How to Cook a Story
My last assignment for my composition students includes a reflective piece where they talk about themselves as a writer and explore their writing process. They often ask me what I would write if I were completing an assignment and I try to write many of the assignments I ask of them. Though this would not meet the requirements of what I assigned, once I started writing it, I couldn't stop. One student after class shyly asked, "Have you thought about writing a book?"
"Many times," I responded, "many times."
My Writing Life, or How to Cook a Story
The beginning of my life as a writer is rooted in my life as a reader. Both of my parents are voracious readers and like them, I consumed texts. Instead of stuffed animals or dolls, I slept with novels and books of folklore littering my bed. I was often in trouble for reading past my bedtime, with a flashlight under my covers. Once, I burned a hole in my pillowcase after taking the top off my Strawberry Shortcake nightlight and letting the naked bulb fall onto my sheets. I read everything from Nancy Drew mysteries to Treasure Island.
I wielded my library card without mercy, moving from The Boxcar Children to The Chronicles of Narnia and later Through the Looking Glass and Anne of Green Gables. I pulled books from my father’s study much too young and read Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby at 12. In college when I studied Fitzgerald in a class, I couldn’t believe I’d even grasped half of the plot of those novels. I certainly missed the nuances. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. I would read my father’s sports magazines, my mother’s Reader’s Digest. I sped through my father’s boyhood bookshelf from White Fang, and To Kill A Mockingbird to Robert E. Lee biographies. I searched his books for notes, clues, some way to decipher him, to draw my father closer.
Love of language, of stories and characters, and time tethers my father to me. I grew up in awe of him, loved listening to the cadence of his voice as he practiced sermons and sang along to records he played in his study. I watched his hands in the dirt, coaxing lilies and aloe plants, ferns and ficus to bloom. His attention to plants was often like his attention to my brother and I, as children. The spectrum from leaving us alone to play and explore to intensely interested in our movements and thoughts was just as mysterious and unpredictable as the anxiety that plagued my mother throughout our childhood. If I wanted my father’s attention and I often craved it desperately, I only had to mention books, or ask for a suggestion of what to read. Sometimes I asked questions about characters or why an author would frame a plot in a particular way. My father never tired of talking about stories, or sports, which is probably why for much of my adolescence I wanted to be a sports writer. But I loved poetry more, and once I devoted serious study to it, I fell in love with creative non-fiction and the personal essay. Writers like Joan Didion and Philip Lopate, David Sedaris and Annie Dillard expressed the truth in the same way the poets I loved did, openly, but without apology.
In college, my father would send me letters in his messy scrawl with quotes from books, poems, or lists of authors I should read. He would include excerpts from The New Yorker with notes in the margins. He sometimes asked about my own work, and would proudly display awards, clippings and posters of my readings. He even attended a few but slipped out before I could say anything to him. My writing friends adored him, and even those who had not been to church in years, would attend services to hear him preach. At his core, my father is a storyteller, like the women who raised him.
The summers I spent with my extended family, my grandparents and my great-grandmothers steeped me in stories. I spent hours doing kitchen chores to hear the women in my family reminisce, gossip and trade stories. Granny Jones who was the most superstitious told the best ghost stories. On walks, she would point out houses, hotels, locations of violent deaths or ghost sightings. She claimed the field behind my other Granny’s house was haunted, and had been since a neighbor accidentally shot a friend of his while they were hunting. She was never at a loss for a story. The one place Granny was always quiet, however, was the cemetery. She felt we owed the dead our respect and as I shifted uncomfortably in my Keds, Granny would lay flowers on graves and whisper prayers, tracing loved ones’ names with her fingertips. I was fascinated by her, my paternal great-grandmother who never re-married after her husband died young, a woman who sewed clothes for me, and let me play in the scraps of materials, who had been a welder, a bookkeeper and shoe salesperson before she pursued nursing late in her life. She never admonished me for daydreaming, or reading trashy romance novels off her shelves. She listened intently to me and watched every play I corralled the neighborhood kids into. She told stories about my father as a boy, about my grandmother as a teenager, but rarely about her own life. I understand now that she used stories to create connection and distance simultaneously. My father does the same thing, and to some extent, so do I. The tension between what you express and what you hide, as a writer of non-fiction is always present and in flux.
Whenever I feel stuck writing, whether I am writing fiction, non-fiction, research, or even a blog post, I think about the way my Granny cooked. Granny was stubborn and never used recipes. To watch her prepare food was a lesson in revising on the fly. She knew what she could substitute, and exactly how much of an ingredient she needed. She converted measurements in her head and hummed church hymns or Sam Cooke, when she thought no one was listening. As she taught me to make dumplings or gumbo, she would sigh as I scribbled notes frantically, knowing I would never remember all of the measurements or the order of the steps, knowing still, that she would not always be around to remind me.
