2016, Archives, September 2016, The MFA Years

Stop writing, then write

Image: alone in a bar by x1klima

I’m not sure how the rest of you write. A good friend works with twenty-something drafts that he keeps renumbering; I work mainly in my head. I need to feel an essay before my fingers know how to make it take shape, and I have to see it in script before I know how to find the message hidden in the keyboard. I’ve learned though, that working out my head and my hands only with essays makes them calloused in certain places, tight in others, and less open to different movements. In the creative field, this rigidity is dangerous, restrictive—boring. So this summer, I learned to get creative with something else. I left the essays to frolic about in my mind while I committed my hands to working with colors, textures, quantities and shapes. Without an art space and a supreme lack in supplies, I turned to cooking for a creative outlet, and I experimented with that medium as I would with anything in an art studio.

This summer, I’ve gone from somewhat dull potatoes to ones that I consider pretty decent. I over-cayenned some dishes, and then realized that that really works better as a subtle enhancer rather than a flavor domineer. I learned that stewed tomatoes with lemon juice and some flakes of red pepper makes a rocking marinara; basil is good with any type of salad. I learned to use restraint with spices that made my nose hairs gasp, but that a sauce without it is forgettable. Mainly, I began to enjoy the smells, the colors, the sweat that soaked into my apron (because summer), the music that I tapped to with my wooden spoon. I learned how to put together smaller parts to make a crazy-cool whole thing and to this day, I am continually amazed that any amount of dry ingredients can be manipulated into a cohesive dish.

I let some ingredients shine and I let some others sit in time-out. I realized that just because something (a spice, a starch, a vinegar) worked well once, its success is not guaranteed in other contexts.

When I sat down to write then, I realized even if I loved one essay of mine because of rhythm or feel or content or structure, I should smile and nod at my computer screen, but then I should wipe my slate clean when I opened a new word document. This seems obvious, but the temptation is real. Cooking felt as if I were experimenting with my writing in tangible counterparts: lemon juice in my recipes became my use of italics in my essays, vinegar became my swear words, oil: my rhythm, and sriracha: my onomatopoeia. Some essays needed a little more groove and others needed a little more kick in the teeth.

Which leads to my number two: I had to get out of the house to write. I couldn’t sit at the kitchen table with a mountain of dishes in the sink, or in my bedroom where I could still smell the spices. I needed to go out, to re-focus, to sit down to a new exercise.

But I didn’t go to a coffee shop (why are their tables so small?) or a library (so quiet, too quiet), I went to the glorious underbelly of any city: a local bar. Bars are places that I love to go to alone, to observe and to listen to the cacophony of clinks and drunken laughter. I love the wild energy in them—the tension underneath everyone’s reason to be there. Love? Work? Family? Hobby? Boredom? I love how many things are happening at once, so that my own happenings become part of the patch-worked ambiance. It’s where I can slip on some headphones and right away, my 50s rock and roll station perfectly highlights any given night, even in 2016. I feel at home in these places, but mostly I feel unnoticed in these places, as if I could join in when the mood strikes me but otherwise keep to myself and my laptop.

My place here is below ground and the lights are bright. It closes somewhat early and they have snacks; the staff is friendly and the tables are wide. After I settle in with a basket of pretzels, an easy-sipper, and a full glass of water and ice, my mind starts to play. What have I been given tonight, I wonder. What will a rowdy night add to my lyrical essay from April; what will a slow one give to my portrait of bands? And I think my essays begin to absorb these auras that come from whatever mix of strangers happen to be in this place on a night. Maybe this is romanticizing it all too much, but whether that space gives flair to my writing or not, going there always signals to my head that I am about to write. Dammit. And isn’t that the point of it all, really?

To me, these two things are quite minor, but that I would have loved to have known last August. That I didn’t need to find a coffee shop in town for my writing sessions, that I could release from the strain of an essay just by making dinner. And actually, for one of the first times in my life, the pressure to write and to write well has been reduced quite a bit, because I have found a looping cycle that, at least for the last few months, has been working splendidly for me. Maybe even knowing that alternatives to processes are out there can help you, too.

But whether you’re beginning a new journey this year, or continuing to progress toward the ending trail marker, I wish you all well. I hope the words always come easy.



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