In Ashtanga yoga one of the first things we learn about is the drishti (also written dristhi or dṛṣṭi), which is the gaze — the place where you direct your eyes in the asana. Every pose has a different drishti, and it never changes. For some postures it’s down the bridge of your nose, sometimes it’s at your toes, in other positions it’s up at your hand. There are nine drishtis total, assigned across all the asanas.
The point of having an assigned place to look is to give you concentration and purpose, to facilitate meditation. So while you take your ujjayi breaths, while you move your body, bending, reaching, pressing, you know exactly where to look. You don’t find yourself distracted by the dude who just started chanting next to you, or that unread book you added to your shelf, or the face of your phone lighting up with texts from your best friend. There’s no space for that, because your disciplined eyes are gazing only at your navel, only at your thumbs, etc.
Even after I’ve left the yoga studio I still find myself thinking about my gaze. Where am I looking as I cross the street? Where am I looking when I say thank you to the woman who just held that subway door open for me? Where, as I rush to work? Where, as I think through items on my to-do list?
Outside the yoga studio, thinking about the drishti helps me remember to be mindful. To look strangers in the eyes, to take that extra fraction of a second and offer a genuine smile.
And then in the cafe or on the couch, as I stare at my laptop screen, or as my knuckles curl around a pen: I’m writing all these words, but where is the focus? Where do I look? Do I even know?
The drishti seems to be yet another metaphor for my novel writing.
A mentor once taught me that one of the most important questions to ask on every page was: “What am I reading for?” As in, what motivation does the audience have to keep turning the page? Is the prose thrilling? Have we fallen in love with the character? Are we dying to see how a conflict pans out?
I spent years asking myself this question over and over again. What am I reading for? And then I started to find it distracting. It’s a great and important question to consider during the editing phase…but it had turned into some sort of mantra. I couldn’t get it out of my head even as I was first-drafting. Even while things were still rough and murky and I hadn’t quite figured out the true arc of my story yet. I began to realize that in that hazy period the question should be one of focus. Again, going back to the drishti. Where do I direct my gaze? Where are my sentences pointing? Where is my story looking?
I’m not talking about plot or anything like that; I’m talking about purpose.
The point of focus should be the reason the novel needs to exist. Maybe it’s the reason I started the novel in the first place. Or the universal question unspooling into my main conflict. The image that gave birth to my protagonist. The friend for whom I’m writing.
We’re all telling our stories for a reason. And hopefully it’s more than just wanting to be published. Because a book written just for the sake of getting published will never be as enjoyable or valuable as a book written out of human instinct, a need to record or share something. Many of us are trying to create the experience of an emotion, of magic, of a place. Or we’re trying to cope, figure out a way with our words to tunnel out of the dark.
Too often I start writing and lose track of why I’m writing the story. Why the project is important. I break my focused gaze. I stop looking in the right place. It’s too easy to get caught up in the mechanics of writing, let that distraction take over. But I’m trying a new practice now. I check on my drishti as I move from scene to scene, chapter to chapter. Because I’ve started to believe that this focal point is just as if not more important than any outline I could make. I need to keep my eyes on that point of light from which my novel began.