Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing and food

Food is fuel in more ways than one. It nourishes physically when we eat it. It nourishes emotionally and socially when we gather around it. And it even nourishes creatively when we (writers, I mean) use it in our work.

Eating out was a key component in my field trips to writers’ homes, partly because I like to try new (to me) restaurants and partly because I like to write about food. It’s about details—looks, smells, tastes, textures. Recalling the meal can capture the moment.

I like writers who incorporate food and eating into their work. (Of course I do—it allows me to eat vicariously.) One of my favorites is Julia Child’s My Life in France. Restaurant meals and relationships get equal emphasis in her recollections. Learning the ins and outs of the marketplace was like learning the language. It’s a book about people, places and food.

She celebrates a local shopkeeper who sold butter and cheese with this description:

“Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for ac Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and—voila!—she’d hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese’s readiness down to the hour, and would even order cheese when I didn’t need it just to watch her in action”

I love that Julia Child loved food and loved people who loved food. She captures not only the details of the skillful shopkeeper at work but also her own joy and enthusiasm.

A fictional take on incorporating food into life and story is Laura Esquirel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate. It’s a beautiful, magical love story, and food is one of the beloved objects. Recipes are incorporated into the family history. The reader knows exactly what’s in the oven or on the table, and the food has an undeniable influence on the characters and the course of the story.

“The cut-up ox tails are placed in a pan to cook with a chunk of onion, a clove of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. It is advisable to add a little more water than you normally would, since you are making a soup. A good soup that’s worth something has to be soupy without getting watery.

Soups can cure any illness, whether physical or mental—at least, that was Chencha’s firm belief, and Tita’s too, although she hadn’t given sufficient credit to it for quite some time. But now it would have to be accepted as the truth.

About three months ago, after tasting a spoonful of soup that Chencha had made and brought to Dr. John Brown’s house, Tita had returned to her senses.”

In this fictional world food is an expression of emotions and sometimes even a catalyst of the action.

Food has played an important part in my adventure in National Novel Writing Month. I think about it as a distraction—hmm, I know I have a thousand more words to crank out before lunch, but what will I have to eat when I do get that break?

But even more importantly, I use it in the work. Whenever I’m not sure what my characters are going to do next, I sit them down around food. They drink coffee and talk—oh, and don’t forget the homemade cookies and brownies to go with the coffee. They gather around a meal, sharing it and themselves. Like real people, my characters fall into easy conversation over their plates, and suddenly they are revealing things about their pasts and their prejudices that I hadn’t known.

“We gather together …” and who knows what will happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Putting pen to paper in the face of death

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Writing about death is a challenge—I’m guessing that’s true for other writers, not just me. And in contemporary fiction it’s almost a requirement that death needs to be shocking, so authors mostly write about people being killed—intentionally or accidentally doesn’t matter so long as it makes for an exciting scene. We’re all about shock and awe these days.

But what about the quiet, tender taking leave of life?

I’ve been reading E.M. Forster. (Yes, I know he’s not an American writer, but I’m not exclusive. Tennyson wasn't American either.) In 1927 he gave a series of lectures that were collected and published as Aspects of the Novel. In discussing people/characters he says that the major facts of life are birth, food, sleep, love and death and then asks, ”Does the novelist tend to reproduce them accurately or does he tend to exhibit his characters going through processes which are not the same through which you and I go, though they bear the same names?”

Forster also points out that any depiction of death “is all from the outside.” There have been stories that try to venture beyond that line between life and death (and yes, I liked The Lovely Bones), but at that point the story has also crossed the line into fantasy, because there is no way of knowing if the fiction resembles at all what is real.

But even sticking to the portrayals from the outside, so many of the deaths we experience in books and plays and films tend to be of the exaggerated variety, which makes them seem distant from our own experience.

I lost a friend this week, so I am thinking about death and looking for comfort in words. I’m discovering that I have to venture back in time to find what I’m looking for. The first death I remember from my childhood reading was Beth in Little Women. I remember crying over the pages. And I look over those chapters today and find that those scenes resonate more—touch what I am going through now—than any of the shocking and sensational deaths in the modern fiction on my bookshelves.

