writing is helping me sharpen and hone my writing strategies. If you’re interested, check out Goleman’s useful and readable book—and check here for future posts on the notion of focus and its role in the writing process.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...