I can close my eyes, breathe deeply and see her moving around the kitchen. Her hands are graceful, soft in her old age, "like a suit that doesn't quite fit" she'd say when she washed her hands in the sink, and then immediately massage them with lavender lotion. She told me once that her body knew what to do in front of a stove, and that’s why she never measured anything, or set a timer. “It’s all about the feeling,” she said. “If you’re really aware, you’ll know when it’s done.” But I’m not as disciplined as my Granny. I don’t write enough, or spend time experimenting with my own ingredients for a story. I don’t structure writing into my day. I wonder how many ideas I am not committing to paper, how often inspiration strikes while I am searching my bag for a pen. As a Master’s student, I wrote everywhere, bars, restaurants, my car. I wrote in journals and on bar tabs, napkins, my hand. I was a raw nerve; everything had the potential to be a story and I lived my life as though it were one.
When I started my Ph.D. program a new kind of reading and writing life began. And for five years I worked on someone else’s timetable, prioritizing my work based on deadlines and syllabus requirements. I tried to funnel my creativity into my academic work, which fueled me for a while. In the meantime I abandoned novels and short stories; half-written poems fill a hard drive, collecting digital dust. I remember lines like scenes from a dream that wakes you, groggy and disoriented. Sometimes, they turn into something else, but mostly they rest quietly, a cemetery full of ghosts.
And yet, I am not haunted by the page. I write poems, stories, pieces of my life, blog posts when I can. I still consider myself a writer. I write something everyday, but it’s not always good and it’s not always complete. I’m not sure my “process” has changed much. I listen to music when I write, over my stereo if I'm at home or through headphones when I'm not. I create playlists like "Songs to break your heart" or "Writing Radio," and "Twisting the Knife." Songwriters like Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell, Bon Iver and bands like Dishwalla, Drive By Truckers, Band of Horses, and Kings of Leon fill my ears. I write at cafes, coffeeshops and restaurants. Last month I wrote a poem on my phone while waiting in the Starbucks drive-thru, and then edited it at home. But those moments don’t happen often. I almost always write in Google docs, rarely by hand, and typically after at least 2 cups of coffee.
When I write, the struggle for the right word, or the best way to approach a particular story or research topic often feels just out of reach. Most of the time, I begin by just getting something on the page. If I am working on a researched article, I will take my research notes which I usually type up in a Google document and cut and paste some of the main ideas or questions I am working through; other times, I will type quotes that I want to use or that inspired my thinking on a particular topic. If I’m writing a conference presentation, I often have the abstract I proposed in a different window so that I can refer back to the concepts and questions I originally wanted to explore. I work best surrounded by the work that inspires me. This usually means I have books laid out around me but more often than not lately, I also have multiple browser windows open to articles or blog posts and other online content. Being surrounded by words, by research, by other work means I am never really stuck. I can read something which sparks an idea or distract myself on Facebook for a few minutes. I can respond to an email or chat with one of my friends. All of those distractions become part of the process. It helps that I revise often, sometimes in my head, mentally crossing out elements of a story, deleting paragraphs, details before they are even on the page. When I revise, I begin at the beginning, re-reading what I have written, but not necessarily all the way through. As I read, I edit. I expand a story, adding details or going more in depth than before. I delete details, whole chunks of paragraphs that no longer seem to work. I often save these in other documents where they will become pieces of something else. I also edit at the sentence level, adding commas or semicolons as details grow, or exchanging one word for another.
As I draft, I write quickly, throwing everything onto the page so that I can shape it later. I liken the process to sculpting and so when I cut or move or take a particular turn, I often begin to see something I was not expecting emerge. For example, very little in this essay, with the exception of the first paragraph was what I thought I would write about when I began. I certainly did not expect to write about my father, though in retrospect I probably should have. If I am going to talk about writing, about stories and storytelling, I’m going to talk about my father. He remains the looming influence of my reading and writing habits.
I am also influenced by other storytellers in my life. Some are published; most are not. Anne Sexton is correct, I think, when she says “the art chooses you.” For me that art is creative non-fiction, memoir, telling stories about myself. Nikki Giovanni said about poetry, “it may not be good, but at least it is mine.” The life I write about is only a fragment of me, one that I try to be honest about. And it may not be good; it may not be expected. You may not agree with how I live or write. That is okay, because my stories, the fragments, ghosts, the unwritten, the works-in-progress, the things I censor, the things I let slip, they’re all part of the recipe of story. I’m convinced that one day, I will move with words the way my Granny did in the kitchen. I will chop syntax and simmer metaphors. I will stir at just the right intervals, so the diction doesn’t stick. I dig in my hands, knead the words with just enough pressure and then let it rest. I will not keep opening the oven door, and letting in the cold air from outside. I will know the steps by heart and meter and rhyme, and no one will have to tell me when it’s ready. I’ll already know.