The Importance of Staring

At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.

Raymond Carver

Over the last weekend in April, I was presenting at a conference in New York, a place I had never visited. Because I flew into JFK and my hotel was located on West 71st, I rode over an hour in a taxi. The afternoon was overcast, with the temperature in the low 60s. I sat in the backseat, a small sliding window open to the spring air.

I stared out the window, gaping, taking in the details of the city: the branches beginning to bud, the beautiful lavender of a tree that looked familiar but I couldn’t name (Eastern Rosebud), the proximity of the houses to one another.

It struck me that I, for many years, did the same thing growing up whenever my parents were driving, whether it was around town, to a nearby town, or to the Minneapolis suburbs.

I love to drive (and that love manifests itself in much of what I write), but I was always happy to ride anywhere, and when I’m the passenger, I don’t have to consider traffic around me. I can let me mind wander, take in the sights.

In school, I occasionally was corrected by the teacher for staring out the window. I can still hear my junior-high English teacher telling me, “Nate, stop staring out the window.” To be clear, I liked English, a lot. But there were trees outside, birds flying by. Maybe a passing car. All of those things interested me, too.

Even my friends would make fun of me as I stared, open mouthed at somebody, at something—studying, wondering, questioning. “Catchin’ flies?” they would ask, and then laugh. It didn’t bother me that much—I’m sure I looked foolish.

Staring—the ability to actively take in my surroundings, to be curious about them, to study them—has been fundamental training for me as a writer. It is a disposition that is probably partly innate and a habit of mind that I have developed. I am often content to watch and ponder my surroundings, whatever is taking place.

Perhaps there’s a building I’ve seen a hundred times before, but this time I notice the way some of the letters in the sign are more faded than others. Perhaps it’s a road I’ve driven many times before, but this time I’m struck by a stand of pines, and notice how they extend further back from the road than what I recall. And when I visit someplace new, as I did NYC last month, my senses are overloaded with details, and I am reminded of how I have never struggled with boredom.


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