Inviting Attentiveness

by Margaret Ann Faeth

Guest Editor Sam Faeth, center, with Editor's Choice authors Anne Green (left) and Paula Kane (right).

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells of her childhood delight in hiding pennies along the street and chalking large arrows and hints such as “SURPRISE AHEAD!” or “MONEY THIS WAY!” for her neighbors and other foot travelers to see. Even in the midst of her youthful enthusiasm, this budding writer understood that most of us wander down the pathways of life, oblivious to most of the wonder and possibility that lies along the way. As she grew, Dillard learned more inconspicuous ways to invite the attention of her readers. There are certainly treasures to find in her writing – a breathtaking description of birds taking flight, or a personal reminiscence that connects us to our own experience. But the big arrows and billboard announcements are gone. In their place are one of the key elements to the writer’s craft – the invitation to attentiveness.

Skilled writers know that the attentiveness of the reader is a gift that is earned. Writers can invite the attention of a reader, but can never expect or demand it. The invitation to attentiveness requires a subtle but pervasive attitude of hospitality. Whether the genre is detective fiction or children’s literature, memoir or historical fiction, the proficient writer uses words, rhythm, tension, dialogue, description, and other tools to invite the reader first to pay attention, then linger over an image or an idea. Good writing is, at its essence, an expression of hospitality through the invitation into a space that the author has created.

Each of the outstanding submissions to this issue exhibits, in its distinctive way, an invitation to look more closely. I know that you will be drawn in, as I was, to this collection of stories, essays, and poetry. It is the Guest Editor’s privilege and challenge to find two selections that particularly catch his or her attention. Among such an evocative collection, Anne Waters Green’s poem, “Whatever Dreams”; and Paula Kane’s story, “Pikesville to Stone House,” exemplify the art and craft of inviting attentiveness.

The Las Vegas strip could not be more different from the tree-lined streets of suburban Pittsburgh where Annie Dillard planted her pennies and dropped her hints, but Green’s descriptive poem points me to something I might have ignored as surely as Dillard’s chalk signage directed her neighbors. Green begins with an allusion to the bold and unmistakable seduction of Vegas. “PAY ATTENTION TO US.” “SPEND YOUR MONEY HERE,” “WE CAN MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE.” Green describes the trip “past gold clad towers, lavish gardens, and fountains, the continuous lines of people eager for photos to show they made it.” But Green does not leave us in this place where bright lights and promises demand our attention, our trust, and our money. She is headed elsewhere, to a place of natural beauty and true wonder. To get to Zion and Yellowstone though, the author must traverse the seedy end of the Vegas strip. It is here, in this place where all the glitz has worn away, that the magic happens in this poem. The author notices a woman, the kind of person that, if we notice them at all, we quickly avert our gaze. Not so fast, says this author, without ever saying it at all. There is something worth seeing here. Let’s look more closely. Green’s descriptive skills are not encumbered by sentimentality. She does not ascribe to her subject any supposed virtue or vice. Here Green’s observational skills stop us in our tracks and invite us to look more closely at this toothless, ageless woman pushing a grocery cart “piled with lumpy plastic bags.” Immediately, I stop and wonder, “If my life was constrained to the contents of a grocery cart, what would be in my lumpy bags?” The author doesn’t ask that question. She doesn’t need to. Her observations invite us closer, drawn into an evocative description of the woman’s appearance. As tempted as I am to give away the final lines, I will let you experience the “Wow” that comes not from flashy or demanding prose, but from the skill and craft of a gifted and insightful poet whose hospitality shines through this authentic and astonishing poem.

Paula Kane’s story, “Pikesville to the Stone House,” is a chapter from a larger work in progress. Based upon this chapter, I am eager to read the book. Kane excels at the descriptive skill that embodies the invitation to attentiveness. From her opening portrayal of the stilted gait of the lead-poisoned Thomas Cleary (“If you drew a straight line, in twenty paces he would have veered slightly off to the right or left, which he would then correct with an odd jumpy side step.”) to her detailed sketch of the Pikesville house, where Ivy Cleary had created a pleasant and comfortable home, a “rosy space” for her family, Kane invites us into the stark reality of an Irish-American family in an era wherein dangerous employment practices and the effects of ethnic discrimination could erode any progress that a family like the Clearys might have made toward security and belonging.

Kane’s protagonist, young Connaught Cleary, notices everything, inviting us to look closely, too. We can relate to a young boy who stands on sacks of potatoes to eavesdrop on his parents, or obediently takes his place in the back of a borrowed truck as his mother drops the house key, and we must suppose a piece of her heart, through the letter box of their foreclosed-upon home. Kane deploys a clever use of projection: Mrs. Cleary bears the emotional brunt of the family’s challenges as Mr. Cleary and Connaught seem to accept them with equanimity. We are treated to a bit of schadenfreude when the Clearys become the targets of ethnic taunting as they leave the place they have called home: Connaught looks back, apparently without emotion, and a neighborhood boy chokes on a jawbreaker in the middle of his tirade. “He made a sucking noise that sounded almost exactly like the whoop of whooping cough I remembered so well, as he turned a little blue around the lips.” This is our protagonist’s last glimpse of his home and playmates. This pattern of rich, detailed description contrasted with very little expressed emotion offers the reader the freedom to imagine what the characters might be experiencing. We sense Thomas Cleary’s determination to provide for his wife and son. We are given a few glimpses into Ivy Cleary’s tendency to express her emotions clearly before adjusting to the challenges at hand, determined to make the best of things. We are invited to join in Connaught’s optimism, as he leaves one life behind and begins life on the grounds of Rosewood, where an overgrown baseball diamond and a clearly impaired young man wielding a baseball are there to greet him.

There are no flashing signs or directive arrows in Kane’s narrative. She is a gifted story-teller, offering us glimpses of the ordinary as a means of expressing wonder, hope, and curiosity. Her invitation to attentiveness is not embossed or engraved, not showy or flamboyant. Such tricks simply would not do in this engaging and straightforward story. Her writing exhibits the kind of authenticity that invites to reader to settle into the fictional world inhabited by these characters.

Anne Waters Green and Paula Kane have shown us how accomplished writers invite their readers to attentiveness. We pay attention because they skillfully point us toward that which is worth noticing. But they are not alone. This issue is filled with the work of gifted, hospitable, evocative authors. I don’t have any chalk at hand but I will borrow a trick from Annie Dillard to assure you that there is GOOD READING AHEAD! and LITERATURE WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO! On behalf of all the writers herein, I bid you welcome.

The Reverend Dr. Margaret Ann (Sam) Faeth is an Episcopal priest and seminary instructor. After a life-altering illness forced an early retirement, Sam began work on a collection of essays on broken things. Her creative nonfiction, spiritual writing, and poetry have been published in several sermon anthologies, The Great Smokies Review, Fiction Southeast, and in a poetry anthology published by the Center for Grateful Living. Since her move to Asheville in 2016, Sam spends her time writing, mopping up after three large dogs, enjoying her grandchildren, gazing at the mountains, and feeling lucky.