Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Recipe for the Writing Life

Karen Blixen Museum, at the foot of the Ngong Hills

A Recipe for the Writing Life

“Why, I’d write a novel,” the smartly dressed attorney said to me, pushing back his chair as the fundraising meeting came to an end, tossing out his words like quarters into a tollbooth. A man on the move. “If I could only find the time!”

I was a young wife, balancing the care and feeding of a growing family with a love of the written word. I’d taken on a freelance job – writing a business plan for a volunteer organization. It was a long way from where I wanted to be. But I was working on a fiction manuscript, too.  I had hopes and too much enthusiasm not to mention them.

If I could only find the time. I seethed. Yes, nothing as mundane as talent matters. Just a little spare time and you’re set.

I recalled this conversation recently when meeting a woman writer I’ve much admired.  The author of an acclaimed memoir and several other books, she’d clearly had a sense early on of where she wanted her writing life to take her, and the dedication to get there.   In comparison, I’ve meandered, sputtered about, occasionally stumbled.

We should start with food, since most everything in life does.

I began writing recipes for a community paper when the kids were just off to school. They’d bounce from the afternoon bus and charge about the tiny kitchen of our rented home in Simsbury, Connecticut, eager for snacks.  Keeping everyone well fed on a budget was a top priority, and writing about it blossomed naturally.  

That was nearly two decades ago.  If you’ve been doing anything for two decades, you might want to reconsider before plunging ahead into the next span of twenty years.

Writing about food and family life has served me well, and though I never hit the big league of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, I carved a happy niche, pairing a love of cooking with that of crafting the written word.  I put into practice my English teacher father’s advice: Write what you know.

But before food writing, there was fiction, and before fiction, poetry.   A whole other world.

In an age in which we compose most of our messages with our thumbs, where everyone e-mails, blogs and tweets, and that teased and trussed princess of lowest common denominator culture, Jersey Shore’s Snooki, can capture a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, I’m struggling with what it means to be a successful writer.  What defines success? Fame? Money?  What does the life of a ‘real’ writer look like?

As a young woman, I longed for what I imagined the writing life to be, and searched for role models beyond the claustrophobia of the classroom. I found Lillian Hellman -- or rather her willowy portrayal by a young Jane Fonda in the movie Julia -- drinking and smoking her way to becoming “the toast of the town,” doing her part to fight Fascism in 1930s Berlin. I wanted the big life I saw on the screen: danger and intrigue and notoriety; I wanted to throw an old Remington out a window when the writing was going poorly, and later talk shop with Dashiell Hammett on a beach by a roaring fire.

In college, I encountered Virginia Woolf’s narrative innovations and her advice that a woman needed a room of her own, and Ann Sexton who -- along with a few other beautiful suicides -- left a mark on modern poetry. And I devoured the rich, transporting diaries of Anais Nin, imagining myself in Paris and Louveciennes between the wars, dancing the tango with handsome Cubans with slicked-backed hair, hosting salons for writers and artists in the color-drenched rooms and lush gardens of a crumbling maison de campagne.

Anais Nin

Some years later, I’d be crushed to discover Nin’s mushy relationship with the truth; it was hard to get my brain around the consensual incest, too. All the subterfuge, the clandestine assignations, Nin’s bicoastal husbands, and the tortured alcoholism of the confessional poets – quite frankly, it sounded exhausting. 

In the mid-80s, Out of Africa offered a majestic panorama of another writer’s life.  I wanted then to be Karen Blixen, to go on heart-stopping safaris, wear exquisite clothes lifted from the J. Peterman catalogue, and have breakfast with Robert Redford.

I hardly ever have breakfast with Robert Redford.  And I didn’t marry a Dashiell Hammett. My late husband did read the occasional book, and supported my writing in all its guises, but he most enjoyed goofing on the pretentiousness of the literary world. One of the few poems he committed to memory made lascivious use of a pun on Timbuktu. He’d recite this at dinner parties.

Exit stage left, the ghost of Anais Nin.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star columnist of a generation – her name in lights! her face on the billboards and the sides of buses! Laptop open, her brow just slightly wrinkled, with manicured fingertips she taps her way to celebrity in between designer wardrobe changes and long, pink cosmopolitan-fueled commiserations with her glamorous pals about their relationships with a parade of mostly disappointing metrosexuals.

Okay, that’s not a life I want. But the clothes and the shoes -- I could make do.

Obviously none of these dreamy depictions has much merit. The writer I met this March lives in rural Vermont in a small, splendid log cabin beside a winding river. She travels and hikes, tends a large garden in weather fair and foul, spends long days in library research rooms, and probably does most of this while dressed in sensible outfits.

Regardless of the lifestyle that surrounds the time at the keyboard, writing is hard work, and writing books requires dedication, time, inventiveness, and the freeing up of no small space on the mental hard drive.  

Unless, perhaps, you’re Snooki.

That novel I wrote as a young woman managed to win an award, though it was never published. The story of two competitive sisters vying for the attention of an elusive man, the hackneyed plot spun out of my control in the final chapters. In metaphoric essence, at the end everybody gets hit by a bus. 

I sent out the manuscript to a handful of agents and waited.  Form letters followed, along with a few kind if terse rejections. One agent, however, was instructive.

His advice:  “More sex. Less philosophy.”  Which seems a decent recipe for real life as well.  There’s only so much sitting around a kitchen table yakking over cooling teacups anyone – warm-blooded or wholly imagined – should do.

I abandoned that book, though not the desire to see a novel of mine in print. Not for fame or money itself, but for the creative freedom the expansive canvas of a book allows. The bottom line of freedom spells true success.

 Though somewhere, I suspect, Snooki Polizzi is checking her portfolio and having a good laugh.


This column originally appeared in The North Star Monthly Magazine.


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