The Arrow-Maker and the Gorilla

There is an ancient story from the Indian tradition about an arrow-maker whose attention to his work was so focussed and fine that he was unaware of a boisterous wedding procession passing by his window. The moral of the story seems to be that this state of mind leads to mastery of your art.

I am just checking the second set of proofs for A Gift for the Magus. How many times has this book been edited? Let me count them. At least four times by me, including use of software programmes such as Editor. Once by a proper editor. It has been edited so often and so thoroughly that it seemed barely necessary to hire a proof reader, so we didn’t. I went through it, then David did. I found an awful lot – not mistakes particularly, just opportunities for improvement – and David – with a little trumpet fanfare on each occasion – found the things I’d missed. But our typesetter is as quick as she is patient and sent back a second set on Monday. So all I had to do was to check that the corrections had been made correctly. Wasn’t it?

I am currently enthralled by Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It was recommended to me in rapid succession by Lindsay Clarke, John Moat and Maggie Ross, so I had to read it, all 500 pages. So far (page 163) I am finding it a continuing revelation that shakes my philosophical foundations (but leaves them intact). As Maggie Ross said in a talk, ‘With neuroscience, you don’t need your neoplatonic philosophy.’ I found that as exciting a prospect as terrifying. So now I’m a little way along in this journey of modern science – science as science should be – open-minded, full-hearted and questing.

One of things it is forcing me to reconsider is attention. I’ve always been taught in my philosophy school that there are three states of attention: focussed, broad and scattered. McGilchrist (so far) has only spoken of the first two and linked them to left hemisphere (focussed) and right (broad). Apparently birds watch for predators with the left eye, and look out for the group with the right one. (I was circled by a little egret recently which I took to be a magical communion across species until I realised I was the subject of a left-eye survey.)

I was speaking to a writing-proof-reading-philosophical friend yesterday, asking him how one might avoid making mistakes in the first place. His reply was ‘pay attention’. Yes, but what kind of attention, and to what? If I were scanning a text looking for typos, then I could practise the attention of the arrow-maker. But I’m not just looking for typos. If I were, I’d have sent the first set of proofs back with less than five corrections when in fact there was a scribble in red on almost every page, PLUS the chapter which had mysteriously got left out (how did that happen?). It seems to me I need to have an eye as much to the wedding procession as to the arrows. I need to have my attention everywhere at once.

Here’s what I’m looking for and finding: typos (these days a euphemism for mis-typing) spelling mistakes, clunky sentences, repetition of words or rhymes or homophones, punctuation (sigh), consistency (this one is complex and of astonishing depths of subtlety, such as when to give pope a capital P and when not to), hyphenated words at line-ends, ambiguities, and downright howlers.

To be honest, I think it all comes down to me in the end. I could pay the earth for the best ever proof reader but he/she wouldn’t find everything, and I’d be the one to discover that, so I may as well do it myself. Godstow Press is an Indie, but mainstream publishers, forever cutting costs and using Spellchecker instead of a human brain, make this an issue of as much – if not more – concern to their authors.

So here I am at the end of the second set and what do I find on the closing pages? Saint Mathew spelt with one ‘t’, and Cosimo de’ Medici referring to Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistry as ‘the gates of paradise’ – a sweet metaphor thought up by Michelangelo a generation later. And so, instead of cheering and throwing flower petals over my own head for finding these two things, I suffered deep despair and a building depression,  haunted by the questions, ‘What have I missed?’ and ‘Must I read it again?’

What have I missed? Bring on the gorilla!

In a now famous experiment by Simons and Chabris, subjects were asked to watch a short video clip showing a basketball game in a relatively confined indoor setting. [I’ve struck out the description of the test because it’s more fun to do it yourself: ]

… As they and others have neatly and dramatically demonstrated, we see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focussed way (with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with … is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new. [McGilchrist p.163]

Or spot our ommissions.

One thought on “The Arrow-Maker and the Gorilla

  1. There’s a sentence in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett that I think of often when snapped out of that focused brain-state:

    “Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage.

    “It makes me feel as if something had hit me,” Sara had told Ermengarde once in confidence. “And as if I want to hit back. I have to remember things quickly to keep from saying something ill-tempered.”

    I think the passage struck me as a child reader because it was the first time I saw someone else describe the confusion of changing gears between intense inner focus and awareness of the outside world, which was troublesome for me then (and still is, more often than I’d like to admit).

    It’s difficult to access that state, sometimes, in a world that values multitasking so highly. I’ve never been under the impression that I can successfully multitask— it feels more like juggling, trying to switch between the tasks at hand quickly enough not to let one drop by leaving it unattended for a moment too long. For the kid who could get lost in a book so deeply that she didn’t hear her mother calling from three feet away, that kind of divided attention is stressful!

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