Pillow Talk

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Musings on Writing and Life.

A while back, I took an online class that was all about getting past writer’s block. I’m not even sure that I had a case of writer’s block at the time; I’d been writing away fairly regularly, with the usual peripatetic ups and down but somehow something felt—and thus kept getting—stuck. 

Looking back now, I think what I mostly needed at that moment was someone other than me, myself, and I coming up with simple strategies that would act as “homework assignments” to jolt me past complacency and back to getting interesting and lively words on the page.

Every week for a month our instructor, Allegra Wong, offered up deceptively simple—even fun—exercises that freed me to range and roam, dance and sing, rend and wail however I pleased on the page. And, amazingly, I’ve since taken some of that raw material and turned it into poetry and creative non-fiction. But, for me, the absolute best thing I “took away” from the class was learning about The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.

One week, our assignment was to write a simple series of lists in the manner of Sei Shōnagon. I don’t think I was the only person in the class who immediately thought, Sei who? The Pillow Book is Shōnagon’s vast—some might say obsessively compulsive and fanatical—collection of personal notes from the ten years she spent as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako in tenth century Japan. A contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji [1], Shōnagon’s worldly and, at times, promiscuously playful “belles-lettres” offer insights into the daily lives of upper class Japanese women during this middle Heian period. Essentially, The Pillow Book is a compendium, an almost-encyclopedia, of what attracts, displeases, or interests her in the minutiae of daily life, lists she composed at night when she returned to her living quarters from her duties at the court.

The book in translation is 185 numbered sections that don’t form any kind of ongoing, linear narrative at all. I have to confess—I’ve never wanted to actually read it straight through. Rather, I find its value in dipping into the curiosity and strangeness of her many idiosyncratic topics. She covers a lot of turf, in equal measure shallow and profound including:

What annoys, surprises, embarrasses, distresses, or shames her.

Gossip heard in the court on a particular afternoon.

Her take on proper manners and etiquette.

Descriptions of trees, flowers, clouds, winds, and then wind instruments.

Depressing things, hateful things.

Things that lose by being painted.

Things that gain by being painted.

Things that are distant though near.

Things that are near though distant.

Things that have lost their power.

Things that make one’s heart beat faster.

And lists—many, many lists, often quirky and amazingly detailed and inspired just when you least expect them to be much of anything.

Shōnagon’s lists are full of surprises to savor, too. I particularly love this item under #99, Adorable Things: “The face of a child drawn on a melon.” Sweet. It turns out that the very titles (in translation by Ivan Morris in my Penguin Classics edition) of many of Shōnagon’s sections—or your own 21st century adaptations of them?—make the best writing prompts and springboards, ones guaranteed to catapult you out of your doldrums and back to the glorious specificity of vivid writing.

Here’s one of my experiments writing in this easy-breezy manner of Sei Shōnagon, riffing from the topic, Things That Belong in a Home:

Windows without curtains.
Soft yellow light from a lamp with a stained-glass shade.
Pots and pans in colors of the rainbow.
The smell of leeks and shallots simmering in a chicken broth stock.
A coffee table made from an old ice chest painted summer cottage green with a clear glass top that looks down on the piazza in Siena, Italy.
Black-and-white photographs of long-dead family members you may or may not resemble.
Rugs made in the Turkish mountains with wool dyed from vegetables and roots.
A fireplace or a stove where you can watch the changes in a piece of burning wood and who knows? maybe even see the face of the Virgin Mary.
A bed with a firm mattress and plump feather pillows and worn cotton sheets and a patchwork bedspread in the log cabin design quilted by my great-grandmother Charity and her sister, Olive, before the start of the 20th century.
Wicker chairs owned by Sinclair Lewis, scored at an estate sale, bequeathed to me when a friend returned to Alaska, “They aren’t practical in Fairbanks weather”, he said.

I don’t know about you, but I can already feel the glimmer of story, the pulse of poem, certainly more juice for another freewriting exercise or springboard, lurking below the surface of what was a fairly easy-to-jot-down list. One that I made simply by giving myself permission to look around and take note of a few things in my house, inspired by Sei.

So three cheers for The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. For me, it’s a reminder that just about any and everything can be generative for writing. It teaches me to (again) notice and take the time to get down details, the marrow of strong writing. It reminds me to look in forgotten corners and the most ordinary of places for, dare I say, inspiration.

So, if you find yourself stuck, make your own Sei-style lists of things. Or riff on the ones in The Pillow Book—for starters, maybe Different Ways of Speaking or Things Without Merit or Things Worth Seeing—and see where such pillow talk might take you. I guarantee you it will likely be somewhere you haven’t journeyed before. At least that’s what happened to me.

The public domain image above is an Austrian postcard showing playing children from 1901.


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