The last few months have been difficult for me as I try to help my family through a devastating illness. I have been in three different hospitals in two states and it reminds me of another sage whose life was cut short, John Lennon. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
So how do you maintain a writing practice during chaos, illness, overwork, stress and change? One way is to treat your life as a writing prompt.
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota I took copious notes. Between appointments with my family I wrote down exchanges between couples sitting near me. I tried to be as present as possible in the moment and just observe. So much of our culture is about finding things to divert our attention or escape our reality. I tried to sketch what I saw and heard and get it down without too much judgement.
If even in the difficult times you can keep your senses open, your pencil in hand and your writing muscles charged and working, when the dust settles you can go back and read your notes and see if there is anything greater there – a bigger cohesive story that needs to be told about the human experience.
This building smells like the eucharist and book dust, there is pale wood everywhere. The puzzle that sits in the lobby is of a farm scene with a big red barn on the box. Man says, “I’m still a farmer at heart but now I’ve got a herd of nurse cows.” “Did you hear about Streiklein? Tractor rolled over with a load of wheat when he had a stroke.” In the cafeteria, all of the food is over salted. A woman with a face like a witch – wild hair, pointy nose, darting eyes tells me she has Fibromyalgia – says twice that if she doesn’t concentrate she just forgets… Tall, willowy Amish girls work in the lunch room cleaning up after the chaos of wheelchairs and cafeteria trays. They wear plain dresses and a small black fabric cover over their pulled back buns. They smile back if you smile first. Later at the hotel after a long day I Googled “Amish, Rochester, MN, Mayo Clinic” because I wondered how they get into town. There isn’t any information, just a news article about a horrible slaying that happened in 2006 in Pennsylvania at an Amish schoolhouse.
I don’t know what these notes will amount to, I cut them out and tape them into my journal as a testament to a strange place at a difficult time. This is my practice and my way of working with the world. Writing always meets me where i’m at, and reinforces my belief that art is communicating the intricacies of the human experience. Artists offer a chance at empathy to anyone willing to take the time to open their mind to a new point of view.
Are you in the thick of life? Try sketching with words in line at the supermarket, waiting to pick up your kids at school, or during a work meeting. Don’t distract yourself with a quick game of solitaire, instead delve deeper into the tableaux vivant.