Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.
Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.
I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.
While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.
I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.
“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay
And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.
And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.
I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself was never enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it. –From Sarah Manguso‘s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
Remember when we got together in 2005 and you made that baked brie and the beef with the arugula salad? I tell my friend of twenty years that I remember every meal she’s ever made me; I’ve saved her mother’s recipes for fettuccine alfredo and Thanksgiving stuffing–recipes my friend wrote on index cards when we were in college–even though I haven’t made either meal in years. But I like to think that I could if I wanted to because I have the cards. And even though the years spanning from college through my late 20s are sometimes opaque from all the drink, even though my friend, one day over casual conversation, reminds me of the time I couldn’t attend a Pearl Jam concert in college because I’d a finance exam to study for–this is one of many memories with which I struggle to fit in the frame–I’ve always been able to recall, in detail, the food.
Food has the propensity to connect people in a way that’s visceral because we’re sharing our most primal desire with someone else. We’re our most awkward, unkempt selves when we steady a spoonful of liquid or twirl slippery noodles around a fork. As women, we are at our most vulnerable when we eat because we shoulder the weight of propagating bloodlines; we bear the burden of a society that dictates what we can and cannot eat. We live in a world where the amount of food we consume and the measure of our self worth are inexplicably, tragically, bound to one another. Food is the soft, nubby blanket in which we swathe ourselves. We hatch plans, weep, rage, talk our way through our darkness over a plate of hot pasta or a bowl of comforting soup. Food has an arcane ability to transform, bind, heal.
It’s hard to explain all of this to Liz–that I remember all of the moments that are visceral, intimate. That first meal we took in a diner in Easton after four years of silent estrangement, how she tactfully inquired if I was done with blow, if I was no longer the ticking that was the bomb. Across from me, I noticed how she examined me with her eyes. Was I really clean or white-knuckling it? Would I retreat back to the woman in 2001 who frightened her? While we waited for our food to arrive, until we had a means with which to busy our hands, we shifted uncomfortably in our seats. We spoke of our children–her son and my book–and also of memories and friends past. After the lunch, Liz invited me to her home because I suspected she knew how hard I was trying to regain her trust, everyone’s trust. So how could I explain two days ago that I remember that midpoint in our friendship–the shift from college roommates who were midnight marauders to adult women with children and burgeoning careers–through the brie?
This weekend, I spend time with my best friend’s husband, a man whom I’ve come to love in a way that you would love a brother, and he talks about the hot sauce recipe that took him fifteen years to get right. We dissect the word balance, and rhapsodize over his sauce as if it were a symphony–one false note, one errant cymbal crash, and the whole lot of it would fall asunder. The greatest gift you can give someone is compliment the food they’ve prepared for you. My only regret, I confide to Tim, apart from starting a game of Scrabble with the word “foe,” is the fact that I didn’t slather your sauce all over my chicken. I acknowledge the willful abandoning of the sauce as a rookie move, and I’ve since doused half the bottle on my roasted vegetables and on my eggs the following morning. He laughs and proceeds to give me a jar of his sauce to take home, and how could I explain that this is the second greatest gift one could give?
Would they think me foolish? Sentimental? Getting all weepy over a jar of sauce, a strip of uncured bacon, a plate of herbed roasted vegetables?
Cause next thing you know Miss Anna May Wong got this sweet record on the Victrola and wearing this long shiny white gown and she hands you a champagne glass, and, honey, it’s all over. Not that she’d poison you. Worse. She gonna speak on your life and drop the truth in your lap. So real quiet and super-patient, the record playin out and the camera crowdin in on her face, she reveals how disappointed she is with you and your dumb self. And you realize you blew, but too late. Lloyd Nolan kickin in the door. But there she is, gorgeous for the occasion, so your life at its end will have good taste, though it has for a long time lacked good sense. —From Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love
But the real reason why I’m here, in Connecticut, is Liz. I’m here because of time. I’m here because I’m moving and it hurts and I’ll miss that while I don’t see my best friend as often as I’d like, I know that she’s only a train ride away. I’m here because I’ve built a fortress around my heart because I’ve so much to protect but here’s a key, one of a few, because I want you to come in, all the way. I’m moving but will I still have you? Can you believe I’m moving? New York’s the only home I’ve ever known. I’m here because I’m frightened of leaving but I know being here is an exercise in maths, that you’ll somehow make all the numbers foot. I’m here because, my god, your children have gotten so big. Remember that night with the brie and the wine (a time when I still drank) and we spent the night laughing because we had time, because your son had only just been born, and we had the hours? I’m here because now there are fewer hours. I’m here because remember that homemade ice cream and the pie you baked? I’m here because I want to commit to memory the chicken with the rub and the hot sauce and the peanut butter cookie in a cafe in Avon, and all the minor meals and bites we’ll share because there will come a time when we will share fewer of these moments.
I’m here because I’ve finally made a decision that is based on wanting to live a good life, needing to have good sense in which to live it, and I want to share all of this with you, my dear friend. I want to hold the hours close. I want to log the meals. I want this time with you before it’s squandered, before it’s too late.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Flourless: Recipes for Naturally Gluten-Free Desserts
3 large, very ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups gluten-free rolled oats
1/2 cup almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts (I used almonds)
2/3 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, stir together the bananas and coconut oil. In another bowl, whisk together the oats, ground almonds, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix to combine. Mix in the walnuts and coconut.
Using a teaspoon measure, add the cookies to the baking sheets. You don’t need to worry about spacing them close apart since the cookies won’t spread all that much. Bake the cookies until they’re lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
love.: After working in book publishing, a beastly business that shows the unseemly side of publishing art, I found myself paralyzed — unable to read books for pleasure as I once did. It took years to undo this unraveling, but it’s worth it because I feel as if I’m in a bit of a literary renaissance. No longer do I care about the big books, the punch of the Believer-reading lot, I visit bookstores as if I’m a normal sort of person looking for something to read, and believe me when I say the ride has been nothing short of thrilling. I’ve discovered two extraordinary books this past month: Krys Lee’s story collection, Drifting House and Deborah Levy’s remarkable Swimming Home. While Krys Lee’s stark story collection focus on Koreans — emigrating (or fleeing) North Korea — coming undone, Deborah Levy presents us a family unraveling at the seams once a strange, fiery interloper is found floating in a pool. As Francine Prose so astutely reveals, “Swimming Home is unlike anything but itself. Its originality lies in its ellipses, its patterns and repetitions, in what it discloses and reveals, and in the peculiar curio cabinet Levy has constructed: a collection of objects and details that disclose more about these fictional men and women than they are willing, or able, to tell us about themselves.”
Next up I’m diving deliriously into Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (update: read it in one sitting + it’s magical) and Alice Munro’s latest story collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.
life: The new year holds so much promise, and I’m diving in, feet first into a bevy of culinary adventures. After a year of trepidation, I’m finally taking my first Sunday Suppers class. Consider this a cooking class cum dinner cum gathering with strangers who share one common passion: food. I’m also taking a puff pastry + eclair class at The Brooklyn Kitchen with a sweet friend, and I’ve signed up for French classes at the Alliance Française (FIAF). And if I ever tire of New York, really tire of it, I’ll remind myself to tick off items on my dear friend Mary Phillip’s Sandy’s list.