May I Have Your Attention Please

For years I felt a twinge of embarrassment when I told someone, “I’m a writer.” It wasn’t really true, was it? Anyone can write, but Writers get published and make money from what they have written. I am older and wiser now, and I edit a writing magazine, and yet I still feel a twinge of guilt when I say, “I am a writer,” but for very different reasons.

As I have mentioned before, my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was about five. This is because he had a habit of pretending so deeply that it could seem impossible to get his attention. If you said his name, you might not get his attention. If you stood directly in front of him and said his name, you might not get his attention. If you grabbed him by both arms and looked him in the eyes and said his name, his attention still might be directed inwards upon the story he was telling himself, instead of on you.

That was when I understood that my son, like me, like everyone, is his attention, not his body. Unless I am engaged with that attention, I am not really with my son. When we meet someone, we say we shake his hand, or look him in the eye, or hear his voice, as if those things are him, but they aren’t. When we meet someone, we are only meeting his or her attention that expresses itself in a body or a voice.

Which is why I am not really a writer. Writing is only what I choose to lay my attention upon. It’s a quibble, perhaps, but it’s the same reason so many discussions of race and gender can get stuck in quicksand. My attention isn’t white, my attention isn’t male, and so when I call myself those things, I’m being just a little bit dishonest. I am that which looks out from a white, male body, and to call myself that color and shape would be to say that there is no real difference between a corpse and a living being.

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