Monday, November 28, 2011

Seasonal Affective Writer's Doldrums

The Doldrums are, according to American Heritage, a region near the equator characterized by calms, light winds, and squalls. Even though I'm sitting in my red desk chair, I'm there at some border like the equator. Sails flapping, rudderless, my internal weather lacks the gusto to carry me forward. A winter slough. Not depression, not grief, not existential angst, just feeling dull. What to do? What to do?

Do what I've long and often advocated for any writer in this leeward port dragging her anchor: keep the pen moving, even when what dribbles out is drivel. So for the past few days I have done my own version of free writing. I keep writing till I have three pages added to my journal, three lousy pages, a la Ann Lamott's shitty first drafts, although these don't even deserve the label draft, unless it's the cold air that leaks into old houses. It's lonesome at sea without my images and ideas. But if I keep at it, some mental gear will re-engage and my little boat of words will chug along and arrive at a beach party on the page. See, it's beginning to move already.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Adjectival Flu

You might remember your middle school language arts teacher encouraging the use of adjectives to "paint a picture" of whatever thing you were describing--furious Uncle Charles, beautiful Aunt Lily, the hungry turtle in the scummy pond. Well, scummy isn't bad, but the reader was forced to take your word for Charles's fury or Lily's beauty. The reality was short changed by the shorthand description, by a lazy adjective. Better far to share Charles's red face, the fists, the shouted expletives--spelled out in dingbats if necessary. Let Lily be lovely by her smooth skin, her cupid's bow mouth, her shining hair and wasp waist. There are adjectives, and then there are adjectives.

So often I see in first drafts that a writer is leaning on large, imprecise adjectives like pillows to avoid crafting language that reveals rather than conceals the textures, characters, and actions s/he is trying to coax to life on the page. This avoidance annoys me especially in poetry, where concision and high energy are, for me, absolute values. That the sky is blue, rather than gray, is useful, but what good in a poem is a word like inevitable or intense? And, no, I'm not prejudiced against words beginning with in. My bias is for precision and too often adjectives are flacid and general. Even blue--what blue, the blue that hurts the eyes at noon, blue edging toward dusk, blue between the clouds? If we must have them, let the adjectives go through a security check at the gate: are they really as precise as a three ounce tube of toothpaste? If not, please deposit them in the bin provided.

PS: I have posted that reading list for culinary fiction I promised a few days ago. Hit the "Free Downloads" page above.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Food Writing Luncheon

We went to hear from a panel of professional food writers. We went to meet and eat. We went to share what we know about the world of food writing. And guess what? Even the experts had never met anyone who writes poems about food. Nor had they heard of my favorite food fiction. I had something to offer! I even called myself a food poet, a little stretch, but with a poetry book titled The Great Hunger, I felt justified. And immediately someone said, "I didn't know there was such a genre." So now I'm a genre unto myself. Try putting that on a resume or CV.

Actually, I don't own the genre. There's Diane Wakoski's The Butcher's Apron and Carolyn Jennings' Hunger Speaks, and a periodical called Alimentum which is full of food poems. As for culinary fiction, I think that even Janet Evanovich could be stirred into this mix, given the amount of food consumed in each of the Stephanie Plum novels. Diane Mott Davidson is Colorado's own best selling food novelist. I could go on and on, but instead in a couple of days I'll post a list of foodie fiction and poetry for you to download.

Meanwhile, how do we get into these sorting and labeling situations? Shorthand, I suppose. It's easier to identify someone by her genre than to get to know her. Then someone else asked me to tell her in thirty words or less what I do. ("Let me count the ways.") Apparently, the correct thirty words came out of my mouth between bites of grilled chicken Caesar salad because she smiled and nodded. Now she can tell her friends that she sat next to a food poet whose interest is in our relationships with food. I've been pared down to a sidebar.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Drat! Curses! Coffee, stat!

Remember last post I promised a new page? Well, it would be easy to add a new page, but it wouldn't be a page to which I can post! So the food lit posts will be incorporated here on the main page of the blog. Let's drown our disappointment in a good cup of coffee, as in reading about a good cup of coffee. As in the Coffee House Mysteries by Cleo Coyle. She's up to ten books, all based on the queen of barristas, Clare Cosi, who manages The Blend, a high-end coffee house in Greenwich Village. All the requisite murder mystery characters are present: Clare, the amateur but highly effective sleuth, her handsome and undependable ex-husband, Matteo; their young adult daughter, Joy, and Mike Quinn, police detective and love interest for Clare. Oh, yes, and the doyen, Madame, Matteo's mother and owner of The Blend. You can visit and be wowed by the fast moving trailer built into the web site, or you can savor the aroma of murder and mocha at your own pace by curling up in that ubiquitous easy chair with a book and a cuppa.

In addition to providing well-paced action and consistently good characterization, these books have educated my about coffee. Isn't that one of the perks about a good novel? We learn something while we are being entertained. For instance, I may be the only person in our caffeinated world who was pleased and surprised to know that dark roasts have less caffeine than regular. Good for me, since I favor the dark roasts, that a bit of cream dropped into really fresh coffee will bloom, whereas the same bit of cream in stale coffee will sink under the oils that have floated to the top. That real espresso is made slowly, otherwise, you just have brewed coffee. I now know the difference between a latte and a macchiato--silly me for not having known before now that one is "marked" with the cream. The other one contains more milk.

This coffee science has to result from real knowledge on Coyle's part. I asked the barrista at my favorite coffee shop today about the importance of the crema--that light tan froth that floats on the surface of a well-pulled espresso. He nodded, like, duh! I could not write Coyle's stories convincingly because I don't know spit about running an espresso machine. So, Coyle ("she" is two people, a husband/wife team of writers) not only writes about what she obviously knows, but she knows what she's writing about. Good idea.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Feed the Read

You remember the phrase "made from scratch." It may have originated with the practice of scratching a line in the dirt to mark the beginning of a foot race, beginning at the beginning. This can be tricky. Carl Sagan said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Well, I am not willing to go that far. Fortunately, in food prep we assume that some of the ingredients are ready made. I don't have to graft and plant the apple tree, wait for it to mature and the fruit to ripen. I don't have to pick the apples; I go to the market and pick out the apples. Same process applies in writing. We need not invent language and we pluck ideas from previous bits of text. None of us reinvents the cosmos to write a short story, although for some writers world building is their morning coffee, their "cup of tea."

Look at all the food references I've used here so far. That's because I love food, love language, love books about food. My last book was The Great Hunger. So, I plan a new page here at the Bookblog: FEED THE READ will focus on writers who specialize in food. They come in a cornucopia of varieties and I'll pick a few at a time to offer you. Our menu will include biography & memoir, fiction, history, food science, and any miscellaneous tidbits I find. I'll get this page on my plate within the next two or three days, so check back. It will be delicious.