The Importance of Gathering

Last night was a gathering evening for me.

I had been feeling stale when writing or starting a new project, like I was scraping at stone rather than hands wrist-deep in thick, wet clay. And this is when I need to go gathering.

Gathering is seeking out materials that open doors and windows in my mind and shake loose fresh insight. For it to work, I have to cast out all judgment of what I think those materials should be and welcome whatever they are. Easier said than done.

I read some contemporary poetry. It was too brokenhearted for me. It was also the refined, high-minded stuff I thought should nudge me open.

I listened to older country music. Some of those lyrics - “too old to cut the mustard,” “don’t it make my brown eyes blue “ - are understated, perfectly stated poetry. And they started to loosen up my thinking.

Next, I went where I often go when gathering: recipes. Yotam Ottolenghi, M.F.K. Fisher, an essay about Zubaida Tariq, known as Pakistan’s Martha Stewart. I read about how to slice pear wedges, the variable cooking times of butter beans, the difference between medium amber and dark amber maple syrup.

All the while, I was jotting down bits and pieces I liked (jasmine, order of operations, gooseberry, wilting) and phrases that were coming to me (what do pine trees pine for? yeast for the spirit, fear is a dirt-cheap emotion). And I was looking forward, again, to writing, creating, making.

Gathering works best, I’ve found, when we fieldtrip outside our usual disciplines: I don’t cook. Beyond Patsy Cline, I don’t listen to much old country music. I could also look at atlases, listen to podcasts on the economics of hockey, take an archery class. They are all languages to describe the world that I don’t know well. So I have to slow down to understand. And that enables layers of insight to peel back and ideas to start popping. Which are signs that judgment, that great suffocator of creativity, has exited and curiosity has entered.

Last night, I went to bed awake. Not unable to sleep. But refreshed, excited, knowing there was thick, wet clay to plunge my hands into.

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