Weekend Edition – The Magic of Small, Basic Tasks

Keep things simple.

Keep things simple.

When things get a little crazy (and when aren’t they a little crazy?), small, humble tasks create pockets of sanity in my day. I expect my gravitating toward these menial chores in moments of crisis is a bit like the British tendency to make tea even when (sometimes especially when) everything seems to be falling apart. There is comfort in the simple and the mundane, in purely functional activities that are what they are. These manual labors provide a sense of grounded rationality that is often otherwise hard to find.

Take for instance, mending. For months now, a small pile of clothes has been sitting high on a laundry room shelf, patiently waiting for me to repair ripped seams and broken fastenings. The job was not all that complicated, but I just never seemed to get around to it. And then new damage to my daughter’s favorite pair of yoga pants elevated the issue to crisis level.

It took me a while to locate the plastic zipper bag containing my random collection of mini sewing kits and half-used spools of thread. And then it took me a while longer to search out a separately stored set of needles (with larger eyes) that I could actually thread. Finally, with my needle successfully threaded and knotted, I began the simple but careful process of adding one stitch after another, slowly closing the tear in the first item.

I am no seamstress. My work would never stand up to the scrutiny of even the most generous inspection. My stitch work was uneven, causing the seam to pucker and twist, but it held. To ensure its strength, I went back over the seam a second time. Tying off the end knot and snipping the thread, I felt a sense of satisfaction in a job if not well done, at least sufficiently done.

Though mending is obviously not something I do on a regular basis, there was a comforting familiarity in the rhythm of the task, perhaps some latent muscle memory carried over from generations gone by. I feel a similar sense of domestic heritage when I sweep the kitchen floor, toss scraps out for the crows, water the houseplants, or prepare a meal.

These tasks, and many others like them, have remained mostly unchanged over the centuries. As complicated as our culture, politics, and commerce have become, some things do stay the same. Our lives have been changed in innumerable ways by modern appliances, digital media, and mobile devices, but a broom is still a broom.

··• )o( •··

I feel similarly about my writing. Sometimes, things start to feel a little crazy. Sometimes, the weight of everything that needs to be done, wants to be done, should have been done yesterday gets to be overwhelming. My heart races at the prospect of missing assignment deadlines. My head aches trying to come up with the just-right headline or angle on a piece of copy. My mind ties itself in knots as I endlessly mull over story ideas, project inspiration, and the many different paths that lie ahead in my writer’s journey – all the choices and chances to get it wrong.

And then there are the voices of doubt and derision that clamor for my attention and vie to inflict the deepest wounds. Even as I tap away on the keyboard, these small but insistent voices hiss in my ear that the words I’ve chosen are the wrong words, or – worse – that I have nothing to say. They snipe at me from the dark corners of my consciousness. They derail my thoughts and make me question my ability.

All of these voices and worries crowd in around me until I fear I might be smothered. I am, at the very least, handicapped by the oppressive feelings, sometimes to the point of a creative paralysis that leaves me staring dumbly at a blank screen.

In these moments of utter confusion and creeping despair, the only thing that rescues me from my own head is stepping away from everything and setting to work on a simple task. Sometimes, that simple task is a domestic one – folding the laundry, running the vacuum, or perhaps just picking up and setting things to rights. These menial tasks serve as a distraction that helps me clear my head. I surrender to the motions of the work and often find that my thoughts are suddenly jostled loose and I’m able to get back to work, sometimes leaving the chore half done.

Other times, what I need is a simple writing task – something that doesn’t require heavy lifting either intellectually or creatively. I might step away from my desk and curl up on the couch with my journal. I might grab pen and notebook and do a little low-key brainstorming about either the problem at hand or some totally unrelated quandary. Or, I might find some partially administrative task that needs doing like formatting a document or reorganizing some files.

The comfort and calm come from returning to the basics. When faced with a writing challenge that is monumental in scope, complexity, or difficulty, it helps to step back and remember that even the most daunting writing task is nothing more than the compilation of many smaller, and much simpler tasks. Choose a word. Write a sentence. Start by articulating the idea you’re trying to convey in the simplest of terms and then worry about how to make the prose sing.

Stuck on how to move a story forward? Forget about the story. Instead, describe what you see in front of you. Don’t worry about characterization or narrative arc or metaphor. Just find the simplest words you can to paint a picture of what’s right there in front of your eyes.

When all else fails, put aside all expectations of meaning and just write a word – any word. Feel the way the tip of your pen glides over the paper. Watch the ink spill out and leave its mark. Lose yourself in the movement of the line and the shape of the letters. Let everything get quiet inside – so quiet that you can hear the scratching of your pen like a whisper of wind through your mind.

··• )o( •··

Simple tasks hold magic. They have the ability to untangle our thoughts. They can set us free from our doubts, giving us a chance to feel a small bit of accomplishment. The simple task grounds us, body and mind. Even as a child, I took comfort in acting out the simple daily chores of settlers and pioneers. The fantasy stories I read became fodder for creative play about a more rustic existence – the young heroine living in her cottage in the dark forest, spending her days drawing water from the well and stoking the fire on the hearth.

