Writing the Quotidian
by Iris Graville, author of Hiking Naked
Quotidian. I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA program. I had to look it up. Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy. Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:
adjective [ attrib. ]
- of or occurring every day; daily: the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
- ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.
While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me. Apparently, it does for some other writers as well.
Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Creative Nonfiction – Issue #44, Spring 2012:
“I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.”
Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”
I know the feeling. It crops up for me often as I write personal essays and as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked. My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences best described by many of the synonyms the New Oxford lists for quotidian: typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen. In short, “nothing to write home about.”
And yet I do write about these everyday occurrences: essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity; and profiles of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard. Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:
“This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.”
Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for. One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, taught me how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, and her own “quiet” writing enlightens me.
Another is Scott Russell Sanders. I met him at my first residency in graduate school and became a devoted reader of his work. The source of his writing, he explains in Writing from the Center, springs from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”
Also on my list of quotidian writers is Kathleen Dean Moore, Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:
“ …each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.”
Like most people, I need to escape sometimes. Novels, poems, and short stories can take me to unknown places, may introduce me to people unlike any I’ve ever known, or might cause me to consider actions I’ve never imagined taking. But that’s not what pulls me to my pen or keyboard. Instead, this quote attributed to poet Philip Levine succinctly explains why I write creative nonfiction: “I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary.”
What extraordinary, quotidian miracles surround you?