I received some thought-provoking questions last week from a Magpie asking how I am able to publish so frequently, and on such a wide range of subjects. I receive permutations of this message every few weeks, and my knee-jerk reaction is always the same: I very much doubt you can find a woman with less on her mind. I have simply had the opportunity to carve out the space and the daily practice to transform the experience and phenomena of everyday life into prose.
But permit me to dive deeper today.
Nora Ephron famously wrote, “Everything is copy.” I don’t take to the tenor of this sentiment — it feels contriving, opportunistic — but the subtext stands square-footed: absolutely everything around us invites inspection. The daffodils that popped up in the gray February earth this past week; the fortune in your cookie; the curl over your daughter’s ear. There is a quote: “To a great mind, nothing is little.” I have so much to say about “the little things,” and the perspective extends well beyond the craft of writing, but let me begin narrowly. When I studied piano, I would practice scales and arpeggios. They were warm-ups, and they also built muscle memory and probably aural memory, too. Sometimes, I perform similar “warm-ups” in writing, which I rarely publish, at least in their original form: I challenge myself to resurrect in exacting detail a specific moment from childhood, or from dating Mr. Magpie, or from the early days of motherhood–all periods of my life heavy with emotion and self-discovery. We’re talking fine-tipped, microscopic detail: what color were the sheets? What was the light like in the room? Was my infant daughter making more of a squawk or a burble? It can be a slog. I often stare out the window in search of the right words. Drafting like this primes me. It makes my longer form writing more expressive. And I think it has something to do with sitting in the weeds: no reed, no ripple beneath my notice.
The mentality holds beyond the realm of writing. A couple weeks ago, we watched the Grammy’s, during which Dr. Dre won the inaugural “Dr. Dre Global Impact Award.” In his acceptance speech, he said: “Pursue quality over quantity and remember that everything is important. That is one of my mottos — everything is important.” He paused meaningfully, and then left the stage. Here is a wildly successful performing artist who could have said anything on that dais, and his key legacy-defining message to the masses was: “Make everything matter.” A few weeks ago, I shared a similar, stirring quote from actor Mads Mikkelsen:
“My approach to what I do in my job — and it might even be the approach to my life — is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. There’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.”
My husband models this beautifully for me on a daily basis. He is the master of a “fewer, better” mentality. He’s choosy, but what he does take on, he takes on fully. You should see him prepping mise en place. His kitchen, his workspace, are meticulous. Each matchstick of carrot the same size; every ingredient weighed within a hair of an ounce; the prep bowls laid out in a tidy row, ladies in waiting. Everything is important: there are no shortcuts. He often references something he calls “the bathroom check,” which he learned about from an interview with Anthony Bourdain, in which the chef made the point that if a restaurant can’t keep its bathrooms cleaned, it’s doomed. The message: if you can’t do the small things right, you’re going fail at the big things.
I think of this often, in many lanes: motherhood, fitness, writing, running my business. It’s about small, focused, intentional movements. Getting the little things right; caring about the details; bringing intensity to the minutaie.
This brings me to my second insight, or mantra, in matters big and small: be disciplined. Inspiration will not always find you, so you must learn to be disciplined. I write with the goal of publishing daily, and I focus on process rather than perfection. This requires intense dedication. I am aware that it may seem I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth: “process over perfection” appears to contradict the “everything is important” mantra, but I find the mindsets complementary in the realm of writing. I know little of the merit of my output, but I am committed to the process. I write with as much care, discipline, and continuity as I can. I show up every morning at 9 a.m. and shake hands with the blank page. Maybe today is the day I will write something dignified, shapely; maybe not. But I’m going to try.
For years now, I have been working on some fictional pieces. I’ve shared drafts here and there, and it has been agony to hit publish on each and every one of them. This is because personal essay is my preferred, natural medium. The pen fits snugly in my hand when I’m typing in this mode: I could live and die here quite happily. Fiction, by contrast, is depleting, a monstrous drain. I imagine it is something like going pro in one sport and then learning to play a second. Different muscles; new rules of engagement. The stakes feel uncomfortable, too. But still I chip away at the fictional pieces. I have been laying awake in bed at night the past two weeks spooling through an entire story line I am desperate to bring to paper. I’ve never written this way before: normally, I begin with character studies and let their silhouettes call the shots. This time, an entire arc has landed in my lap, and the characters are coming out of the woodwork during that liminal space between wakefulness and dream. Calliope has called! And I am convinced the regularity of my writing habits have invited her visit.
What I mean to say is —
Nothing worth doing happens over night. Most successful undertakings have a long tail, and that tail is made of doing a lot of little things over and over again, with intention and focus and dog-like devotion.
When you are overwhelmed at the start of things, or in the middle of things, or even at the height of things: dial in on the smallest increment, and show it your love. To a great mind, nothing is little.
+On getting started with writing.
+Love this pretty eyelet blouse from Ulla. You can get the look for less with this under-$100 steal!
+J. Crew nailed it again with this cropped jacket!
+Does anyone use an undereye primer? Maybe I need to look into this. I have dark circles and combat with a really thick concealer under eyes most days. But could this brightening primer be the answer?
