“The only time I have anything interesting to write is when I go on vacation.” (“No way,” “That’s a bunch of crap,” from around the room). John, in my critique group, was talking about how he has a hard time coming up with new material in his regular life. “You know, on vacation everything is new and exciting,” he said. “It’s the only time I see things with fresh eyes.”
I knew what he was talking about. It’s a lot easier to write about something new and exciting than to write about something old and ordinary. Or maybe easier isn’t the right word. Obvious. The world is much more obvious when it’s novel, which then makes it more accessible. We are more apt to note it when it smells different, when the scenery changes, or when the people are unlike the ones we interact with in our daily lives.
“What do you do in your regular life?” someone asked John.
“I’m a contractor. I remodel kitchens and stuff like that. Nothing exciting,” he said.
“I think that sounds pretty cool,” I said. “I don’t know anything about remodelling. I’d love to read about the houses you renovate around here – what they looked like before, what they look like after, and how you transform them.” I pictured a sledgehammer to cabinets.
“And the people you remodel them for,” someone grinned. I saw a young, upper middle-class white couple, both Type A personalities, wearing pressed button-down shirts and polished pointy toed shoes, pointing and gesturing in the kitchen doorway as they give John his instructions.
John looked around the table at us. “Really? It seems boring to me. Like, who would care about this?” Then he chuckled and gave a different description of his customers than I had imagined. “Well, the clients are interesting,” he said. “I’ll give you that. Women have disrobed for me when I walk in the door.”
“That really happens?” I said.
“I would read about that!” someone else said.
“See?” Les said. “You could write a blog: The Handyman of Love,” and we all laughed. John looked thoughtful and scribbled a few notes on his notepad.
This is a constant struggle for bloggers and personal essayists, to consider their life experience interesting enough to write about. They live it every day. It is ordinary to them, and it is difficult to see what could be interesting about the minutia of their daily lives.
A few weeks after the Handyman of Love writer’s group, I drove by the corn fields where I had been certain on a recent run that the Children of the Corn were going to jump out and get me, and a tractor pulling what looked like a tiny red barn was – reaping? I watched from a stoplight, and my mind filled with questions. What is the machine called that’s cutting the corn? What is the action called that the tractor is doing? Reaping? Harvesting? Threshing? All of the above?
The traffic light turned green, and when I arrived at the school to pick up our kids for dental appointments, I said, “Hey guys, they’re cutting down the corn.”
We had watched the corn grow all summer, gauging its height with each passing week. “Do you think it’s as tall as you?” I said to the kids in early July. “I think it’s as tall as you, Mom,” they said to me in early August. “Look how tall it is now!” I pointed in September. “It’s even taller than Dad!”
Our son’s face lit up as he bundled into the car, “I want to see them cutting the corn!”
I explained what I had witnessed on my way to the school. “There was a green tractor pulling this, this,” I had no idea what the thing was called that the John Deere was pulling. “This red thing that looked like a miniature barn.”
We crested a rolling hill and I could see the corn fields. “The tractor drove along the edge of the corn,” I said, “and it pushed the stalks forward, and cut them, then I saw stuff shooting backwards into the little barn.” I gestured with my right thumb, pointing it backwards over my shoulder to show how the stuff shot. I wished I knew what the barn thing was called. “Leaves and ears of corn it looked like,” I said, my thumb still pointing backwards. I wished I knew what the cutter thing was called. How to name the process I witnessed. “And after the tractor passed, the corn stalks were gone. Just broken stubs in the ground.”
I put both hands back on the wheel and looked out the window. I didn’t know the process well enough to describe it to our kids. I didn’t have the right words. This everyday ordinary event to the farmer was a complete mystery to me. Every step I tried to explain to our kids it was in my face that I had no ideas what words to use – “red barn thing” – or how to explain the process. The farmer, if he were a writer, might think his work, driving a tractor around the edges of a cornfield, making the square smaller with each turn, was too common sense, too mundane to bore or insult his readers by describing it.
But something I learned from both John (the handyman of love) and the farmer (with the red barn thing), is that one person’s plain old everyday life is new and unknown to another. As a writer, I must constantly remind myself of this. Every time I sit with words and think, this is obvious, everybody knows this, I remind myself that nobody else has lived my life, nobody else is inside my head (y’all should be thankful for that – it’s crazy in there), and that if I am to write well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.
Last weekend, after we cleaned the dinner dishes and were getting ready for our Friday night ritual of watching Merlin together as a family, I said, “Let me take my makeup off and then I’ll be down.“ I started climbing the stairs.
“Can I come watch you?” our daughter asked. She’s seven.
I stopped on the staircase and sighed a huge sigh. I just wanted to get this done and be downstairs on the couch with the kids and a blanket. “Really sweetie? It’s not that exciting.”
She hung her head. “Okay.”
The mysteries of John’s life as a handyman, and my ignorance of the process of harvesting corn popped into my head, along with my own constant reminders when I’m in writing mode to not dismiss everyday details. It occurred to me that this end-of-the-day routine is totally mundane to me, but our daughter never seen makeup removed before. It is new and interesting to her.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said. “Of course you can watch.”
We walked upstairs together and she leaned in the doorway to the vanity sink while I put my hair in a ponytail. I grabbed my blue Estée Lauder bottle and pumped cleanser into my left palm.
“What’s that?” our daughter asked. Until this point in her life, she had only used a bar of soap to wash her face, even when she played “makeup” and had to remove it.
I turned the bottle so I could read the label. “Take it Away Makeup Remover Lotion,” I said. “It’s not as harsh as using soap.”
I dabbed my right finger into the dollop of cleanser and explained, “You should always wash makeup off at the end of the day.” I dabbed cleanser on my forehead. “It’s not good for your skin or your eyes to leave it on.”
“What makeup do you have on?” she asked.
“Powder, blush,” I dabbed my nose, my cheeks. “Eye shadow, mascara,” and I dabbed my right eyelid, then my left.
“What about eyeliner?”
“Nope, no eyeliner today,” I said.
“What is eyeliner?” our daughter asked.
So many things I take for granted. “Eyeliner is the makeup you draw on at the base of your eyelashes,” I told her, “to line the shape of your eye.”
I rubbed the cleanser into my skin as she leaned in the doorway. Her hands were in her hoodie pockets and she rested her shoulder and head against the door frame. After I rinsed my face, I explained the cream for the puffy bags under my eyes. I read the labels from the tiny tubs of my Lancôme free samples – “Génifique youth activating concentrate,” I said in a fake French accent. “That means it’s supposed to make me not wrinkly,” I said, and we giggled.
I screwed the lid on the final moisturizer and I kneeled down to our daughter’s level. I felt closer to her after sharing this little everyday ritual that I take for granted, that before had seemed so ordinary it wasn’t worth explaining. There’s a certain intimacy in taking part in someone’s daily routines that I didn’t appreciate until that moment. “Why did you want to watch me take off my makeup?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t know how you did it,” she said. I hugged her, and as we walked downstairs together to watch Merlin, I realized that like contracting and farming are not obvious to me, my life is not obvious to our children. They do not already know all the things I know as a 39-year-old woman. As with writing, where I constantly remind myself to not dismiss everyday details, as a parent, if I am to parent well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.