Maybe that means I’m naïve or parochial. I don’t think I care. I’ll take comfort where I can find it. And I find it in some of Louisa May Alcott’s words. Beth endured a long illness, and her family drew close around her as she grew weaker: “It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come …”

The hospice movement didn’t exist back then, but that’s exactly what Alcott describes—a tender approach to the end of life.

“Seldom, except in books, do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances; and those who have sped many parting souls know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth hoped, the ‘tide went out easily;’ and in the dark hour before the dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

I lost a dear friend this week. We don’t use that word—dear—much anymore. Maybe as part of the opening in a letter, but how often do we write letters these days? Dear is a specific and special word, it means “loved or especially valued.” So it means exactly what I want to say here. I lost a dear friend, and I will always think of her that way.

As for those dark hours before the dawn, it makes me smile to know that the morning she died was also the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. So I know she rode those streams of light into the heavens. I like to think that’s not a coincidence, and it makes me smile to know that every time I see a shooting star I’ll think of her.

I love you, R. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the edge of the Great Unknown

What do you write about when you don’t know what to write?

At first glance that might seem like a ridiculous question—why would you (or I or anyone) write if you didn’t have anything to say? But think about it, a good part of our writing—maybe most of it—isn’t done when we feel like writing, that is, when we feel that we have something to say, but rather when it is demanded of us.

School papers. I’m sorry, professor, I didn’t write my thesis because I just didn’t feel the need to express anything at this time.

Work assignments. Customers on the website really just look at the pictures. No, really, boss. And I’m sure there’s an editor somewhere shouting, those newspaper column inches need to be filled—go out and make some news if you can’t find it. (By the way, let’s all make a point of reading a newspaper so they don’t become a thing of the past.)

National Novel Writing Month is prime territory for this dilemma. It feels a bit like jumping into the Great Unknown. Just trying typing 1,600-and-some words of don’t-know-what-to-say and you’ll get a little insight into the daily angst of crazies around the world that are attempting this.

But they’re happy crazies, at least I know I am, and I talked to another one last night. I got a call from my college alma mater—the annual giving call. I actually don’t mind these calls, because they are made by some of the university’s undergraduates, and that means I get a peek into what life is like there these days. Last night the sophomore I spoke to was friendly and upbeat until I mentioned NaNoWriMo—and then she revealed the happy crazy that she really is. Wow, she said, I’m doing it too. And then we forgot all about college and the big wide world for a few minutes and talked about the novels we’re trying to shepherd into the world and the big question of what do you write about when you don’t know what to write.

I felt good when I got off the phone, not at all like I’d just been hit up for money. More like I’d crossed paths with a kindred spirit, who is having just as challenging and satisfying a hike up her path as I am on mine.

Back to those nineteenth- and early twentieth-century friends I made this fall. I think that’s why they hung together like clusters of grapes—it helps to have a kindred spirit or two handy, especially when you don’t know what to write about. Emerson gathered up the like-minded to his little community in Concord. Melville bought a house in the Berkshires when he learned that Hawthorne and others were there. Longfellow hosted virtually all of the major writers of his day at his house in Cambridge. They all wanted the luxury to talk writing with someone who knew what the heck they were talking about. Others who had been crazy enough at some point in their lives to jump into the Great Unknown.

They didn’t have the global-hopping Internet capability I have, so they couldn’t reach out almost instantaneously to writers around the world like I can. When I went to graduate school a number of years ago, I attended a low-residency MFA writing program at Goddard College. My schoolmates came from far-flung places and gathered for eight days twice a year. The rest of the time we went back to our own little corners of the world to live our lives and write our dreams. My “gang” of friends kept in touch (and still do) via an email list, commiserating or celebrating depending on how the work was going.

And now here I am participating in the global insanity of NaNoWriMo—and I must say that it makes me smile to think of other people all over the world wracking their brains this month just the way I am to create something.

