She meant, of course, that the soothing rhythms of the simplest chores have a way of clearing and calming the mind. I imagine that people who meditate and practice related forms of that, use the technique all their lives: “chop wood, carry water.”
Similarly, when writers find themselves stuck in work to hand, each has a way of coping with that. We invent these, or locate them by accident. Doing the humblest chores can be one of them.
Washing dishes, doing laundry, weeding, scrubbing the bathroom. Running or swimming or cycling. Some people cook.
You can think about the work’s problems directly then—or not.
If you do, you might review the path of the work all the way to the present moment of stuckness—or not.
Finally, you’re likely to tire of concentrating on the logjam, and let your mind wander where it will.
If you can teach yourself to forfeit an instant solution, if you can think, Fine, I’ll just do something else for awhile, that frees the mind to dream. Then, sometimes while it’s dreaming, the mind points something out to you that may be possible to use.
(Attention: you can’t pretend to not care while actually clutching white-knuckled to the problem. That’s why distraction’s essential.)
The trick is to unclench, to let go of insisting a solution arrive now, that stuckness be fixed now.
This is where the delicate art of trusting something intangible comes in.
What helps us let go are the simplest chores, simplest movement. We may be staring at our hands or feet, at the surfaces we handle, at the dirt we need to catch in the corners with the broom, at the water or sky, passing landscape or cityscape.
Meantime, the mind is freed to roam to the beginning of time and back.
The great trick is letting go. Each instance is a new test of this trust, to be relearned again. Eventually, what’s needed will seep in.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.