A Microinterview with Casey Schwartz

A Microinterview with Casey Schwartz

Yvonne Conza
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Casey Schwartz’s examination of attention began with her addiction to Adderall as a college freshman. Schwartz’s second book, Attention, A Love Story, pushes beyond memoir into a more expansive cultural history that combines her experiences with reporting on the broader social understandings of attention. The book launched on April 7, 2020. It was a less-than-ideal pub date, at the height of the pandemic in the US. Yet then and now, Schwartz’s book contends with the crisis of how easily many people give away their attention these days. As she notes, the pandemic has brought this crisis into sharper relief, and has emphasized, for her, the way in which channeling the right kind of attention can help buttress one against ongoing traumas.


THE BELIEVER: What concerns were at the heart of this book?

CASEY SCHWARTZ: The heart of this book was a thought that crossed my mind one day in 2016: We are giving away our attention so casually. It was our nonchalance that killed me. As if, when we sit there in a trance on our phones, we don’t understand how utterly limited our attention is. Big Tech arrived in our lives, and we just handed over this precious resource to it, essentially without blinking. I include myself in all this, by the way. I’m no ascetic. I’m on Instagram like everyone else. That’s why it felt so personal: I could feel my own attention changing, my own relationship to literature slightly fraying, my own experience of life conforming to what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey wanted it to be. And I considered that an existential emergency. I wanted to capture that feeling in this book.


THE BELIEVER: Attention is a tricky word to harness with pure intention, especially when selling something, which may explain your book’s evocative title. How did you decide on this language?

CASEY SCHWARTZ: I really hoped to signal with the title how personal the subject is for me. Attention is not a dry cognitive function. For me, it’s not about how many digits I can hold in my head at once, or even how I can focus better on my work. Rather, it’s about how I hope to live my life and how I hope to treat other human beings around me. Those are the stakes of attention. And I wanted the title to reflect the emotional and personal stakes of the subject. 


THE BELIEVER: Publishing your book in the midst of a global crisis had to be unimaginably challenging. What are the ethics of trying to get attention for your book within such a traumatic moment? Did your interrogation of attention seem to be an even more timely topic? What was the biggest takeaway from this process?

CASEY SCHWARTZ: Publishing this book on April 7, 2020, was difficult. I was hunkered down in Brooklyn, New York, with my three-month-old baby and husband. We were barely sleeping. Everywhere around us, relentless sirens announced that another person couldn’t breathe. This was the week that New York City hit its highest fatality rate of the entire pandemic. And on a lot of those evenings, I was in the corner of my messy bedroom, on a Zoom event, talking about Adderall and William James, even though I knew the only truly important questions that month were: Will there be hospital beds? Will there be ventilators? I felt unbelievably conflicted about that, about doing the things that writers have to do when their books are published. Not only for myself, but because everyone involved had put an enormous amount of work into the book.

I remember composing an email to my extended community a few days before the book came out, saying the usual things, asking for their help in some way with the launch. It was so hard to write that email. How dare I ask anyone to pay attention to my book at a moment like this? At the same time, I did feel that attention as a subject was made even more salient by what we were going through. I’m thinking of the philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a subject of my book, who came to his ideas during a time of trauma, during World War II. He was imprisoned in Italy, but he was OK as long as he was playing chess. That kind of transcendent concentration is what saved him. Later, he would call that concentration “flow.” I wanted to think about how to channel his kind of attention, to lift myself out of the ongoing trauma reaction to the early pandemic while caring for my baby son. But I knew that desire was also kind of aspirational, and mostly, I didn’t manage to. 


THE BELIEVER: How does ambition relate to attention? Is it a by-product or a component of it? 

CASEY SCHWARTZ: Ambition was hugely important in my quest, at age eighteen, to somehow possess superhuman powers of attention. I think I felt: if you can attend, you can master. This was the great seduction of Adderall, of course, the illusion that it promises on-demand attention, that it in fact removes the question of inherent interest or passion. I believed that if I swallowed a blue pill, it didn’t matter whether I actually cared about the subject in front of me. I could manufacture that interest pharmacologically. I could succeed because I could pay attention to any subject, in any environment. And that proved a dangerous fallacy for me, because it ultimately took me very far away from myself. 