But with or without instant global communication the creative process is much the same. I am sitting here at my computer, but I could just as easily be scratching away on a sheet of paper with my quill pen or hand-sharpened pencil. Stories are born independent of technology—deep within the mind and heart and soul—and then somehow they appear through the fingertips and onto the page (via pen, pencil or computer, it doesn’t matter which).

Eudora Welty (her home was too far away for a day trip, but I’ll get there some time) put it like this:

“The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

I’m still typing. And who knows what I’ll uncover.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

W: Writing, words and Wednesdays

Letter of the day is a little Sesame Street, but I don’t care. I enjoy my little crutches. Especially now. It’s November. And November is National Novel Writing Month. One guess as to what I’m busy doing.

So instead of visiting writers’ homes I’m staying home and writing. This is day four. It’s going well so far (knock wood). I’m cautiously optimistic and having a lot of fun. I won’t go into details yet. Maybe later. Anyway, my plan is to keep exploring America here on a weekly basis—probably musings about American writers and their thoughts on writing. For my own inspiration.

I’m still thinking about the writers I “visited” this fall. I envy the ones who got free housing and didn’t have to worry about paying the bills thanks to someone else’s largesse. I worry about the fact that so many of them seemed to suffer from depression or other mental illnesses and wonder that if there’s some genetic link between writing and those illnesses. I noticed that most of them had erratic work histories (granted, most were nineteenth-century folk, and the world ran differently then), and that gets me to thinking about my own résumé.

But for now, I’m just happily banging away on my keyboard and creating a novel—well, at least a “shitty first draft” (as Anne Lamott so beautifully put it). I’m keeping good thoughts and doing the math on how many words per day I have to write in order to reach the 50,000 mark by month’s end. It’s 1,667 per day for 30 days. But I know I’m not going to want to write on Thanksgiving (that’s a food day), and I’m sure there will be at least one other day that’s bound to get problematic schedule wise. So if I figure on 28 days, I’m looking at 1,785 per day. Heck, I’m going to shoot for 2,000 whenever I can, so that it will make up for the few miserable days I’m bound to run into when I can pound out only a few hundred.

All right, you’ve guessed it—I’m using the math as a distraction. Poking numbers into a calculator means I’m not dancing my fingers across the keyboard.

It’s got me thinking about some other numbers. One fact I gleaned at the Mark Twain House and Museum was that he wrote four thousand words a day. With output like that, he’d get through National Novel Writing Month in less than two weeks.

Then again, maybe not. He wrote an essay called “When a Book Gets Tired” in which he explained that he often had three or four projects in the works at a given time, because each would have to sit for a time when it he hit a snag with it.

“It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired, along about the middle, and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interests should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw materials reinforced by lapse of time.”

Don’t tell me this. There is no room for a “lapse of time” in a thirty-day span.

Another thing about numbers, consciously or not a number of my historic friends used banking as a metaphor when they talked about writing. Do you think that the money question was always nagging at the corners of their minds and influencing their literary imagery?

Twain (in an essay called “Comment on Tautology and Grammar”) explains sloppy word repetition on “the fact that the writer’s balance at the vocabulary bank has run short and that he is too lazy to replenish it from the thesaurus.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to his journal as his “personal savings bank” in which he’d deposit thoughts and then later withdraw them as needed for his writing.

I get the sense that both men considered the value of the words and ideas they were dealing with and tried to be wise about their saving and spending.

I wonder (in fleeting moments so far) if I can come up with 50,000 words on short notice. Act now! This offer won’t be repeated!  Will I mentally be turning my pockets inside out and scrounging between the sofa cushions for spare words?

And then I second-guess my marathon of choice. I could have gone for the Brattle Theatre Movie Watch-a-thon fundraiser. I could happily watch movies all day long. Unfortunately for me, the timing of the Watch-a-thon and novel writing month are in direct conflict, so I guess it’s writing for me.

Plus, I’ve already started typing.

Twain wrote in another essay (“Reply to the Editor of ‘The Art of Authorship’”) that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

I’m going to be writing 50,000 of the suckers. Maybe a few of them will be right. Certainly a lot of them will be wrong. But that’s what rewrites are for. Right now, I’m going to get my kite and my key and get back to that novel.