Food in writing

As I wrote about last year when I read Ethan Frome, descriptions of meals in books are one of the things that really catch my attention when I’m reading. I like to imagine how all the elements of the meal work together.

I read this description recently in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age:

Sadie brought her a tray full of chicken soup and chopped liver and cold chicken and cold salmon and salad and fruit and gherkins and water biscuits…

What I love about this is that it’s so much. Almost too much food, it seems at first. When I first read it I imagined plates groaning under the weight of meat and gherkins. But really it’s probably small amounts of cold meat, leftover from the day before, and just a few gherkins, and then it seems okay. Good. In the book, the character describes the meal as, “infinitely reassuring,” and I tend to agree.

I have a friend who has a knack for assembling delicious, cohesive meals out of varied ingredients, particularly for picnics or otherwise leisurely summer eating. Recently she brought small slices of quiche to a picnic, and I thought, “Of course!” It made so much sense, but I never would have thought of it myself.

In The Ice Age, the character arrives at a friend’s home after a long day of traveling. She isn’t expected, she just shows up, but her friend (well, her friend’s relative), pulls together an “infinitely reassuring” dinner for her, the kind she needs at that moment. I like to imagine my friend is the same way, and that if I got off a plane and went directly to her house, she’d rummage in fridge and cupboards and the result would be infinitely reassuring.

I’d like to strengthen my weak skill for last-minute meal assembly. Mine always seem to lack some vital component, or overdo it on one thing, and the end result is wobbly, unfinished. I suppose this is another reason I’m drawn to food descriptions in books.

Perhaps I should stock up on water biscuits?

Novel things.

In 2010, I completed NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel called Practice, which was true. It was practice. I’d written two book-length things as a teenager – and I don’t say this to make myself sound impressive. One of them was basically the plot of The Outsiders, except the Ponyboy character was a girl. Plus, these were book-length things for 13-year-olds. By contrast, my NaNoWriMo book was just over 52,000 words, and I was proud of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the 50,000 word target was meant to be a jumping-off point, not the end.

But by then I’d given up novel writing anyway. I mined Practice for a short story or two, and asserted I wasn’t the novel-writing sort. I didn’t have it in me. Short stories were my thing, and forever would be.

So I’m not really sure how I knew I would start writing a novel this April. Every day I’m surprised I’m still doing it, that I still have something to write about. I’ve never had this experience before, this entire world just under the surface, waiting patiently for me to haul it up into the light. I can dip my hand down into it, take a few things, return later for more. I can take my time writing certain scenes. I can devote entire paragraphs to topics that would weigh a short story down. It’s an odd sensation, but I’m enjoying it.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But it makes more sense in my life than it ever did before, and I want it to stay.

Nothing and everything

Nothing changes, maybe even me. I wrap my scarf around my neck three times and nestle in. I drive my father’s car in the dark, in the rain, winding my way around random streets, wandering until I run out of coffee. Or I’m an early morning passenger with a bagel in my hand, passing my husband his coffee as we wander together, wondering how our lives will be next year.

He drops me off at the station and the sun is bright. On the train it’s quiet and outside it’s warm and I walk to the place where my friends are waiting, and we spend our time together in such pleasant and easy conversation, and I sit my friend’s toddler on my shoulder and the baby laughs and strokes my hair and I feel so lucky to know her, and to know them all. On the train heading back I lean my head against the humming window, a head full of plans, and it feels like such an end-of-the-year cliché to realize what was always obvious, and nothing and everything seems possible all at once.

The Outward Room

I wondered how it was that I had never heard of this book and its extraordinarily promising young author. I asked around, but no one seemed to know or remember Millen Brand, or his books. It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.

[. . .]

All of Brand’s work is modest and sincere, two qualities that are undervalued, if not dismissed, in modern fiction . . . Despite the titillating claims of the paperback reprints, there is nothing sensational about The Outward Room. Its power comes from its tenderness and quiet. As Brand himself observes, near the end of the book, ‘the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.’

