Redefining Attention as a Writer

Redefining Attention as a Writer

Recently I had this radical writerly realisation: I have nothing to say. Since discovering that my life is infinitely more peaceful when I don’t write about my feelings and experiences on the internet, I haven’t looked back. I’ve thought a lot about attention lately, and all the years where people called me an attention seeker. There are people I spent years wanting attention from, and honestly? I’m cool if I never receive that attention. You can admire people from a distance, you can watch the dopamine receiver in your brain light up when they give you a crumb of validation, but at the end of the day, it’s a sugar high. It will pass.

Attention is like nutrition. I spent years riding emotional rollercoasters that held the nutritional equivalent of a deep-fried mars bar, when what I was really craving was apple and peanut butter. Attention fascinates me, and I have a complicated relationship with it. I’ve always said I want my work to stand for itself. I want to be a bestselling author and live a quiet life, separate from it all. But I’d never write under a pen name, because I want that work to be marked as mine. I just don’t want to be an avatar for it. I struggled in my years as narrator-protagonist. It’s easy to get burnt out when you’re playing two roles.

I removed myself from the limelight. In doing so, I ousted myself as narrator. There was no longer a story to tell. I’m renegotiating my boundaries around what I feel comfortable writing about. It’s easier with non-fiction. Every time I start to write a blog or type a tweet, I ask myself if I would be embarrassed if XYZ person read it. If the answer is yes, I ask: why do I want to put this on the internet? And boom, all my words desert me. Radio silence from Eliza world. It’s peaceful, there are no eyes on me – for perhaps the first time in my life. I’ve been under so many small spotlights from a very young age, and it took me 24 years to learn to move in silence. I’m learning that my life isn’t boring because it lacks drama.

My relationship to attention changed when I was doing my master’s. I was a good student throughout my undergrad degree. I was intelligent, and witty enough that I could make my obnoxious streak seem charming. I was smart, but I was regurgitating the things I had learned. And the quality of attention I got from authority figures matched that.

During my master’s, it was like a switch flipped in my brain, and I started thinking for myself. Instead of memorising what I had learned, I began to interrogate the articles I was reading, develop my own ideas. The attention I got changed, because it was based on something that was unique to me. I felt valued in a way that I hadn’t before. I was no longer following the guidelines on how to be good; I was writing my own rulebook.

I didn’t fully put it together until last week, when I was philosophising about what attention means to me, but this was a turning point for me. It was a taste of what I did want. I don’t want to be seen and praised by authority figures or audiences simply because I exist. That attention may be sweet as cinnamon rolls, but where is the nutritional value? It burns out, I strive for more, and suddenly I have no energy by midday. I want attention because I have done something valuable, because I’ve opened your eyes to new ideas, or written something that makes you feel seen. I don’t want generic attention. I want to be recognised and valued, not simply looked at.

I realised this through academia, but it applies to my writing, too. With baring my soul on the internet off the table, my literary skills are reserved for an artistic form that takes years to create, and even more years to be seen (if at all). So how do I deal with my desire for attention?

I’m not meant to rely on one area of my life for attention and validation. If anything, writing is the last place I look for it these days. I get it from my relationship, from my friendships. I finally have a job where I’m valued. Hopefully one day I will return to academia, and regain the part of my identity that I have missed since graduating.

But writing? I work best in the dark. Which requires a deep level of self-trust. Because I’m not doing it for validation, I never was. I’m doing it because I have stories to tell.

I’m writing a new book now, and it’s different from anything I’ve written before. It has all the quintessential Eliza trademarks, female friendships and Eastern Europe, and heroines who never quite belong in one place. But it’s set much closer to home. I shied away from writing books set in the “real” world for years. I love my futuristic Science Fantasy settings. If I hadn’t chosen to set my novels in faraway countries a decade ago, my life would have gone in a very different direction. I wouldn’t have travelled to Estonia and found my favourite city in the world, I wouldn’t have done a master’s in Russian and East European Studies and discovered the subject I want to learn about for the rest of my life.

I’ve always hated the advice “write what you know”, because the whole point of writing is to escape the confines of reality. But something changed recently. Maybe my imagination just broke down. I’ve had such bad fatigue for months; I feel like my mind is wading through treacle every time I try to write. But it’s more than that. I fell out of love with the world I live in. I lost so much of myself during the pandemic. I lost my fiery side, I lost the girl who travelled to Tallinn alone at 18, the girl who always found a way to run away to foreign countries when her world became too heavy. I miss the magic. So now I’m writing for me, for all the magic I lost, and all the enchantment I want to breathe back into the world.

This poses questions about boundaries. Boundaries are easy with non-fiction. But as a novel-writer, it’s harder. I told myself the only way I could write a book set in my world was to keep it completely divorced from my experience, to write characters who were the antithesis of me, strip my ideas of anything too dark or deep or close to home. My motivation to write this book all but disappeared. Because I have always borrowed from reality. My Science Fantasy novel The Purest Form of Chaos has dialogue stolen word-for-word from a pep talk a teacher gave me when I was 16. I rewrote scenes to make them reflect my own experiences. It’s full of in-jokes, and punctuated with my deepest hopes and fears.

My writing has always been personal. It exists in that liminal space between fantasy, possibility, and experience. Each thread is woven together. Without the personal, my writing is flat and lifeless. But I am not writing about my life. And I am not writing about people I know or how they influenced me. The boundary is different here. I don’t need to ask: would I be embarrassed if XYZ person read this? Instead, I ask: is this story authentic to me? Does it haunt me? Does it creep into my every waking thought and demand I unravel more of its threads? Every novel I’ve written where I can answer “yes” wasn’t like this because it mimicked reality. I’ve tried writing fiction about my real experiences, and it comes out as bad writing. Because Character A has a rich inner world and is a fully developed person, and Character B falls flat and has no voice.

The line between fiction and reality, for me, is personal. Right now, it’s a tribute to the ages I “lost” due to the pandemic, an exploration of being 22 and 23, with infinitely more magic thrown in. It’s a story about university, because even now that I work there, I miss my student days like hell. I’m writing about second chances, about feeling washed out and irrelevant because your life has entered a new era – and still finding opportunities for adventure.

I’m still a far cry from “write what you know”, but I have shifted gear. I’m writing a book for the era I’m in, and the era I left behind.

There are so many stories I’ve talked myself out of writing, because I was scared that one-day people I know would read and misconstrue them. I was terrified of an audience that didn’t exist, of attention that would whittle me down instead of building me up. I know what quality of attention I want now, and I have learned the hard way that this form of attention must be earned, that it comes from merit rather than shock value.

Good things don’t come to those who wait, they come to those who bide their time and know when to strike. Good things come to those who allow themselves to be seen, whilst honing their skills in silence.

I have a complicated relationship to attention, and believe me, I miss the dopamine rush that came from regularly sharing my writing. I don’t miss the panic and fear that came from writing about my personal life. So I am learning to be patient, to always opt for quality over quantity in the attention I experience. I’m not an attention seeker anymore. I’m an attention earner.

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