Why writers need a language of attentiveness

Jan Fortune
7 min readAug 14, 2020

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality. . . .

wrote Ursula Le Guin.

Those times are surely here. Coronavirus, ecological disasters, economic turmoil. We have the hard times and know there are more to come. We need writers who refuse to accept that ‘there is no alternative’, writers who can frame hope because they know that the new stories we must tell are about thriving together — trees, plants, oceans, deserts, races, communities, families, selves …; writers who have abandoned the dualistic categories that set the rational against the physical; who do not imagine that we can divide the world into ‘nature’ and ‘not nature’.

We need writers who have a lexicon of attentiveness. Writers willing to look, to listen and to name, with precision and in lucid voices.

Looking in a certain way

In Gathering Moss, the bryologist and storyteller, Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that whilst technology can enhance what we are able to perceive, from microscopes to telescopes, nonetheless, at ordinary distances technology has a more dulling effect:

Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.


Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.

She goes on to talk about how enriching it is to have this expanded perception, just as it is enriching in winter to know about the unique geometries of snowflakes. And, ultimately, this knowledge is most powerful when it is the knowing of names.

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.


Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

The wonder of names

And what extraordinary names they are:

Indulge yourself in the words, rhythmic and musical, rolling off your tongue: Dolecathecia striatella, Thuidium dedicatulum; Barbula falax. […] Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

The names of things take us beyond the abstract and the generic. They are indeed intimate. They make things matter. If there is no word for some tiny primitive land plant, who will notice if it disappears? If moths are just moths, what does it matter if moth species are rapidly declining with some becoming extinct?

Specificity of language asserts that something exists, that it has a name, that it is part of the life we are all bound to. And specific language is the terrain of writers, as Michael Ondaatje demonstrates at the opening of In the Skin of a Lion, when the boy, Patrick, waits at night, lights turned out except for one bright light in the kitchen, poring over the names of distant seas and places:

Caspian, Nepal, Durrango

waiting for the bugs and moths:

Having given then fictional names he will learn their formal titles as if perusing the guest list for a ball — the Spur-throated Grasshopper! The Archbishop of Canterbury! Bush cricket.

And he weaves a similar spell of richness and precision in The English Patient when his character, Almásy, names winds:

There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. […]

The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days — burying villages. There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition. The haboob — a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain. The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic. […] The mezzar-ifoullousen — a violent and cold southwesterly known to Berbers as ‘that which plucks the fowls.’ …

The place of names

Names, specific and rich, not only change our perspective, allowing us to see more of reality, but also assert existence and value. Names, or their lack, are ways of expanding or diminishing reality.

Robert McFarlane’s Lost Words project began in response to the disappearance of words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The ‘irrelevant’ words for today’s children included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. But there were new words, more in keeping with being a twenty-first century child: block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

McFarlane also began cataloguing words that preserved deep and specific relationships to place:

I became fascinated by those scalpel-sharp words that are untranslatable without remainder. The need for precise discrimination of this kind has occurred most often where landscape is the venue of work. The Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson writes of fishermen speaking “coddish” far out into the North Atlantic; the miners working the Great Northern Coalfield in England’s north-east developed a sub-dialect known as “Pitmatical” or “yakka”, so dense it proved incomprehensible to Victorian parliamentary commissioners seeking to improve conditions in the mines in the 1840s.

But he is careful not to confuse our naming with stasis or ownership or to fall into nominalism:

when in fact I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing. There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. When I see a moon-bow or a sundog, I usually just say “Wow!

It is not that names give us power over or the right to define and ossify, but rather that they expand our view. And if we don’t have the ‘correct’ names to hand, we can still be inventive. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says:

Knowing mosses, however, does not require knowing their scientific names. Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, red stem.

The place of names is not to limit but to expand, to invite attentiveness, to assert that we are interested in and care about these specific aspects of life.

The power of names

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague

It is perhaps this quality of care and attention that makes the genocidal prefer to attach numbers to those people they aim to eradicate. Numbers might seem more expendable, more generic than humans with relationships, loves, passions, homes and names.

Against this, remembering the names asserts a different story, one that insists that people are not data or problems to be solved. At the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, room after room confronts visitors with walls of names — those of 77,297 Holocaust victims of Bohemia and Moravia whose last address was in Prague. The simple power of names is both overwhelming and deeply humanising.

Which brings us full circle to Le Guin:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality. . . .

To see alternatives requires that we name things, that we pay attention, that nothing is too small to go unnamed. Remembering freedom … imagining a larger reality … begins with names.

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.



Jan Fortune

I'm a writer, publisher & mentor, helping others develop their writing. I'm also and community herbalist & live in France. I blog @ https://janfortune.com/