Creative Writing Tips with Sarah Selecky

Author of Radiant Shimmering Light Sarah Selecky will be teaching a Hollyhock course on “Deep Noticing for Distracted Writers” this August. In advance of the course, she spoke with the Vancouver Writers Fest about her own experience as a distracted writer and the transformative power of deep noticing.

Would you consider yourself a “distracted writer”?

I have always had an active mind. It’s part of what makes me a writer — I’m always thinking about something! But sitting down to write requires a depth of focus that has been harder for me to reach in the last five years, even though I’ve minimized my time on social media. Distraction is just in the atmosphere now. If I ever want to experience solitude and boredom again, I’ve learned I must create time for those states of mind on purpose.

How would you describe a practice of “deep noticing”?

It’s being aware of details without judging, explaining, or making a story about what they mean. For writers, the practice of deep noticing feels different from surface writing because it brings with it a depth of feeling and presence. In writing, this can be the difference between showing and telling. Deep noticing means the writer has an embodied experience in and through the writing. Then, a reader can feel those details, because the details feel so alive. It’s a subtle perspective shift, and I hope it doesn’t sound more complicated than it is. Really, it’s the practice of paying attention without analyzing.

When you think of authors who embody deep concentration in their work, who comes to mind? 

Mary Oliver, obviously! She wrote, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” She’s the matron saint of deep noticing.  I often recall Esi Edugyan’s underwater scene about the octopus in Washington Black. It’s so alive, it rises off the page. Then there are writers who bring this presence to their dialogue — George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, for instance, is a masterpiece of deep listening.

How has cultivating intentional concentration shaped your own writing? Have there been any particularly surprising or rewarding benefits?

It’s invited ease and pleasure back to my own writing. Writers are always trying to “get out of their own way”, and this is my way of finding that exit. It helps me let go of some of those noisy critical thoughts that clutter up my writing time.  When I pay attention to details within a scene (instead of making things up), this helps me drop into a receptive state of mind.

The surprise and reward has been the wealth of images and story ideas that have come from this simple practice. I’m often surprised by my own writing. The act of deep noticing brings delight, sometimes even awe.

The week is grounded not only in writing, of course, but also in self-meditation and being out in nature. What, in your opinion, makes these activities so complementary and enriching to the writing process? 

Nature is inherently creative — it’s always making something out of nothing. (What is a seed? An egg? Flowers and berries? The sun and moon?) Being in nature means we get to hang out with the most powerful creative force that’s available to us.  And nature is the best writing buddy, because it will never give up on you.

Meditating — or as I call it, doing nothing — creates the space writers need to receive the insight that comes from collaborating with mystery. Doing nothing also helps us notice when we’re explaining or telling stories to ourselves instead of letting things be as they are. With practice, we can see what awareness feels like, and choose to notice without analysis.

What are you most looking forward to about your sessions?

I love being in the same room with writers when they’re writing new scenes and stories from a place of attentiveness. There’s always a tingle in the air when writers go through that portal. No sound but the scratching of pens on paper, their bodies relaxed and easy as they focus on the power of the imaginary. It feels sacred.

Sarah’s course might be sold out, but Hollyhock is offering a variety of other exciting opportunities for learning this summer and fall. Check out their lineup now.


Lauren Dembicky