Writing the Quotidian
April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Iris Graville
Quotidian. I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing 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:
- 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 Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:
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 often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that 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 experiences. I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity. I’m led to tell the stories 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, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).
Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, 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 are 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.
What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.
Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.