Skip to content

The miracles of attention and focus

Canadian painter Robert Genn has a twice-weekly newsletter that I always enjoy reading. While Genn writes about painting, his thoughts usually apply to any creative pursuit, including writing — and I have reposted his letters here before. This week’s newsletter is of use to all creative mothers, in our search for making the most of fleeting and sporadic windows of creative opportunity. (Genn’s newsletter is reprinted here by permission. Thanks again, Bob.)

During a recent short workshop, I reintroduced my legendary hourglass. Bought in a junk shop some years ago, its “hour” consists of only 37 minutes. Such is the deflation of time. The idea for the 25 participants was to complete a painting in one turn of the glass. To level the playing field, I asked for 11 x 14’s. A few students groaned; others readily accepted the challenge.

We did the exercise three times. I asked them to squeeze out first, contemplate for a tiny minute and make their painting either from reference, reality, or their imagination. Blowing my little whistle to start and stop, I was not surprised to find some painters did more than one in the allotted time. Students brought their quickies forward and laid them out in rows. At the end of the workshop more than 100 time-sensitive paintings had been produced. We’ve put a photo of the hourglass in action at the top of the current clickback.

Apart from producing a pile of credible, pleasantly-underworked paintings, the exercise showed the value of short periods of full attention and unwavering focus. The mind quickens and so does the spirit. The audacious brush flicks here and there; the work moves holistically into being. Students were energized by the exercise — feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction rippled through the room. I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “To fill the hour — that is happiness.”

Countless times in my own studio, I’ve turned over my miraculous hourglass. Falling roof-rafters could not deter me from my 37-minute exercises. “Why don’t I just do this all the time?” I ask myself. Indeed, learning to focus and pay attention, if only for a short time, has been identified as a primary key to the development of human effectiveness.

I’m currently reading Winifred Gallagher’s new book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. She makes clear the simple value of training ourselves to focus. Our levels of concentration may be sullied or even vestigial in many of us, and the simple act of learning to pay attention is key to our dreams and aspirations. Happiness and success depend on it. Think a bit, grab your brush, time’s a wastin’. Toot!

Best regards,


PS: “I love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by.” (Douglas Adams) “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” (Alexander Graham Bell)

Esoterica: “The Universal Society of Timed Painters” (USTP) ought to be established with chapters worldwide. No instructor need apply. Just get together and turn the glass. Keep doing it until pleasantly exhausted. Prizes may be awarded by popular vote at the end of the day, but the greatest prize of all will be your own increased levels of attention and focus.

I found Genn’s letter to be just what I needed to read right now. Writing or painting or doing anything creative “under the gun” forces you to turn off the editor and just produce. If your editor has taken over, a timed exercise such as Genn outlines above is just the ticket for getting back into the organics of your work. Baby just went down for a nap and the only thing you can count on is 30 minutes? Forget the laundry, turn off your internet connection, and go for it. You might get lucky: you find yourself in the groove and the baby ends up napping for an hour and a half. Or maybe you only get 20 minutes — but 20 minutes is still better than NOT 20 minutes, yes?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. yep, and i’ve come to accept the little things i do write in those twenty minutes. rahte rthsan wanting them to be bigger or better. sometimes just is is fine and my blog.

    now to edit and add. i’ve given myself a week, sick kids and me be damned for the manuscript..

    October 19, 2009
  2. I do much, much better work in those short stints. It’s something I’ve learned about myself — I’ll never be one of those writers who heads into the office and comes out three days later.

    BUT, I do need that minute he describes, to metaphorically “squeeze out” everything else. And that’s the hard part for me sometimes.

    October 19, 2009
  3. Great idea and so true. I was feeling so unproductive yesterday feeling I had no space of time to devote to a current project. If I had taken his suggestion, I could have found the time and felt much more fulfilled and successful. In any case. I think that humans focus better for shorter periods of time so perhaps motherhood and mothering is not so against us accomplishing our goals as we think, maybe it is teaching us how to accomplish our goals instead!

    October 19, 2009
  4. I think you’re right, Johanna. I know I complain a lot about not ever having a “substantial” chunk of time to myself — but then, in the rare occasions that I do, I’m utterly lost. Totally unproductive, and generally end up wasting the whole thing. I’m coming to understand that I need the structure and intensity that those small windows of opportunity force us into.

    Maybe that’s why I had all of these darn kids? lol…..

    October 20, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: