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.
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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.
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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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.