Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
Okay, so maybe these are not some of “the most common expressions in everyday life.” (See the description of this column: Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
Maybe we don’t hear these questions on subways, in crosswalks or public parks but a few bursts of unexpected delights (See, I told you in an earlier column how much I loved Ross Gay’s book.) the past couple of weeks that got me revisiting my love for food and words and food that breeds words.
The tomatoes in my garden here! (This is more than I could say in past years when our shady yard helped to yield only green leaves or else the nighttime creatures treated my backyard like a salad bar.) This summer my tomatoes are ripe and red, begging to be plucked.
And here might be where I give in to the temptation to go off on a tangent—a digression we sometimes say in writing circles– about how pruning (the tops of trees, the overwritten sentences) can offer new light. Light in the sky and light on the page.
But I’ll resist the temptation. For now.
I watched all eight episodes of The Bear and was so into it that I completely forgot what a terrible television-watcher I am. Apparently, that’s not the case when presented with a show that offers dizzying, dialogue-rich episodes that tug at taste buds and whatever buds regulate the heart, too. It’s all food and fuck you and family wrapped up in mostly kitchen scenes that are beyond electric.
On one of the 99-degree days last week here in New York’s Hudson Valley, I concocted a six-fruit smoothie and served it in frosty Mason jars to the two gentlemen painting our house. The exterior of our house. The house that is located on the patch of land where those pruned trees, the ones I mentioned earlier, live and breathe. Hence, where light shines bright, strong and fierce. It was “hot as hell” as my mother used to say on summer days in the 1970s and 1980s when she’d pull up to the family gas station where we worked to hand out Cokes and Slurpees to help “you cool off in this ungodly heat!”
Other things my mother said, on repeat:
Did you eat? You hungry? What can I make you?
These questions, in their most common and practical form, are real and necessary and purposeful. On our better days, I think most people would like to know, especially from those we love, if they are fed, satisfied and/or craving something.
But what happens when we turn the questions toward ourselves, as writers?
What food brings you joy? Sorrow? What food (or drink) helps ignite a desire to write and remember? Make a list and then after each item on the list jot down a memory, little or big, that you associate with that selection. Obviously, a story can certainly follow but don’t pressure yourself to make it long or complex or more than it needs to be. Like the sweet simple tomatoes on the vine begging to be picked, there may be tales of yours just waiting to be offered space on the page, waiting to be plucked and honored. Plain and simple.
Hunger is big, I know that. There is a plethora of ways we can explore the word, let alone the concept. What are you hungry or thirsty for as a writer? How are those sensations different when framed around the blank page or the final draft? Does your pull to write stem from a need you recognize or one you do not? Here I turn to M.F.K. Fisher in The Art of Eating:
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.
All one. What might happen if we bring that to the blank page?
I felt many things when I made that smoothie for the house painters but mostly, I just wanted to express myself to them. I wanted to make something that might offer comfort no matter how temporary or trivial. (It was 99 degrees, I had frozen fruit in my freezer, too many ripe bananas in a basket and ice!) I also felt many things when I watched The Bear. The family business depicted (a sandwich shop in Chicago) is not than the one I grew up in (a gas station in New Jersey) but so much else was familiar. The dialogue, the darkness, the love.
Dialogue. Darkness. Love. All ingredients needed in the writing I make.
As a writer, what are your ingredients?
And why write anyway? To express? To comfort? To love?
“What can I make you?”, my mother would ask year after year after year.
This November will mark the 24th anniversary of her sudden death. When I think about this question, fold in mounds of grief, love, longing and sprinkle in words, words and more words, I can’t help but turn the table, as both a daughter and a writer: “No, Ma,” I might answer now. “What can I make you?” Then I’d give her a Coke and before she had a chance to answer, I might say, “First, come see my tomatoes.”