Recently, I’ve been thinking back on a time when my focus was riveted on helping to care for a family member who was dealing with serious medical issues. It’s been stressful to have this large “life moment” disrupt my normal routine, but it also brings with it a certain kind of clarity. It’s kind of like driving at night on a country road, when the only thing you see clearly is what is illuminated by your headlight beams; you’re aware of the shadowy shapes of other objects ﬂashing by along the roadside, but the illuminated area in front of you is what gets your primary attention.
Focus can be a handy platform for a writing exercise for young authors, too. I love collecting small, unusual objects, often from the natural world—interesting stones, seashells, a strangely lifelike stick—and I keep a basket of them on hand. For the purposes of this exercise, it’s best to choose objects that can stand up to handling. I place them in a grab bag and circulate through the room, allowing each student to choose one “surprise” object from the bag by touch alone.
Then I ask them to examine their object in minute detail. What does it feel like? Look like? Smell like? Can they hear the ocean whispering from inside the secret curves of their seashell? Does the lifelike stick “speak” to them? (Some of them, of course, can’t resist actually tasting their object, although I never explicitly encourage this.)
Using the sensory data they’ve collected, I then ask them to write a poem about their object. They can give the item a human voice and personality, or simply address it as an intriguing object; the goal is to stay intensely focused on that one thing until the poem that it has hidden inside begins to emerge.
The voices of even small things can speak loudly when, for whatever reason, they have become the center of our universe.