I often get down on myself for the lack of meaning in the spurts of writing I publish on my blog, the ten-minute free writes that are unedited streams of consciousness, the spewing of thoughts after pulling a prompt from a box. “Who cares?” I ask myself. Who cares about the details of everyday life? The creaks and hums my house makes when it is empty? The smell of coffee and paper and ink when I write?
And then I sigh and recognize I am no writer, not like the real writers who don’t just write the details to plop you in the middle of a scene so you feel the warmth of golden light on prairie grasses and smell the grain scent they radiate in sunshine. Real writers get to a deeper truth beyond just being in the setting. They get to meaning.
Or so I thought.
I am in the car on a Saturday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve dropped our son off at the soccer field for tournament warmups. I’m taking time to myself on this chilly morning to read and write. With my shoulders, lower back, and thighs warm from our Jetta’s heated seats, and my ankles cold from the chill creeping in on the floor now that I’ve turned the engine off, I sit in the silence of our car, a writing book on my lap, and my composition book propped against the steering wheel. Our sedan’s windows muffle the thunk of car doors slamming in the parking lot. Boys and girls throw soccer bags over one shoulder, and they click-clack in cleats to green turf grass that shimmers with dew. Another mother sits at the steering wheel in her van, directly in front of me, and studies something in her lap. The 7:30AM sun slants warm across her face. I parked with my back to the sun — it was low and shone in my eyes — but it looks pretty on the trees, and the mother taking time to herself, in front of me.
I am reading Writing Down the Bones, in which Natalie Goldberg writes about an experience she had when she wasn’t yet a writer. Leading up to this moment, she had been a lover of literature, couldn’t get enough of it, was wild for words, but it never occurred to her that she might write. Then she picked up Erica Jong’s book of poetry, Fruits and Vegetables:
The first poem I opened in the book was about cooking an eggplant! I was amazed: “You mean you can write about something like that?” Something as ordinary as that? Something that I did in my life? A synapse connected in my brain. I went home with the resolve to write what I knew and to trust my own thoughts and feelings and to not look outside myself.
And so Natalie Goldberg became a writer. Just like that. Based on a poem she read about cooking an eggplant. Since then, she has not just written her own poetry and stories and books, she has also taught thousands of other writers to let go and write. She taught me to let go and write.
In the next chapter, Goldberg describes the tools of writing. She figures that your thoughts will match the size of the paper you write on: big paper to give big thoughts room to reveal themselves, small paper for small — or pared down — thoughts. She describes William Carlos Williams’ writing habit, who as a children’s doctor wrote many of his poems on prescription pads because that’s what he had handy.
Doc, I bin lookin’ for you
I owe you two bucks.
How you doin’?
Fine. When I get it
I’ll bring it up to you. ¹
This poem has no deep meaning. It describes a patient who owes money to a doctor. I suppose you could analyze it and find deep meaning about class, socioeconomic status, kindness, generosity. But the meaning I found in it was its ordinariness. Through these simple words, I am part of a situation that is simply human. The poem invites us to exist in a human experience that is not our own, or maybe that we have experienced before, or that we can at least understand and sympathize with. For me, that recognition is enough. For me, it doesn’t need more meaning than to stand in that patient’s shoes for a minute.
I read to experience other places, other people. I write to describe a moment in my ordinary life. Sometimes there are scents, sometimes there are sounds. And I often wonder, is that enough? Maybe not if I wanted to make a living writing. Maybe not if I wanted to write the next great American novel, or publish a short story in the The New Yorker. But to write for my personal blog? Sometimes scent, sound, and a sense of “in this moment” are enough. The poem about cooking an eggplant, that was enough for Natalie Goldberg; Williams’ poem written on a prescription pad, that is enough for me. Details are meaning enough. Being present in a moment is meaning enough.
¹ William Carlos Williams, The Collected Earlier Poems (New York: New Directions, 1938).