Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
When the magazine Real Simple launched, I subscribed. It was in 2000 which now makes both perfect and imperfect sense. That year my husband and I welcomed our son Sam, baby number four, and the three little children who came before him were still… well, little. I don’t remember exactly what we did on New Year’s Eve in 1999 but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve the usual things associated with party vibes of the calendar year’s final day. No fancy cocktails, cocktail dresses or cocktail lounges. The girls were eighteen months, three and five. So, the not remembering may have been from my feeling tipsy but it was probably because of too little sleep, not too much alcohol.
Despite not recalling exactly what we did, here’s what may have happened: I imagine I sat on the couch, watched Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and waited up for the ball to drop. Most likely, toys and sippy cups were inches from my feet and scattered across the floor, the one that needed a good, thorough sweeping. I bet there was a bag of Goldfish crackers on the coffee table, tipped over with a few fish crushed into the wood surface. At just past midnight, I probably walked upstairs, leaned down into one crib and two twin beds and kissed the foreheads of three sleeping children.
In the History section on Real Simple’s website it reads: “We started REAL SIMPLE in 2000 with the goal of keeping life simple and stress free. Today, we reach more than 10 million digital users and 6.2 million magazine readers each month.”
Where am I going with this?
- In 1999 and in 2000 my life was sometimes real simple and sometimes extremely complicated. At the same time. On occasion, stress drove the day and at other times, peace prevailed. And then there were days when it was simply unmeasurable and very much in-between, for one reason or another. It depended on the day. Or the hour. Or the moment.
- Everything noted in #1 still applies today.
- I got a lot of good tips about removing stains, keeping drawers tidy and storing perishables from Real Simple and happen to think it is a beautifully designed magazine. (Still working on the tidy drawer part.) I no longer get the print copy delivered to my mailbox but visit the site here and there for helpful info. So, I guess you could say I still believe.
How does my little story about not partying like it was 1999 (even when it was) apply to our stories on the page? And to our writing lives? As usual, it starts with noticing, paying attention and curiosity. It is in the wondering about simplicities and complications that some stories are born. And born again.
I don’t know about you, but when something is too simple I tend to get a little suspicious. Here’s an example: when we were trying to choose a new color for the exterior of our home, in addition to driving around our town to scope out blue houses, we also typed the name of the paint color we were considering into Instagram’s search bar. What happened next can only be described as “Hale Navy on interior walls, exterior shingles and even wooden picnic tables.” Hale Navy everywhere! But it helped us decide; Hale Navy was the color for us. It also showed me how spare and clean and curated many home improvement pages are: not a weed in the yard to be seen, not a speck of dust or crooked frame anywhere. Definitely no Goldfish crumbs.
Filtered, uncomplicated, crumb-free.
It might be fine for choosing paint colors, but that doesn’t work so well in solid, real storytelling, no matter the genre. The best work embraces complication and complexity. Often, that’s the hardest part as a writer—crafting multi-dimensional characters, scenes, ideas and moods on our pages. When my book came out in 2018 and I traveled around to community centers, libraries, classrooms and bookstores, it was a sure bet that someone in the audience would ask me a variation of this question: “How was it to write about people (including me!) who behaved badly but who also, here and there, in big and little ways, shined bright?”
The forces that teach us in the weightiest of ways are the people, places and things that offer light and dark, high and low, deep and shallow. This is true in literature but also in life. It applies to the human living the experiences and the writer reflecting on them. Anaïs Nin reminds us, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
To taste fully one must be open to all possibilities. Bitter. Sweet. Even the in-between bland that some days (and stories) possess. But it’s in the contrasts and the unexpected where so much rich flavor lives.
Next time you open a new doc on your computer or turn to a blank page in your notebook, lean into the messy, the complicated, the contradictory.
Give yourself some time to explore and see what happens when dimensions expand and simplicities are allowed to get complicated. There will be time enough to tidy that drawer or scrub that draft clean.
For now: Play in the weeds. Get lost in the crumbs.