When I was a child, we had open fields. Just a humble few acres. And when I wasn’t adventuring, I was absorbing. The particular sheath of violet on the shoulders of autumn sky. The moist grass underfoot. The immaculate timing of forest creature calls, depending on the level of sun on the horizon.
In one of my favorite Jane Campion films, Bright Star, (a loose interpretation on the last three years of John Keats’s life), there’s a part where the charming and antagonistic John Brown (Keats’s best friend) says, in his striking slab of an accent:
“If Mr. Keats and myself are strolling in a meadow, lounging on a sofa or staring into a wall, do not presume we’re not working. Doing nothing is the musing of the poet.”
One of the reasons I’m able to produce as a writer (and also maintain my sanity) is because I allow myself, from time to time, to do nothing. To absorb. To stop.
I was in northern New York this past week, waist deep in thick wildflower meadows, waterfalls, spring-fed ponds, forest. I wore long dresses and carried with me my journal (thin, moleskin, unlined), and William Carlos Williams’ Patterson. I wrung out my worries with clouds. I sunk my stress into the sweet earth, sat on a low bridge with my feet in rushing water, and placed a snail on my finger, studying the near-clear lines it left on my skin.
Most importantly, I forgot all about myself.
Tends to be what can get in the way of inspiration.
To choose to be alone, to be surrounded by something greater than the ego, to seep in something that’s older than you and that will outlast you: these are the critical components for musing.
To move in one’s body; this is also a portal. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron speaks about physical activity breaking way to writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson loved to walk deep into the night. In Bright Star, one witnesses the poets wandering, seemingly aimless, in the meadows. What they are gaining is space. What they are losing is mind.
On a lightning-strewn night with my kind hosts, we spoke about how utterly painful writing is. Many writers talk about the mulish way they approach their work: slavish, bloody, difficult. For writers like myself, the process can be a lonely, grueling, hungry, terrifying journey in which nothing is promised and no outcome is assured.
To tend to the cuts inflicted by writing, you must carefully wrap your wounds in musing.
My personal aim, as Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, is to write something that would not enrage a dying person by its triviality.
To soothe the ache of battling with this expectation, I need the spears of grass, the swoop of a falcon in the corner of my eye, the earth, the earth, the earth, to shrink me down and open me up.
And of course, to experience both sides of being alone: the succulent, cresting breast of solitude, and the dark blue underbelly of isolation.
To sink into both: this is the privilege. This is the challenge.