The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 5


Deep Attention is the fount from which ripples move outward, meeting the consciousness of readers at the level of Intermittent Attention.

Perhaps you will understand more of what I am talking about if I use even a rather obscure example. ‘The Woodspurge’ By Dante Gabriel Rossetti is on the surface a simple enough poem:

The wind flapp'd loose, the wind was still,

Shaken out dead from tree and hill:

I had walk'd on at the wind's will,—

I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,—

My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!

My hair was over in the grass,

My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run

Of some ten weeds to fix upon;

Among those few, out of the sun,

The woodspurge flower'd, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be

Wisdom or even memory:

One thing then learnt remains to me,—

The woodspurge has a cup of three.

This could be summarised as ‘depressed and apathetic poet finds his attention momentarily arrested by a simple plant with three cups’.

As we are talking precisely about the arresting of attention, this may not be quite such an obscure example as you may have first thought. The first stanza is reminiscent of the wandering and aimless attention of the masses as a whole; the second and third stanzas narrow this range of attention to a small patch of ten weeds or so, as the poet sits with his or her head between his or her knees. The takeaway experience? The flowering woodspurge makes an impression, draws attention out of the abstract realms of grief and the seeking of wisdom in it, and leaves the poet with a lasting image.

Now, we can interpret this in a number of ways, and people have. But as an example of the progression of attention, what stands out for me is that the poet has emerged from a meandering and meaningless nowhere into a small but defined somewhere. As writers, this poem encapsulates what we are trying to do on a broad scale: take the wandering, cloud-like waves of attention of our potential readership and have them focus on one bit of it.

What pulls that bit in? In this case, a flowering plant, but perhaps more than that. Rossetti as a Christian would have been highly aware of the symbolism of the flower: its ‘three cups in one’ are reminiscent - and would have been even more reminiscent for readers at the time it was written - of the Holy Trinity. There’s our Deep Attention, right there.

Tap into the Holy Trinity, even symbolically, and you connect up with the whole symbology and profound meaning of the Christian faith. That woodspurge becomes not just a flower but a wellspring into Deep Attention.

That may all seem rather unclear and esoteric to you. But the principle is very simple and one which we should all be working on if we want to attract attention and make it linger.

We need to find the thing in our own work which resonates with the deepest meaning - our own 'woodspurge', if you like. Find it; have it ripple outward; its waves will draw readers in.

It might be a character; it might be an image; it might be an event. If you can isolate that one thing - or there may be several things, which is all well and good - then you have found the wellspring from which Meaning will flow for you and your work.

Tap into that, and those who at first pay only Momentary Attention will stick around. They will sign up, join, linger. You will have moved to Intermittent Attention.

Now’s your chance to make real progress, as you will see.

There's obviously a lot more to all of this.

Stay tuned.

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