In my twentieth year I packed a large cardboard box with belongings and headed east by train to begin my artistic life in Massachusetts, 3,000 miles from California, where I’d been born and raised. I wanted to live near Walden Pond and commune daily, in nearby Concord, with the wise ghosts of Thoreau and Emerson. The closest I could get was the city of Lowell, birthplace of the American industrial revolution—a ramshackle town cluttered with eerie decommissioned factories and mills. But from Lowell I could get to Concord by train as often as I liked.
I set up my new life in a 300 square-foot studio apartment fourteen miles from Walden Pond as the crow flies. My sole furnishings were an inflatable mattress, a plastic patio chair, a small lamp, a pile of books, and a radio/cassette player. In the cardboard box, I had packed the essential kitchen wares: a can opener, a spatula, two plates, two cups, two forks, two knives, two spoons, and a frying pan. More importantly, I had packed a word processor and a ream of paper.
I was determined to begin my writerly life in the spirit of Thoreau’s proclamation in Walden: “Give me that poverty that knows true wealth.”
Thoreau, living for two years in his tiny cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in the mid-19th century, had proven conclusively to the industrialized world that simplicity and “mean living” were the highest spiritual ideals, for they refined one’s sense of beauty and truth. “Simplify, simplify,” said Thoreau, and I wanted to heed his advice. The fewer my possessions and the smaller my quarters, the loftier my hopes could be—and the freer I could remain to realize them.
My rent in Lowell was $400 dollars a month. With roughly $1,500 in bank savings, I could conceivably live and write—and do nothing else—for about three months. I set to work. I spent nearly every day clicking away on my word processor, and every evening reading. Intellectually, I’d never been wealthier. It was an education unlike anything provided by my years of schooling.
Practically everything in my life had been cleared away for the sake of writing. And only years later would the true nature of this apprenticeship period become clear to me: more than learning how to be a “starving artist,” I was learning how to be grateful for what little I possessed.
The residence in Massachusetts proved successful. I returned home that autumn unafraid of poverty, able to work for five to six hours at a stretch, and in possession of a 150-page personal manifesto. I’d become a writer.
Maybe it’s needless to say that my “manifesto” never saw the light of day. At the sentence-level it was truly awful, but however far I remained from producing publishable work, I’d committed myself to my craft, and knew that if I nurtured this commitment my words would find their way, sooner or later, into print. Four years later that’s what happened, when my first short story was published in a national literary magazine.
Since that idealistic Massachusetts adventure, I’ve never lost my grasp on the importance of simplicity (though living simply remains a day-to-day challenge). Simplicity frees one to make any range of choices and pursue any range of possibilities. And such freedom is hindered by complexities like financial demands, time constraints, and the baggage of material belongings. By consciously seeking simplicity in life, one places oneself in a condition of gratitude. And gratitude, by instilling an awareness of one’s blessings, clarifies one’s vision and helps one establish goals.
Chapter 5 of The Prosperous Peasant further explores gratitude, and can be read online for free. Cunningham’s latest fiction project is Lost Son, a novelization of the life of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. This article originally appeared at Soul Shelter in a slightly different format.
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