In my family lore, there’s a story that my maternal grandfather wanted to marry my grandmother in an impulsive romantic gesture before he left for Hawaii to start his World War II tour. My ever-practical grandmother refused to marry him until he returned from the war in case he was killed in action – whether to save herself from becoming a widow or to save her family the expense of putting on a wedding, or both. My grandfather, who after Hawaii was stationed all over Europe, would tell me about the pineapples he ate in Hawaii every morning, or the hot baguettes he savored in France or the tart olives in Italy. He also took hundreds of black-and-white photographs of people, houses, horses, cows, apple trees, the ruins of cathedrals, tanks ready to roll, and wristwatches crushed in the dust and left behind. For a man who didn’t consider himself an artist, and who lived simply – enjoyed food, snapped pictures into his late years of all the things that caught his eye, took long walks in the evening to smell the air and have conversations with those he met – his life was very rich. And, he was happy.
Sometimes, as artists, we don’t feel happy. We may not feel inspired to create when we really want to work. We may be too tired to write or paint or sculpt. If we’re writers, we may have received one too many rejection letters from journals we love and we may be questioning why we even bother to keep writing that poetry manuscript or that memoir. Our inner critic might be bullying us, laughing over our shoulder as we write, “You call that a love poem?” or “That character is so insipid she could be your twin sister.” The list could go on. Sometimes, when we’re in that place of not-writing, it can pay to switch gears and start writing simply.
In the short poem “I am happy living simply” by Marina Tsvetaeva, she writes: “To come to things—swift/as a ray of light, or a look./To live as I write: spare—the way/God asks me—/and friends do not.” This poem is written during a time when writing is going well for the narrator – the language is precise and her insights are piercing, so much so that she wants to live the clean, effective and wonderful way she writes. A life uncluttered by others’ (or our minds’) demands and chatter. A life where we can reflect on one thing at a time and have our thoughts burst into brilliance. So how can we write simply in our cluttered lives? Here are three things to try.
1. Walk, and then write. If poet Philip Levine is having trouble writing, he goes on a two-mile walk, and then returns home and just starts writing. Have you ever gone on a long walk where your thoughts pile up upon each other? You pass a brick house and it reminds you of the house your neighbor Mrs. Larkin lived in, and how she smelled like mothballs but taught you to make bread one day when it was raining. And then you remember that you had your first kiss from a guy in the rain at summer camp behind the crafts cabin. It’s a whole conversation you’re having with your self – and its layers and layers of connected memories, a trail leading one way back through your life. When you return, sit down and write. Just write about the chat you had with yourself as you walked. Write about one memory or multiple. Write your way back into your life.
2. Eat, and then write. Sometimes, when I’m on an airplane for hours, I read food and cooking magazines, because I’m only an occasional chef. I love what the articles and recipes conjure up: I might be taken to Tuscany or India just by a spice list. Or, the way I’m suddenly in France where chicken is cooked with Calvados and cream, rustic bread is stacked on a table filled with flowers and mismatched candlesticks, and a long meal is followed with gâteau Breton aux pommes. My suggestion is this: Find a new recipe, something that’s exotic and calls to you. Make it into an experience: Buy the ingredients and spices you need. Light a candle. Set a special place for yourself at the table. Enjoy the cooking and savor the eating. Then, sit down to write. Write about the experience, the taste of the food and the places it took you in your memory.
3. Sleep, and then write. Writers Joy Harjo and Marvin Bell like to write late, late at night. Bell says in Writing and the Spiritual Life by Patrice Vecchione that he prefers to write when “the mind loosens the grip of utility and rationality. Then, emotion quickly infiltrates words. … The worst aspects of the human condition (seem!) to be on hold.” There are lots of couples who’ll tell you that they never go to bed angry. That they settle their fights before they sleep, so their hearts drift into dream lighter. Then, there are those who say, “Go to bed angry. Wake up more forgiving.” Some of the time I’m in the Harjo/Bell camp where I say, “Yes, soldier on! Light a candle! Make coffee! Write after midnight! It must be done.” Other times, when I need to simplify my writing, I say wholeheartedly to myself, just go to bed. I give myself permission to rest. Antonio Machado, in his poem, “Last Night as I Was Sleeping,” writes:
Last night, as I was sleeping.
I dreamt, blessed illusion!
that there was a beehive
within my heart.
And the golden bees
were hard at work
making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old bitterness.
I love the idea that while we sleep, our memories and thoughts are being worked into something new and sweet, into material that will inspire and change us. Even our problems, and what annoys and terrifies us, are being worked on while we sleep. So sleep, and then when you awaken, write for 10 minutes in a journal that you keep next to your bed. Write whatever you wake up thinking about. Write about your dreams. But, write, before your busy day starts. Give yourself that time.
Rather than forcing the writing when we’re blocked, hungry or tired, take the time to live more simply and in the moment. And then let what writing comes, come. Accept it for what it is. Be gentler with yourself. You’re a vessel filled to the brim with memory, insight and a way into your unique future. Try to live more simply, and write more simply. What you create might surprise and delight you.
Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe