Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years.  We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.

“Subsistence” is defined  as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.

This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.

I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.

Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.

It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.

When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.

What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?

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38 thoughts on “Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

  1. Like you I’ve been living on a diet of social media and blog-posts as I’ve been pushing ahead with my own writing. And I do feel starved. Fortunately I recently bought The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (also from Alaska) which reminded me how beautiful writing can really be. It’s also encouraged me to search out more great writing and to remember – like you – why I wanted to write in the first place.

  2. I got your blog delivered to my inbox as part of my word serve water cooler subscription. I don’t read them all, but I’m glad I took the time to read this one. I was moved! I only wish the email had contained a share button because platforms aside this one is meant to be reposted. Excellent!

  3. Beautiful post, with depth and excellent writing. My son is a salmon fisherman in Alaska, so even more interesting to this mama!

  4. I just started reading a new book by Seth Barnes – Kingdom Journeys. I’m excited to get further into this book about rediscovering the lost spiritual discipline of taking kingdom journeys.

  5. So well spoken! Couple the above w/harsh ‘winters’ of disappointment, troubled relationships, physical sickness and spiritual lethargy and how easily ones creativity starves. Your words of insight have been a slow-release of life-giving and hope-imbuing Omega 3, Leslie. Thank you.

    • Julie—I’m smiling … . What a lovely compliment, as someone who lives on Omega-3’s!! (I did just eat smoked salmon for breakfast . ..) Yes, so much batters our writing houses and selves, residing for awhile in the beautiful houses of others’ just brings new life again. (Oops, switched metaphors. But it takes more than 1 to say this!)

  6. Leslie, as an admin here at the Watercooler, I had a chance to peek at your post a couple of days ago. I was struck by both your strong thoughts and the beautiful language you use to express them, so much so that yesterday I took a two-hour trip to the bookstore. I loaded my arms with a pile of volumes and cuddled with them in a huge chair. Among them, there was a novel that had me bawling in its first 3 pages. Such soul-filling, satisfying writing. And then I thought of you again, and this post. Thank you so much for reminding us to read. Really read.

    • Katy, I’m so thankful that the stunning writers and writing of the past still have this power over us. Of all people, we are the ones who should be imbibing it the most. I am moved to do just the same as you have done. Thank you for inspiring me as well!!

  7. Mmmmmm….fresh salmon. Sounds yummy! I’m amazed you actually catch them yourself. Yes, I am reading more non-fiction picture books, because that is my next project (WIP), but I am also choosing autobiographies of authors for inspiration. We can’t write from a vacuum. Thanks for reminding us of that fact, Leslie.

    • Indeed! Good for you for reading authors’ autobiographies. They can indeed be inspiring—but for me, I sometimes find them depressing because I often don’t fit their mold. But–there IS no one mold for the writing life. May good words find you as you write, Jarm!

  8. As I finish up my last full semester in an MFA program that doesn’t emphasize the spiritual, this post really hits home. Only lately–while reading yet another fiction writer that doesn’t share my worldview, but is on my required reading list–have I realized how drained I am. (Flannery O’Connor being an exception) I’ve started seeking out other writers, but most of them will have to wait until I’m done in January, because of time. I feel the lack of *not* reading those writers who share my worldview–but read them I must. Thanks for this post. It helps to know I’m not the only one struggling with the junk food vs. the nutritious. 🙂

  9. I need to return to extravagant subsistence. What a beautiful way of saying it. Often, I don’t realize I’m hungry for the meat when I’m living off of online twinkies. Thank you for this.

  10. Loved this post. So true, and for me right now—convicting. I don’t have the means you have to catch the meat for my dinner table, but I do love the feeling of clipping off some loose leaves of red leaf and fresh dill for my salad and knowing where my squash came from. Very satisfying and I believe healthier coming right off the vine. I have loved the classics, but have not been able to read many lately having required lighter fare amidst the hustle of life. And yet, after consuming a well-written story with full characters and extraordinary metaphors, I’m so inspired to “be more” as a writer. I think I need that again. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Connie, I so understand. We’re all in the market, and we’re all writing for an audience, so we feel that huge pressure. But I know if I’m not stocking my shelves, I’m not stocking my reader’s shelves either. (And I AM jealous that you get to grow vegetables!! Which I can’t do here—too cold and rainy!)

  11. I love this! I tend to write long, un-blog-worthy posts that are deep and interesting. I buck the rules there and probably pay for in it readers, but I’m doing what I feel I need to do. Thanks for the encouragement!

  12. A good list, Leslie! Right now my deep thoughts are consumed with some seminary courses I’m completing. It’s a different type of consideration than good fiction or outdoor work, both of which cause me to reflect on aspects of God’s beauty. Contemplating the particulars in these courses is like a mental exercise to stretch the deep corners. When I’ve completed these courses, I feel a need to go outside, observe God’s creation, and tackle a more lyrical form of prose.

    • So true, Melinda. The perfect life is a blend of these things: mind, body, heart, soul. I can spend long long hours studying—but then need to find a way to “work it out” also. (I do confess jealousy that you’re able to take seminary courses! Excellent. That will bring deep nourishment to you and your readers!) Thanks so much for sharing here!

      • Melinda—Yes, I know there are many places offering such courses. I find as I write articles for Christianity Today I do get to really immerse in deep theology–which is the great joy and advantage of being a writer: the constant need and compulsion to keep learning. I love being a student—and whenever anyone says “seminary” I just drool—but I think the reality is my writing life and all the research done for that will have to do—for now!! Blessings, Melinda!

  13. Your article was the kind of subsistence I needed today. Usually I try to read blogs on how to write and then dive into some writing of my own. You have given me the incentive to find some deep, meditative and “meaty” work of literature that can bring nourishment to my soul. I think of that verse from Hebrew 5:13-14, “For everyone who partakes of milk is inexperienced in the Word of righteousness, for he is an infant; but solid food is for the full-grown, who because of practice have their faculties exercised for discriminating between both good and evil.” Thank you for your observations that bring clarity to purpose in writing that is deep and full of purpose.

    • What a perfect verse for this topic! Thanks for posting that. Yes, I do believe our best and most profound writing comes from God’s spirit has touched us the deepest. This happens for me when I read excellent literature that speaks of Truth and truths. it’s harder and takes longer to do this than to learn to write by advice and techniques, but at the end of the day, the end of our lives, we will be so much fuller and richer for it—and our readers will as well. Blessings as you dig yet deeper, General Kat!!

  14. I often seem to be late to the party, but it’s alright because there is extravagant subsistence here. It is so easy to get caught up in all of the social media (for me at any rate). I needed to read this. Thank you.

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