Week #2: Chaos
Or: How Not to Follow a Recipe
In my last post we discussed the project at hand. I am writing a short story called The Women of Tragic Hearts and working through the trial round of a three-course meal for unknown guests in order to compare the creative processes involved and underline some of the similarities. And I have time today to practice the meal and to write. But I’m not feeling it. The inspiration has left me. Or could it be that I will regret exposing my so-called talents?
My life has changed drastically over the last few months and stress levels are high. I have taken on commitments, have deadlines and other obligations to meet. I cannot just bow out now because I’m not coping. On top of this, I have invited four unknown guests for a meal and they are going to want something to eat. I haven’t been able to stomach a decent meal for the last few weeks and have lost so much weight none of my clothes fit. But these guests don’t want to hear my problems, they want something to eat.
Like my editor. She is awaiting my writing and I have to get this work done. No one is going to ask me how I’m dealing with my life situation. No one wants to know that I accuse my neighbor the painter of holding the muses hostage in his cellar while I sit in my tower alone, my hair hanging out the window, like Rapunzel waiting for her rescue.
I sip my alcohol-free aperitif and pull out a cook book. Wipe away a few tears, pull up my big girl panties, throw the cookbook in the corner and look for recipes online. How do I want my guests to feel? October is upon us, its pungent, spiced breeze invading. Our bodies are slowing down for hibernation. I want to give my guests and my readers motherly warmth and protection, a feeling of security and solace, solace that I myself seek. But they can get those feelings at home, can’t they? They expect something more from night out or a good story. They both better involve a bit of adventure, something to pull them out of their comfort zones and offer them some drama. Otherwise they could just as well sit on the sofa in front of the TV.
As autumnal ideas flow and take shape, I find and print out some recipes that fit my basic idea. Harvest, gratitude, mystery, shorter days, cool nights, cold mornings, crisp-blue sky, sitting in the sun, skin sweating with a chill up my back. I study those professionally-photographed dishes and note the feelings and memories that might come up. Brainstorm.
I open a Word doc and type out some initial impressions. How involved is this story going to be? I want to keep it under 1000 words. Not as much planning needed as a novel, of course, but again, it could be the opening scene for one! These can take me anywhere from three to six hours, not counting the times I reread, days after I post them. That’s about the time I think I need to cook this meal, assuming I have all the ingredients.
Time to take stock of my experiences. Do I have enough to be writing the piece I want to write? What feelings do I want to convey to my readers? Maybe I’d just been to a restaurant that inspired the setting I’d like to write about. Maybe I had a deep conversation with a good friend the day before last and that set up the mood and the conflicts. Maybe I made up a fictitious city and would like to inhabit it. The best way for me to take stock is just to continue typing. Or stare out the window. Or go look in the pantry for something to cook. Then I can hopefully focus and story will take shape.
I end up in the pantry. What sort of groceries do I have on hand? A little pumpkin called the Hokkaido, also called red kuri squash; onions and all kinds of veg; vegan and dairy cream; yeast and flour; all sorts of exotic spices like cinnamon, cardamom, pepper; fresh, candied and dried ginger; dried chilies; dark chocolate; almonds and other nuts; venison for my meat-eating friends; some prepared lupini beans for the vegans; red and white wine, sherry; enough baking stuff for dessert. If I need anything else, I may have to send some good soul to the store.
I Inhale the all-too-underrated aroma of cinnamon; allow a square of dark-70%-cocoa chocolate melt on my tongue, skim my recipes holding a pen and correcting nuances that don’t fit into my savory scheme. I can almost taste the twists and turns. So here’s the brainstormed structure of the meal: hokkaido cream soup, marinated and grilled venison with a savory chocolate sauce, roast potatoes, sweet-sour red cabbage, an optional salad and then dessert. I don’t know how to end this yet but we’ll come up with something. I often don’t know how to finish up things so I leave the endings for last. It’s just the way I like to work.
Back at the computer, I re-read the chaos I just wrote. The doc looks like it’s been brainstormed into a story about two women who have not seen each other for two years. The main character is unnamed right now because I’m writing her part in first person so I can get into her head. I will change that in order to create some distance; that’s just healthier for me. She left her husband a few weeks back and has now come back to the restaurant called the Tragic Hearts, the place she worked at two years ago before she fell out with the owner, her best friend of many years. Let’s call the owner Amalie. I have started the brainstorming with a conversation between the two so I can get to know them. But reading back through this, it is too ‘boring’ for a short story and I am more inclined to start the story with the conflict that drove them apart. Drama.
Back to the kitchen, dramatically inclined, I take my recipes and throw them into the fire. Grab that butcher knife, hold it in a tantalizing position over the guilty red kuri squash. Plunge the knife into its little heart and split it open. Dig out its innards. Chop onions and garlic, throw the onions into some hot oil. Open a vial of curry, breathe in the passion and the ambivalence of the spices, throw it onto the searing onions, add the garlic. Feel my heart rate rise. I’m on to something. Pour just a zisch of sherry and a few ladles of homemade lamb broth. Inhale. Good…