Writing is extraordinarily wasteful. So many brilliant things we write never see the light of day. It’s easy to fall into the habit of believing this is my own personal tragedy. But I recently attended a writing conference where discarding beloved writing was a major topic of interest, which reminded me that this sadness is ubiquitous. During a question and answer session with several published authors, the question was asked, “How do you do it?” (“It” being discarding perfectly good writing.) The authors answered the question with helpful insights, such as switching your thinking from what you need to write to what your reader needs to read. However, none of the authors was crass enough to answer the question with what I think is the real answer. Eventually, the rent is due and if someone is willing to give you money for your work if you eliminate X, Y, Z passage, you begin to see the roof over your head and groceries in the refrigerator with more fondness than you have for your lovely prose.
Once we lived in a house that was on a well-trafficked corner in a well-groomed suburb. Since we had no backyard, I made my big vegetable and herb garden in the front yard. For the first few years of this garden, I made a point of keeping it as tidy as the surrounding suburb. I planted my rosemary, basil and parsley in rows. I planted precise circles of marigolds around the tomato vines. The chives created a lovely lavender stripe down the middle of my garden and the whole plot had a sweet scent because the sidewalk edges were trimmed with creeping thyme for passers-by to accidently stumble on and release its perfume. I weeded that garden several times a week.
One summer, however, I didn’t tend my garden. By July, that corner patch was pretty ragged. Jokingly, I mounted a lime green laminated sign on the street side of the garden, with the words “Death Garden” printed in the scariest type I could find. One of my proudest moments that summer was when I overheard one young girl on her bike shout to another, “Meet me at Death Garden in five minutes!”
We humans and our insane need for recognition!
I am in the midst of planning my own wedding. The complaint I’ve always had about weddings is that everyone gets so caught up in planning the details of the event they forget to focus on the major life change that is about to happen. I was SURE that if I ever had a wedding, that wouldn’t happen to me. If I ever had a wedding, it would be so simple that the focus transfer couldn’t possibly occur.
Of course, you know the end of this story. I am amazed by how caught up in the details I’ve become. Over breakfast, I ask my fiancé questions like, “What size pitcher do you think we should have on our registry?” I wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep until I revise the announcement text again and I write a list of printers I will call for quotes first thing in the morning. The irony is that I’m never awake first thing in the morning because I was up in the middle of the night having a thought attack about my wedding.
This worry of mine is obviously a reflection of my anxiousness about the impending (no matter how desirable) change in my life. The moral of this tale is that we all (me especially) have to be very careful about criticizing the ways that people become obsessed, as we are all prone to thought attacks of our own.
This is what I say: “Just about every problem in the world can be solved by yoga or sex.” This is what I’ll add: “Just about every problem in the world could be prevented by reading. Especially fiction. Read enough and you will find yourself listening to others constantly asking yourself, “Why is she (or he) telling me that?”, rather than forming a reaction in your head. You will always assume there is a known or unknown back story to anything you hear or observe. The minister narrator of the novel Gilead can always be trusted, except when he is talking about his namesake Jack, because he believes his wife has a crush on Jack. We know that in real life just about all of us, no matter how trustworthy we normally are, have a Jack. Reading gets us in the habit of looking for it – all the time – in everyone, including ourselves.
I’m a serious person and it’s easy for me to forget the power of humor. Just over a year ago, a mentor and good friend of mine passed away. The message of many of Tom’s sermons, writings and, especially his life, had to do with the holiness of humor. He was my advisor for a project in graduate school. Our weekly meetings mostly consisted of spending our hour together cracking each other up.
When I went to his funeral and saw his widow crying and so many of his friends and family gathered, I almost went home. I thought, “This church full of people who loved him is too sad. We’ll never make it.” But then, one by one, various people got up and delivered portions of the service. As we did, we each told a short story about Tom and our times together. Before long, we were all laughing so hard our eyes broke water. Our laughter made it possible for us to get through a painful, painful loss. It turned out to be a joyous gathering, which is exactly what Tom wanted.
A few months later, I preached a sermon about humor and dedicated it to Tom. At the beginning, I spoke about Tom, got choked up and started crying in front of the congregation. Tom was a longtime, beloved member of our community and, although I was the only one doing so on the dais in front of everyone, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one choked up and crying at the mention of Tom. Again I thought, “I shouldn’t have done this. It’s too much. We’ll never make it.” But Tom started preaching to me right from the grave that Sunday morning. Before long, we were all laughing and I convinced a large percentage of the congregation to don the red clown noses that had been passed out with the bulletins as Friends entered the sanctuary. Sometimes it is our spiritual duty to be silly because it is the only way to endure the most painful moments of our lives.
Lately I’ve been catching up on the food/cooking shows I like. Food is often presented in literature and movies to represent passion. The most dramatic example is the movie “Like Water for Chocolate,” but it is something you see (and read) a lot. I even see it in the Bible a great deal, which is the subject of the book I’m writing.
Last week, two of “my” food shows got passionate in a way that intrigued me. It wasn’t a Chef-Ramsey-screaming-and-turning-over-tables passion (Hell’s Kitchen = Sarah Palin = gross), but food bringing out deep emotions in very cool, very handsome, very excellent cooks of men. Finding chinks in emotional armor is endlessly appealing to me. I love cooking and feeding others because food reveals passion. When you sit someone at your kitchen table and give them food, you can just watch him or her melt.
OK, so I don’t like the question, “How are you?” (except from good friends), but I’ll tell you what question I LOVE. “What are you reading?”
The first time I was asked this question was when I was working in a bookstore and the owner came to visit (he had six stores). Instead of asking his front desk crew, “How’s business?” or “What are you names?” he asked us, “What are you reading?” (The unspoken rule is that everyone in the store read at least three books a week, a pace to which I no longer aspire.)
Recently, when I was going through a time of being particularly adrift, my mother, my fiancé and several other friends asked me, “What are you reading?” They knew reading was something I was certainly doing, even if it was only the back of cereal boxes, so they were relatively certain that was a subject I’d enjoy talking about.
That question makes me feel so cared for. It assumes that no matter what is happening in my life I am still engaged in intellectual pursuits. It is also a recognition of how important reading is, which is music to the ears of writers. I just read Henry Nouwen’s biography and now I’m reading a memoir by Kathleen Norris. What are YOU reading?