For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #6: Stop, Look, and Listen

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part! 

If you’ve been following along with this series from the start, you might have noticed a bit of a theme emerging—each of the posts has, in its own way, encouraged us all to take some dedicated minutes away from the distractions of daily life. Focusing on a single task—hello, writing!—is a skill, and one that can be increasingly difficult to master in these heady, tech-y times when a million things seem to be vying for our attention at once.

But establishing new habits can be a slippery process; I know that when I inadvertently stray from a path paved with the best intentions, I can get easily frustrated (then grumpy, then dejected, then then then…), all the while convincing myself I’m not up for the challenge. So! That’s why we’re approaching all these gentle tasks in small doses and manageable chunks. And? No judgement here. If one doesn’t work out quite right, no matter—try the next. Or try something completely different. But keep trying.

Last session’s exercise is a good one to return to when the mental waters get murky; completely shutting out the hustle and bustle for a well-deserved respite. This week? Well, we’re taking the exact opposite approach. It’s time to welcome in a tidal rush of sensory overload.

#6: Stop, Look, and Listen

Even the most mundane, familiar locales can offer a wealth of inspiration—if you’re keeping keen eye out. The smallest detail—say, someone’s forgotten to-do list spotted on the sidewalk, or the strange gait of a three-legged dog—could form the basis for a new narrative, transposed to a completely different environment. All it takes is paying attention.


-one (1) small notebook

-one (1) writing tool of choice


Every time you’re out and about or home and alone or anywhere and everywhere, and you have the urge to reach into your pocket and pull out your phone, STOP. Grab your notepad instead. Rather than staring down at a screen, LOOK around. Raise your peepers and observe what’s going on. Scribble about the greasy fingertips of the woman across from you on the bus, who’s messily feeding herself from a paper bag full of french fries that never seems to deplete. Jot about the color of the leaves on the tree—the one that incessantly scrapes along your bedroom window, when its windy and you’re trying to go back to sleep before your alarm goes off. LISTEN to the sound of your coworker, cracking his knuckles whenever your boss speaks from the head of the conference table. Use your senses, and document your weird, wonderful, and painfully banal findings.

An example: The other day I was riding the subway and a man got on pulling a black rollie suitcase; wearing an incredibly full, clearly very heavy backpack; carrying a worn, brown leather briefcase in one hand; and holding a tupperware of water with a goldfish swimming around inside in the other. It was one of the most delightfully bizarre things I’d seen in a while, and I immediately forgot about it until I saw the description on a scrap of paper in my bag. Sure, this may never make it into a story, but it’s on call if I need it.

Time commitment: 

Give this a try any time you’ve got a moment—especially if you find yourself instinctively thinking it’s time to check email for the hundredth time in the span of a minute or so.

Recommended Reading: 

If you’re just joining us here, now’s a good time to catch up on the previous posts in the series.

#5: Take a (Mindful) Break

#4: Go Big

#3: Letters

#2: Prompts

#1: Pencil on Paper