By Leslie Daniels, Spalding School of Writing Creative Fiction Faculty
One of the things I love about writing well is its wildness. You’d think there would be rules or a path, a recipe even, to the deep heart of your writing, but there is not. You must find it anew for each piece.
The inverse of this aspect of writing is how arduous if not downright loathsome it is to not know what you are supposed to do next. And how frequently in writing do you find yourself exactly there: What should I do next?
In that respect, writing is different from other kinds of work where you’re making something. Like cooking, where—at this point in my life of having made a zillion meals in a hundred different kitchens—I know the steps and could almost perform them in my sleep. Though I don’t divulge this to the people I’m feeding, I do, at times, virtually wake up when I am fully underway with a meal, and think, What am I making? And then, knowing the sequence so well, Oh yeah, that salmon and rice thing, salad, throw together that fast cake from the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin. But, in writing, the sequence of actions is often uncertain.
I come across the belief in my students and in myself too that there is a right way to do it, a perfect order of steps. The right way is obvious only in hindsight (which is all we ever see when we’re reading someone’s published work). Of course the character had to lose her sobriety here and run off with the scary guidance counselor. Or a writing process step: of course I had to dig a bunker in the yard and leave my family behind to finish this draft. Or—to be less weird—of course I had to write it in third person before returning to the I-voice. Of course I had to write the end before I knew where the story opened.
My students often believe that if they were further along in their writing lives, they would have confidence about what the next step would be. (This goes with the ardent belief that confidence is good, which I assure you is false.) Or worse, that if they were smarter, they’d know. I offer sympathy to my students, noting how even the most brilliant of writers live with the uncertainty of what to do next. Though the uncertainty is hard to love, I suspect it may be an essence of why we chose writing, a path entirely of our own making.
Here, in this wilderness, is a clear overlap in what I love about writing and also about cooking. I would no longer say that I love cooking; cooking is simply ingrained into how I live and how I care for people. However, one aspect of cooking delights me the way writing does, and that is the process of discovery, of making something unique, delicious, original, where the sequence of steps is not pre-ordained like a recipe, but one I invent.
Last fall I made concord grape sorbet. The juice came from a grape arbor on the hillside farm of a woman who is now in a nursing home. She asked that we pick her raspberries, harvest her grapes, check on the apples, swim in the pond. The dirt road to the farm is steep and she can no longer walk there. The farm is for sale and this will be her last harvest. We brought her juice from the grapes, jam from the raspberries. I know that in her mind the blue circle of pond and the goldenrod meadow under the dance of butterflies continue like a perpetual August. I hope she could taste their presence in the food.
The act of feeding people, both with food and with words, is generally good, and then there are the sublime moments, like this concord grape sorbet made— without a recipe—from my share of the deep purple juice. My family ate it around the table at my sister’s cabin in the Adirondack woods. Just the fact that I’d transported it there, five hours in my car, tucked into a frozen nest, elevated it. In the icy purple intensity, each crystal made creamy by churning, you could taste what the bees desired as they swarmed the nacreous clusters, hung dense in the arbor below the vacant farmhouse. I looked at the mouths of my beloveds as they ate, tongues registering how it melted into nothing but a memory; I saw the recognition hit their eyes that I’d made it just for them.
It’s the same in a reading, when from the mic or the podium or the stage or a chair, your words float out on the air, vanishing into people’s minds, and there comes the first sense of everyone with you. They’re laughing, or moved, or just deeply listening. And you know that they get it that you made it just for them. I love that about writing.
Leslie Daniels’ novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, published in five languages, is under option for film. Her work in publishing includes a decade as a literary agent, and serving as fiction editor for Green Mountains Review. Essays and stories have appeared in literary journals. Leslie Daniels teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Spalding University.