+How fun are these ruffled salad plates? I honestly love everything from this brand — they also do solid white ruffled plates, vases, etc. Like how pretty is this footed bowl? Even just for decor on a shelf? Or to hold keys/matches? Or as a hostess gift? It’s $25!
+Another gorgeous dress from Mille. I own this in a different pattern from last summer and it is SO fun. The frilly sleeves!
+We’ve been revisiting a lot of our old sensory play vignettes on the weekends, and I wanted to mention that if you don’t want to buy all the things yourself, Amazon has some pre-made sets worth checking out!
+A perfect heeled nude sandal for all of your dressy affairs this spring/summer.
+Love this $30 ruffly floral dress.
+Zara coming in hot on the raffia footwear trend — these are $59! (More woven/raffia/textured footwear for spring here.)
+Alice Walk just restocked their gorgeous capes — these always sell out! While you’re there, check out their sweatshirts. I live in mine.
+Drooling over this gorgeous Rosie Assoulin dress.
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10 thoughts on “Shaking Hands with a Blank Page.”
I love this essay so much! So wonderfully worded and I appreciate the approach you describe. It’s refreshing when it seems more and more people are embracing the philosophy of “Don’t sweat the small stuff. (It’s all small stuff)” It reminds of an article in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago called Philosophy in a Time of Crisis.
A selection I’d like to share: “The pandemic has made a mockery of our grand plans. Graduations, weddings, job prospects—poof, gone, rolling back down the hill like Sisyphus’s boulder. Yet we must persevere, said Camus. Our task, he said, isn’t to understand the meaning of catastrophes like Covid-19 (there is none) but to “imagine Sisyphus happy.” How? By owning the boulder. By throwing ourselves into the task, despite its futility, because of its futility. “Sisyphus’s fate belongs to him,” said Camus. “His rock is his thing.” Are you working on a seemingly fruitless project, a dissertation or a marketing strategy, forever delayed, buffeted by the gales of circumstance? Good, Camus says, you’ve begun to grasp the absurdity of life. Invest in the effort, not the result, and you will sleep better.” Thanks for your wonderful blog!
Wow! Natalie – thanks for sending this along. I’ve been thinking about it all morning. “Invest in the effort, not the result” — yes!
I very much enjoyed reading this, Jen! And how exciting that a story line has come your way! I think for me, essay is probably my most natural medium, too, but there are some stories that (I think) warrant fiction because it allows them to be more impactful. For example, the novel I’m writing now is about playing college basketball on a full ride. I have written essays on this, but I think fiction (perhaps counterintuitively) allows me to be more honest. It allows me to externalize inner turmoil through symbols and conflict and action — and it allows me to (hopefully) comment on the entire system by showing multiple POV’s, not just a single person’s story. Something about listening to the audiobook “Story” by Robert McKee (which is on screenwriting) made me decide to write about this as a novel (versus memoir/essay collection). I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on these musings — and whether you’ve felt drawn to fiction vs. nonfiction based on topic.
Hi! This is so interesting — I can completely understand the medium choice for the subject matter you’re looking for. I have never had as conscious of a conversation about medium in my head, but I do think sometimes you just know a certain subject matter will sing better in fiction.
I have posted many fan-girl comments on your posts but this post warrants one – your writing, especially the personal essays, has helped shake up my life in many ways. From a recent post on taking the time to dress yourself up, to the many posts on the aching love for your kids that resonate so well to even some of my fav posts below where you felt like you were on the trip with you! – your discipline and your ability to recognize and acknowledge the little things makes a huge impact on at least one reader! I look forward to your fictional pieces and to eventually purchasing your future book(s)! Onward!
Rayna! Thank you so, so much for the generous words. I’m so deeply happy that these posts have meant something to you. Thank you for taking the time to let me know 🙂
So, so good! The little things (increments of time for me personally) are so important. Life is manageable in little increments!
The Ilia under eye primer looks very interesting. I love the line so may have to try it. I’ve been very happy with Origins Refreshing Eye Cream to brighten. (Ulta)
Yes! “Life is manageable in little increments.” Amen!
I agree, I’ve liked many of the Ilia products I’ve tried!
This is one of my favorites of your posts, and I know I will be revisiting it. I relate to so much that you say, as a writer and creative myself, and am always frankly amazed at the quality and quantity of your output. You are inspiring me to want to challenge myself to some of your interesting warm-up exercises. One thing I do for warm-up most days is write a list of things I appreciate, in the world, about myself, about my writing, about the people I love. It gets the words flowing, and it feels really good. Also I love your observation that when writing personal essay, the pen fits snugly in your hand. I feel exactly like this when I write fiction, but less so in essay. Makes me want to challenge myself to do more of the latter! Thank you for your thoughtful posts–though I rarely comment, I look forward to them each day!
SO fascinating, Jaclyn – I envy your ease in the fiction headspace! I love the idea of writing a gratitude list. I can imagine it’s not only productive from a craft standpoint (a warm up) but also puts you in a great frame of mind for “happy writing.”