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"A self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration"

Oct 25, 2007 • general, writing

Stare into this image long enough and you go into … the zoneI read an essay by Alan Shapiro last week titled "Why Write?" In it he summarizes a letter from Elizabeth Bishop that provides a thought-provoking, unique reason for writing. Here's the passage:

Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer [for why we write] in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration.

It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity -- the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appeties, and interests -- has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness.

In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity's a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve. ("Why Write?" 2006 Best American Essay, p. 207)

In other words, Shapiro goes on to explain, we write because we enjoy going into "the zone." His answer is interesting because the motivation for writing also serves as the motivation for a lot of other things -- running, playing basketball, watching movies, reading, ironing, gardening. Don't all these mediums offer their own "zone" experience?

Do we sometimes not feel like writing because we've found another zone experience to replace it with? Most troubling, why does our mind need such a primordial, zen-like experience? As if sleep weren't enough.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.