The acclaimed Maxwell-Bloch (or Arecchi-Bonifacio) equations are a valid dynamical model, effectively describing wave propagation in nonlinear optical media: from the amplification in input-output devices to multimode instabilities arising in laser systems. However, the inherent spatial variability of the physical observables represents an obstacle to fast simulations and analysis, especially whenever networks of active elements have to be considered. In this paper, we propose an approach which, stripping the spatial dependence of its role as a generator of dynamical richness, allows for a compelling simple portrait. It leads to (a few) ordinary differential equations in input-output configurations, complemented by a time-delayed feedback in closed-loop setups. Such a scheme reproduces accurately the dynamics, paving the way to a plain treatment of the wealth of phenomena described by the Maxwell-Bloch equations.