BLVR: Are there certain values associated with attention? What role does judgment play in people getting, needing, or desiring attention? 

CS: Needing and getting attention are not subjects I spent much time on in the book, but maybe I should have. Psychologically, I’m fascinated by the transformation we’ve gone through in the last twenty years, where we’ve traded in our modesty and privacy for visibility, feeling that if we don’t, we are somehow not worthy. I grieve that trade. 


THE BELIEVER: I love your hybrid approach to the
topic, which fuses autobiographical elements with reportage, but I do wonder if you had a resistance to straightforward memoir. Did memoir as a genre feel too self-conscious and therefore limiting? Did your decision about the book’s form have anything to do with the way a memoir engages with attention? 

CASEY SCHWARTZ: I cherish memoirs, but it never occurred to me that this should be one in the traditional sense. The story of attention is so much larger and more universal than my own experience of it. So I knew I wanted to offer my own experience next to a more distanced approach to reporting.

I love the hybrid approach to nonfiction, the mixing of the personal and the more detached. I think it’s incredibly powerful. I’m thinking of books like The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking and The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, both by Olivia Laing, and My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel. Those books have captivated and energized me, and that form seemed the natural approach to this subject, which was at once deeply personal, because I came to it through the experience of Adderall addiction, and the realization, through those Adderall years, that in some ways I was obsessed with questions of attention. But it was so much larger than me, because everywhere around me, everyone’s habits of attention, of how we attend, were changing so dramatically. 

BLVR: How important was a hybrid structure as a means of staying authentic to attention and to distraction, its counter-impulse? 

CS: I think it’s true that a hybrid structure can capture the vicissitudes of attention, or come close—the way we shift in and out of subjects, in and out of our own subjectivity. But that wasn’t my conscious thought when I embarked on writing this in a hybrid style. That was more of an afterthought. 


THE BELIEVER: What about your book pitch attracted Dan Frank, the beloved late editorial director of Pantheon? 

CASEY SCHWARTZ: In 2013, when I met Dan, the contract for my first book [In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis, a nonfiction work about evolving conceptions of the brain and the mind] had been canceled and I was seeking a new publisher. I’d been told, “It just doesn’t need to exist,” and the rejected manuscript then went back out to make the rounds with every publisher in New York. Everyone said no except for Dan, who asked for a meeting, and because Dan was who he was, I didn’t expect anything to come of it. The morning of our meeting, I woke up and suddenly thought: I can’t take an Adderall today. Because if it doesn’t work out with Dan Frank, I don’t want to have to wonder if it could have, had I not been on Adderall. And, after an entire decade of being dependent on the drug, really imprisoned by it, that was when I got off it.

Dan saved me, not just from a canceled book contract but also from addiction. After In the Mind Fields came out, in 2015, I really wanted to find a subject that felt personally urgent. That year, I had written about my Adderall addiction for The New York Times Magazine, and I was newly aware of how my fraught relationship to attention went back quite a long way. It didn’t start when I got an iPhone. I think my attention somehow always felt vulnerable. I wanted to explore all these ideas, and Dan agreed that that topic felt right. We talked a lot through the writing of the book. At one point he wrote to me: “Your book is a question, a search, not an answer.” That was quintessential Dan. He died in May 2021. Losing him is a devastation. He gave me, and I think all his writers, such profound internal permission. I keep his photo framed on my desk. 


THE BELIEVER: Are there any concerns you have about the marketability of attention-centric books? 

CASEY SCHWARTZ: I think people are conflicted about attention-themed books. I think many people are concerned about attention in their own lives, the way they feel their attention is besieged and perhaps even eroded by all the demands on it now, while also not truly believing that another way is possible anymore. We live and breathe a kind of splintered-attention existence, and it’s very hard to imagine how to climb back out of that without becoming Thoreau and retreating to Walden Pond or meditating in the desert. And who has the time or means or even really the inclination for that? 

