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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eat these Words

In all the writing books I’ve read lately, the consistent theme is that if you want to write well, open your eyes, look all around you and pour what you see onto the page like maple syrup on pancakes, great glugs of language filling an overflowing plate. You can never write too much. Later, after you’ve served up all your words, there’s plenty of time to raise your knife and fork, slice through the extra ideas and hand them off to the dog--smoothing those that remain like soft butter.

The other constant suggestion is to dredge way down and scrape up events from your past to use as fodder as you practice your craft--plumb the ocean of your psyche to write about the difficult experiences, the most painful, the ones that you tucked away behind a cement vault--you hoped forever. According to the experts, tackling these challenging memories opens doors to emotions so an erstwhile writer like me may learn to describe them.

I’m getting a failing grade at the second lesson, though that’s for me to deal with--don’t worry, my attempts to overcome the deficiency won’t appear here in Middle Passages. I only bring it up as a result of my “ah ha” moment last night when I read examples of the kind of writing I hope to accomplish, if I allow myself to peel my skin like an orange and pick at the stringy white pith underneath.

In an earlier post this spring, I mentioned a blog that I read called Orangette by Molly Wizenberg. A columnist for Bon Appetit Magazine with a first book under her belt, Molly’s genre is food. No wonder I like her. I received her book A Homemade Life last week, and gave myself permission to put aside my self-assigned homework over the weekend in order to read it. As I write this, I’m having another “ah ha.” Perhaps reading Molly is the reason for the corn chowder post yesterday which, as I read it today, did nothing to describe the creamy texture of the soup, the sweetness of the corn kernels that crunched between my teeth, the melting potatoes, the back of the mouth bite of onion followed by a final reminder of heat from the cayenne, but now I’m way off topic.

Back to Molly.

A Homemade Life is her tribute to her family, specifically her father who passed away from cancer, through the food they prepared and savored together. To use an appropriate phrase, I gobbled this book, chewing it up in big, fat, flavorful mouthfuls, up to the point when she describes the hours leading to her father’s death. She writes:

“I remember thinking that Burg wouldn’t make it through the weekend. He had stopped eating. He was fading. I don’t know how else to say it. You get a sense for these things. I remember talking on the phone, telling someone that he was dying. I must have had the conversation while standing in the pantry closet, because when I think of it now, I picture a row of jam jars and single-serving cans of pineapple juice. The pantry was where I went for privacy. The door had a latch on the inside so I could safely close myself in when I needed to talk without anyone hearing me. Saying it aloud—I don’t think he’s going to make it—was almost a relief. It had been barely two months since his diagnosis, but we were exhausted. I wanted something to change; the hum from the motor on his hospital bed, the nurses that came and went, the sweet smell on his breath, something.”

I put down the book, took a deep breath and got it. Here was an example of the detail I need to incorporate in my writing. The emotions are there, her pain, her angst, her grief, and yet none of it is maudlin. She simply uses her sight, sound, smell, touch, to create the picture of the time leading to his death and lays out her painting so cleanly that I have complete faith that I imagine the day as Molly meant me too. I can picture her pantry--door, barn-style with lengthwise planks locked together via horizontal two-by-fours, nailed at the top and the bottom. It’s painted off-white and the latch is black dimpled wrought iron that you lift with your finger until it raises the sidebar with an audible click. The shelves are stocked, jars of preserved beets, the pineapple juice, an old stainless blender with a black cord hanging over the side.

The fact that her pantry might look nothing like this is irrelevant; the point is that her writing conjured up a vision in my mind. Clearly Molly took a backhoe deep into her own emotion, digging it up to share in the most appropriate and believable way. Later I picked up the book again, sad, yet joyful to read about the dishes she includes from that time, the warm hug of memory an old recipe provides, the sweetness of her father’s friends, the taste of his own passion for food.

I told you that I put aside my homework to read Molly but in truth, she is this week’s teacher.

1 comment:

Ro said...

Oh dear. This is a little intimidating. Seriously, must every writer write like this? Because it seems to me that it would take enormous courage to hack away at your soul like that and fling the bloody gore all over a page to be viewed under the microscope by a bunch of unknown, anonymous readers wearing pristine lab coats and unapproachable sneers.

Can't we fake it just a bit and play around with the coziest of memories, and maybe throw in a little bit of angst borrowed from someone else's life?

I think I want to be a writer. I'm not so sure I have what it takes. And I don't mean the skills, though I'm lacking enough in that department too. It's the demand for honesty that frightens me.

I want my writing to be elegant. Humourous possibly, and definitely witty. But not a mirror by god, not a mirror.