The Art of Apprehension

The Art of Apprehension

Now that you’ve read the title of this post, you probably think I’m going to be talking about worry. Anxiety. “Apprehension.” And how to make something beautiful out of it.

Come to think of it, that would make a really good post. Or poem. And given the degree to which I do stress about things, I should figure out a way to make art out of it. But alas, worry is only one definition of the word apprehension–here are the remaining four, i.e. what I’m actually going to be talking about today:


  • the faculty or act of understanding; perception on a direct and immediate level.
  • acceptance of or receptivity to information without passing judgment on its validity,
    often without complete comprehension.
  • a view, opinion, or idea on any subject.
  • the act of arresting; seizure: Police apprehension of the burglar was aided by two alert teenagers.

I think of apprehension as a means of catching thoughts, ideas, and impressions, snatching them up from the current of transience. Although it’s something I’ve only started learning, it’s already made a big difference in my thinking, writing and general sanity.

Where do I begin?

* * *

A while back I started one of those gratitude journals. Hopefully you know what I’m talking about–basically, just a regular notebook whose sole purpose is to serve as a record of thankfulness.

The fact that I nearly gagged writing that last sentence should indicate you that I am not the most grateful person by nature. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the IDEA of being, but when it comes to reality, I’m more likely to stress, gripe and poetically lament my way through life. This has often served me well–my lack of thankfulness has fed (or been fed by?) my perfectionism, which got me through three post-secondary degrees. Over the years, my subtle ingratitude has also helped hone a delightfully dry sarcasm that I like to think has brought joy (and possibly a degree of dark existentialism) to those around me.

Probably, I would have been content to live in my ingratitude forever except… I have a priest.

And one time, several years ago already, this pointed out that I seem to have trouble with thankfulness and maybe I should try building gratitude into my life. As a practice. A ritual. Until it becomes a part of me, which may take my whole life.

He suggested that every night, before falling asleep, I recall three things from my day to be thankful for.

The first night I tried this was lackluster. I kept having this problem that the memories of things I was grateful for just didn’t seem as “real” or palpable in my mind as the more stressful events of the day. They’d just float away like wisps of a wind against the darker, more grounding storm clouds of (cynical) realism.

By the second night, it became too difficult to be thankful and stressed at the same time, and somehow the stress won out. For like, several years thereafter.

Then, recently, I was talking about this to a friend, who suggested that instead of just “thinking” about things to be grateful for, I write them down, bullet-point style.

I didn’t need to “reflect” on them in writing, I didn’t even need to extensively write my way into a certain feeling. Just write down the items, one-by-one and be done with it. Every day.

“It’s different than just thinking,” she assured me.

She was right. Writing the items down–even just in keywords or phrases rather than full sentences–is a total game changer.

By writing these events down, I started connecting with them as real, immediate things that actually happened–not just a mental spin or wishful thinking. I started recalling these events more vividly than I otherwise would have, even days or weeks after they happened. ​

Coincidentally, around the time I started keeping track of gratitude points, I also started an idea book. Just a small, purse-sized notebook to carry around and write thoughts down in–as they occur to me. It’s a suggestion I picked up in William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry. I spend a lot of time on the subway and other places where serious writing is impractical, but sometimes those are also the most inspiring, creative places for me, oddly. So anyway, I started giving myself permission to jot down loose ideas, words, phrases in the moment so I don’t forget them.

This turned out to be an incredibly useful habit. In fact, it seems that certain writing projects and stages of writing are actually better done by single words, thoughts, lists here and there. For example, this little notebook is where I brainstorm future episode topics for a podcast I do–it’s also where I keep a running list of ideas for this blog. I’ve written snippets of poetry, random observations, books I’d like to read, subjects I’d like to google when next at my desk. I don’t know how to quantify these results, but ever since I started the idea book, I have this growing sense that less is falling through the cracks of my own forgetfulness.

I think what the idea book has in common with my newest stab at gratitude is that both rely on writing to apprehend events and ideas that are important to me. The content that fills our everyday perceptions just whizzes by on autopilot much of the time. Like a sunbeam lights up bits of dust swimming around in the air, writing things down allows me to pluck shining bits of light from the disparate particles swirling around in my consciousness.

​If I had to make a maxim out of it, I’d say to comprehend, you must first apprehend. But there is an art to apprehension, as I’m slowly learning.

There’s a diligence about it, but not one that is hard and heavy–I bring the idea book with me most of the time but don’t force myself to use it if it’s not a creative day on the subway. There’s a mindfulness about it, and a forgetfulness–I write down something I’m grateful for, but then move on without forcing myself to feel grateful or constantly hold the memory in my mind. There’s a treasuring, storing-it-all-up aspect about it, but also a distance, a not-getting-too-sucked-in-to-any-one-idea.

This way of thinking and writing has been foreign to me for most of my life. When I write, I usually feel a pressure to really sit down and write properly. As a result, there have been many occasions when I refrained from putting a thought into words unless I had the time and creativity to write a five-point essay about it, i.e. to fully bring it to fruition all at once, in all the grandeur of full sentences and paragraphs. My approach to journaling worked along similar lines–why sit down to write about a life unless I’m committed to writing in extreme detail about it.

Jotting ideas down here and there felt too loose-y goose-y, too noncommittal for a serious writer and thinker. What if I never came back to them? What if they never added up to anything? What if it made me lazy as a writer and thinker? With gratefulness, there was a deeper worry: what if I was just being delusional?

These worries have faded over time because both practices have reaped–and continue to reap–beneficial paradigm shifts in the way I view writing and to some degree life in general.

So, in a roundabout way, I suppose this is a post about making something beautiful about the more angst-riddled meaning of apprehension.

Do you have any apprehension-style writing practices? How have they helped you?


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