Our lives are anything but simple these days, but we can still retreat to our safe havens of sanity by setting the complicated world aside and taking up a straightforward and useful task. We can mend a hem, fix a loose board, or sweep the cobwebs from the corners. As writers, we can give ourselves permission to return to the basics, to go back to our roots and the simple building blocks of language and story.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: trophygeek via Compfight cc

30 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – The Magic of Small, Basic Tasks

  1. I’ve been struggling with a small part in a story and I think your suggestion to keep it simple and write what I see is exactly what I need to do.
    A really interesting post.

    • I hope the idea helps. 🙂
      Good luck with untangling your thoughts and that piece of your story!

  2. Brilliant! I have a pair of shorts that have been waiting to get a button sewn back on, think I will go attack that task. You are right about writing sometimes you just have to step back and take a deep breath.

  3. Pingback: Weekend Edition – The Magic of Small, Basic Tasks — Live to Write – Write to Live | Toward the within...

  4. Great stuff – so relatable. I feel I sometimes deliberately let mending, for example, pile up so as to avoid feeling comforted and more empowered to face challenges! Keepin it on edge, instead of letting flow happen. Sigh! Thank you for this piece, Jamie!

    • Hello, Catherine.
      I know what you mean. I have found myself on occasion letting simple domestic tasks get out of hand when I’m feeling generally overwhelmed. I guess it’s a little like wallowing. The good thing is that once I start chipping away at the list, I feel instantly better with each task accomplished. By the time I’m done, I feel much more capable of ANYthing – not just housework, but also writing. I’m back to feeling like “me.”
      Glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks for coming by.

  5. I completely agree! I love thinking about things in small parts rather than daunting tasks. At least you can make progress and it might just lead to a snowball of progression.

  6. Thank you so much for this article! Its funny because I did stand back today from my writing and started doing a fresh load of laundry and that’s exactly what I needed to get going again.

    • Thankfully, I have a never-ending list of domestic tasks. 😉 I guess I’ll never be at a loss for a small, basic task to jump start my writing. And, with any luck, my house will stay relatively tidy! 😉

  7. I step away too sometimes when I’m trying to write. I find a cup of tea, or a glass of wine (depending on the time of day) helps but so does folding laundry or going for a run.

    • Ahhh, yes. I’m afraid that tea has become almost a must-have part of my writing process. I think it’s the process of making it as much as drinking it, though having that steaming cup on the desk is a comfort and very much part of my writing ritual.

      And, I’ve got nothing against a glass of wine (or whiskey) … at the right time of day. In fact, I’ve written about it: https://nhwn.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/write-drunk-edit-sober/

  8. Great advice, I think it applies across the board to any creative pursuit. While I have often done this very thing, take a step back and go do something else, laundry, dishes…something, there are times I forget the advice and fall into the “creative paralysis” you so aptly described. Reading this piece is an excellent reminder and always timely. Thank you for sharing.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful. It’s good to have reminders. Too often when we are in the midst of that paralysis, we forget that we have tools to help us get out of it. It’s like a catch-22.

      Thanks for being here. Always nice to see you!

    • “Needles” to say? 😉 (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

      I’ve known several people who knit both to relax and to get their creative juices flowing. I used to do something called needle felting, which is basically sculpting with wool. I loved the repetitive nature of the process and would just let my mind wander while I worked. It was the perfect “grease” for when my creative mojo got stuck.

      Thanks for being here!

  9. Reblogged this on Downshifter's Journal and commented:
    “Simple tasks hold magic. They have the ability to untangle our thoughts. They can set us free from our doubts, giving us a chance to feel a small bit of accomplishment. The simple task grounds us, body and mind. ”

    I often find inspiration in the shower, while doing the dishes (by hand in the kitchen sink, of course!), or when I’m stuffing mail into post office boxes at my day job. I hope this latest post from Suddenly Jamie on Live to Write – Write to Live inspires you to seek solace in the simple things as well!


  10. Nice post and comments. A lot of these simple things I agree are helpful: a tea ritual, doing otherwise mind-numbing administrative chores. I don’t know how to mend ’cause I rebelled and joined the boys’ drawing classes instead as a child 🙂 but I do like washing dishes by hand…

    • I actually enjoy some “mind-numbing administrative chores.” Folding laundry is my favorite – all that cozy warmth and the piles of clean clothes and linens when you’re done. My slight OCD tendencies also take great pleasure in simple organizing tasks – filing, sorting, that sort of thing. At the moment, I’m about to haul out my vacuum, plug in an audio book, and go hunt some dust bunnies! 😉

    • Hello, Anne. So nice to see you here. 🙂
      I so know the feeling. This weekend was a whirlwind for me, too. I did get some writing done – but it was all on the work end of things. Doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy some of it, but – man! – what I wouldn’t give for a couple hours of time to just write “whatever.” It’ll come. And – in the meantime – I muddle along and do my chores to maintain my sanity.

      Hope this week gives you some opportunities for down time – even if only in brief spurts.

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