Several years ago, I took a beginning mindfulness class. It was held in a sad room in a hospital: no windows; buzzing fluorescent lights; uncomfortable plastic chairs. But I loved our instructor. She was probably in her late forties, with long russet hair and thick bangs that almost covered her eyes. When she sat in her chair, her feet didn’t touch the ground, and she swung them like a little girl. She had a vaguely Eastern European accent that gave her an air of therapeutic authority.

She led us through the basic exercises: breathing, body scans. Afterward, she would ask us about our experience. No matter what anyone said, she responded, “Good noticing!” An angry man railed against mindful walking: too slow and boring; it hurt. “Good noticing!” Some, eager for approval, leaned forward, tried to make eye contact, and raved about the deep breathing. But they didn’t win extra points. They got the same, “Good noticing!” How strange it felt to be praised, not just for the quality of our noticing, but for noticing at all.

Since then I have been considering the power of noticing in the writing life. 

First, the Basics: Noticing Using All the Senses

I have taught high school creative writing for many years, and in the first weeks of class, we begin with a lesson of the importance of sense detail. Afterward, we go outside with our journals to take note of what we notice: Layers of sound. The quality of the light. Textures and patterns. Stillness and movement. How it feels to inhabit our bodies. Such a simple exercise. Yet afterward, I see a radical leap in the students’ ability to write an immersive scene.  

At the end of the semester, when I ask students to share the most memorable moment from our semester, most choose that half hour, months previously, when we spent time outside paying attention. This tells me that in a world in which so many of us spend our days curled over screens, we must consciously train ourselves to do what probably used to come naturally: soaking in our world with all our senses. To use sense detail well—with any freshness or veracity— we must train ourselves, against the grain of our culture, to notice.  

Notice Your Response to Your Language

We can also bring whole-body awareness to our writing and revision, noticing how we respond to our own sentences: Where do you feel that nagging sense that you’ve missed something, that a line isn’t as true as it could be, that there is more complexity to be uncovered? What objects seem to have inexplicable weight? Where does a surprising memory arise that might find its way into the work? Tap against the words. Notice where you feel uneasy. Listen for where the rhythm or voice falters. Annie Dillard writes, “The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere.” In his recent book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders describes his own process of revision. He reads a draft, noticing what feels as if it’s working. When a line feels off, he makes an adjustment. “There’s not an intellectual or analytic component to this; it’s more of an impulse, one that results in a feeling of ‘Ah, yes, that’s better.’ All art begins in that moment of intuitive preference.” So, yes, learn the tools of the craft but also learn to notice, to trust your intuitive, emotional, bodily response to your language. 

Notice, and Accept, Your Process 

Over the years, I’ve taught breathtakingly gifted writers who have yet to achieve their writing dreams. They’d claim they couldn’t begin. Or finish. Or revise. Or sit still. I used to think what they most needed— what I most needed— was self-discipline. So I studied habit formation and goal setting. I wrote (and taught my students to write) goals for the day, the week, the year. I recruited accountability partners. I created charts and gave myself gold star stickers. Goal setting worked for me. Sort of. I did more writing than I would have otherwise. But I started to see some other truths. 

One: Goal setting isn’t the answer for everyone. I had a mentor who told me, in a whispered aside, that she wrote her most critically acclaimed book over three weeks in a blast of inspiration in which she hardly ate or slept. She never could work to a schedule.

Two: Those of us who suffer from anxiety or compulsiveness can use goals and schedules not primarily in service to our work but to manage fears and give us an illusion of order and control. We become superstitious. We fall short, then burden ourselves with shame. We forget that sometimes the goal is, well, not the goal. 

Now, I still set goals, but more loosely. “The process,” I say to students, “is about becoming a scientist of yourself.” Goals are tools for noticing. We break down our successes so we can repeat them. When we don’t achieve a goal, we learn even more: Maybe the goal isn’t as important as we thought. More often, though, we find we’ve bumped against a pattern getting in our way, usually some ineffective coping strategy. Maybe we overschedule ourselves. Or believe some dark inner voice. Or conclude, in our grandiosity, if we can’t do the work perfectly, we won’t do it at all. Maybe we let fear get the upper hand: fear of exposure, failure, frustration, judgement or success. 

So we reflect, notice and learn. Like the scientists we are, we change one thing and see what happens. We write in the morning. Or late at night. Or in a café. Or with a partner. Or with a prompt. Or with a timer. Or with a cookie at the end. We start therapy. Or journaling. Or exercise. Or painting. We learn, not who we think we should be as an artist, but who we really are and what we actually need. Our process, like the writing itself, is a long, slow and ever-changing process of iteration and learning, which requires that we notice. 

I have a history of approaching all writing problems— all problems, really— by working harder.  But sometimes what our writing needs most is not more effort but more acute, more specific noticing. These days, my writing life seems to want less pushing and more truth telling. More bringing of my whole body to living, to language, and to the writing process. My writing wants less of my drama. I’m like that grouchy man in the mindfulness class: I resist, I flail, I complain. I’m terrified. But now—overwrought toddler that I can be—I’m learning to pay attention. I hear that slightly Eastern European voice speaking without judgement, only pleasure: “Good noticing!” she says. 

Tarn Wilson is the author of the memoirs In Praise of Inadequate Gifts (Wandering Aengus Press, 2021) and The Slow Farm (Ovenbird Books: Judith Kitchen Select, 2014). Her personal essays appear in Harvard Divinity BulletinRiver TeethRuminate and The Sun, among others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is a high school teacher and the founder of Creator School, which offers writing courses for teens and adults. Visit her at