– Peter Cameron, in the afterword to The Outward Room

When it comes to books, I tend to rely unquestioningly on the recommendations of my friend Amy. It isn’t that I dismiss other recommendations outright or find no value in them. It’s just that, somehow, Amy intuits what kind of book will fire up the electrical connections in my brain like no other. It’s especially impressive to me because people’s taste in books is so personal, so hard to pinpoint. So I have to publicly thank her for recommending The Outward Room to me.

I long ago realized I was terrible at book reviews, so I will let the above quotes from the book’s afterword stand in for my own words.

Tripping over the carpet

Days that feel like older days. Lazy suburban summer drives, windows open, listening to a short story read on the radio. Sitting by the lake for an interminable length of time. Browsing at the bookstore I used to spend so much time in, tripping over the carpet. While my mother looks at religion books, I turn around and consider the wicca books, the angel books, remember my teenage bedroom full of ornate candlesticks I imagined would fit in in an Anne Rice novel. A woman approaches and pulls a tarot book off the shelves. She reads a couple of pages and puts it down. I see her ahead of us in line later, holding an interior design magazine, and I wonder if she was remembering too.

 

I quit writing.

Maybe.

Can one quit being a writer?

This is a post I’ve wanted to write – and dreaded writing – for a long time. For about as long as I have no longer considered myself a “writer,” at least outside of my freelancing career. How long has that been? It’s hard to say. There wasn’t a single defining moment when I decided. It came gradually, in waves. I would realize I hadn’t written anything in weeks. Then it was months. I would try to write, and make a little progress. Then the cycle would continue. Sometimes I would send a story to a magazine and its rejection letter was met with a shrug. I just didn’t care about it.

It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding like I believe I’ve been touched by some divine hand of creativity. I don’t want to sound like a snob, or really up myself. But the fact is writing was the first thing I was ever good at, and it’s been there for most of my life. Maybe I took for granted that I would always find something to write about. Maybe it was personal life issues that made writing seem futile or made me doubt my ability.

Either way, when I started to notice my desire to write slipping away, before I stopped caring, I got angry. I was angry at myself for relying so much on being published by paying magazines (the result of a goal I’d set for myself years ago to get a grant). I was angry at those magazines for seemingly favouring experimental, short writing that I don’t and can’t do. I was angry at the writing community for making me feel like if I wasn’t promoting myself every minute of every day or producing work at breakneck speed, I was failing. I was angry at all the things I’d tried – workshops, prompts, contests –  that just made me feel more disillusioned.

Some of those things didn’t deserve my anger – I knew that even then. But that’s the thing about it. Writing was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do. I didn’t go to university or college because I knew I was going to be a writer so why bother? Writing was something I’d always had, always loved, and so when I felt it leaving me, I didn’t know what to do or what to think, or how to make it stop. I lashed out. I would have a couple of things published online, writers would add me on Twitter or Facebook, and I felt like a huge fraud. Didn’t they know? I was no more a writer than I was a parakeet.

I’m reading this over and I sound like I’m sitting at my laptop weeping, or asking for a pep talk. Neither of those things are the case. I know that creativity is fluid and this isn’t necessarily over, but I also know that some creative people just walk away from their art of choice and never return to it. There’s a weird sense of judgement when you lose interest in your craft, like maybe you didn’t deserve it in the first place. It can be so intertwined with your sense of self that you lose your equilibrium.

I suppose I wanted to talk about it because I don’t hear writers or artists talk about giving it up, or even taking very long breaks. The narratives you always hear are “Talented genius lives and breathes writing and has 10 books published” or “Person calmly doing something that is not writing until age 40 when they decide ‘Hey I’ll give this writing thing a try’ and is immediately beloved.” Or they get writer’s block for a little while but then gleefully return to writing. I want the in-between, the stories in the grey areas. There have to be some out there.

No shame in my video game-book-game.

I tried for a week and a half to get through 23 pages of an Ayelet Waldman novel I ended up abandoning, but have spent the past two hours completely engrossed in a book based on the Dragon Age video game series.

Draw from that any conclusions you will.

(I was surprised to find the Dragon Age novel has a higher average rating on Goodreads than the Waldman novel.)