BLVR: Aside from Simone Weil, the French philosopher, the expert sources you cite in the book are all men. Did you discover that men dominate the theory and philosophy around the subject of attention? And, if so, how does the mostly male academic canon affect how we come to understand attention along gender lines?

CS: Certainly that was true at the beginning, when William James and his contemporaries inaugurated the subject of attention, took it into the lab, and declared it worthy of serious study for the first time. This was the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, there have been brilliant women who have written about or studied attention, and I do include some of them in the book, like Martha Farah and Molly Crockett, who are both running labs that consider, in part, questions of attention, and who are adding to the subject in incredibly rich ways.

I tend to resist coming to conclusions based on gender. But it is interesting, isn’t it, that the picture many of us have in our heads of the “ideal” state of attention is often of a medieval monk or scholar, inevitably a man, or, in more modern times, the semi-reclusive male novelist, like Philip Roth or J. D. Salinger, whose lives are designed around protecting their solitude, protecting their work. And, of course, that model of attention is very inaccessible to most people, and god knows it’s an impossibility for me. It occurs to me to mention as well that the very industry we often blame for shattering our attention, Silicon Valley, is itself stereotypically male. 


THE BELIEVER: Has becoming a mother changed your relationship to attention?

CASEY SCHWARTZ: Yes. Everyone refers to “mom brain,” as if you are rendered stupid or forgetful by having a baby. That hasn’t been my experience. I use time much more efficiently now because I am so aware of how limited it is. But for me, the thing about motherhood is the enormous cognitive load that comes with it. Every single day I am walking around acutely aware of how many hours my son sleeps, when he naps, how much he eats, what I’ll feed him for dinner, et cetera. Or I’m asking myself questions: Do we have enough milk? Do we have enough diapers? I’m managing a constant and inescapable amount of information that simply didn’t exist before. So I do feel like I have a more narrow bandwidth for my own thoughts and concerns, my own attention. And in some ways that’s hugely beneficial because it kind of forces me to discard a lot of trivia and free up my attention as much as I can for what I consider important.


THE BELIEVER: Among many engaging quotes I earmarked as I read, one question you pose stood out to me: “What do you do with the truth that you see?” What does this question mean to you? 

CASEY SCHWARTZ: There’s an enormous ethical question hanging over the subject of attention, which is: Is it enough to pay attention? We live in a world in crisis. Is it enough to simply notice? I wrote about Simone Weil, who was obsessed with attention but was intent on carrying out that attention in action, often rather extreme action. In the end it quite literally killed her. She was hospitalized for tuberculosis during the Second World War, but refused to eat any more food than what she believed the French soldiers at the frontline were receiving. She died at thirty-four. I think of Greta Thunberg as our modern-day Simone Weil, in the sense that at such an extremely young age, she noticed, she saw, and she is acting with the same kind of purity of intent that Weil had in her day. Not many people are capable of that, but I do think most people, myself included, are very much able to notice more. To pause, and breathe, and notice more. 

BLVR: How do you feel the notion of paying attention fits into the future of our collective culture? And how do you hope this book will speak to readers? 

CS: Simone Weil wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Those words, when I first read them, stunned me. It had never occurred to me to see attention in those terms, to recognize that attention is intrinsic to compassion and kindness. Taking somebody in—in their fullness, or at least sincerely trying to, rather than jumping to classify and dismiss them—for me, that feels like one of our most urgent attentional tasks right now.


THE BELIEVER: Has publishing your book made you more at ease with the way your mind tracks information?

CASEY SCHWARTZ: Tackling the subject of attention, and really living with it for several years, was so seductive. I began to see everything in terms of attention. It’s really one of those subjects that sort of takes over your worldview. And I emerged from it grateful for my own capacities, however tattered and frayed they are. I think this book helped me let go of the idea that one’s attention could or should be perfect, whatever that means. Instead, what I think is that it never has been and it never will be, and that the imperfection itself is the point.

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