A friend from graduate school recently came to town. We drank tequila cocktails that looked deceptively like pink lemonade in tall sweating glasses and talked and talked and talked, like we used to do when she lived two blocks away and not across the country. Our conversation eventually turned to writing, and I congratulated her on a recent publication. She gave me a funny sort of look. “I’m taking a break,” she said, “from everything. From all of it but the writing. Worrying about success in this field is a full time job, and I need a break.”
After she said it, I knew she was right. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m far too preoccupied with the minutia of “success,” a loaded word if ever there was one. Done poorly, it’s counterproductive: the more energy I expend worrying, the less I have available for the work itself. And though I can’t quantify exactly what success looks like, I do know the prospect of not capturing it terrifies me–if I’m not successful, then do I get to call myself a writer? And if I’m not a writer then–good God–what am I? Cue all the panicked feels.
It was an enormous relief, to hear my friend echo some of my same worries about writing. Writing is a solitary act. It requires time and patience, a fact completely at odds with the connectivity, networking, marketing, and PR you must now do yourself if you want anyone to read what you’ve written. It’s too much, we decided, too much for any one person to do well.
Somewhat fortuitously, this summer I’ve fallen down an Ann Patchett reading rabbit hole. I recommend it. Her writing consistently adds intellectual and emotional pleasure to my day. I’m currently on her latest book, a memoir in the form of essays, and one strikes me as particularly relevant. The Getaway Car–A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life is long and rich, full of writing advice collected over a career. The essay contains various specific truths, but its overarching message is this: if you want to be a writer, write. Sit down at your desk, and get it done. It’s really that simple.
And so that is my goal for the summer: to write. To write just for the sake of it, just to practice. To create things and enjoy the process and learn and improve. For now, I need to divorce the output from worry over an immediate outcome. I need to turn away from fruitless comparisons, and temporarily look past how bad I am at Twitter. In short, I want to get back to the heart of it.
“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement.
If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.
Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft.
If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get them all out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.
Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound; not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.”
— Passage from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett, a book I highly recommend
Because my editorial planning doesn’t extend much past “Ooh! What is shiny and new at the market?” I’m giving you two salad recipes in a row. To be fair, isn’t salad (I mean, a spunky, well-balanced salad) exactly what you want to eat right now? This one is a summer workhorse. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I realize, but know (and those who follow me on Instagram do) that I make this salad several times per week lasting the length of tomato season. I pair it with everything. I have been known to drink the tomatoey-vinaigrette that collects at the bottom of the bowl straight. It’s that good.
This recipe is super flexible, and open to adaptation. You can add radishes or white beans. Fold in staling bread (I like homemade garlic croutons) for panzanella. Add avocado, or a medley of your favorite summertime herbs. It’s a simple salad, so the better the produce, olive oil, and salt, the better the salad will taste. It also makes excellent picnic fare, as it’s best prepared a bit ahead, the flavors allowed meld. Feel free to scale up; I often do. Serves 6.
- 1-2 garlic cloves
- the juice and zest of 1 small lemon
- 1 very small red onion (or shallot)
- 2 tablespoons champagne (or white wine) vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sherry (or red wine) vinegar
- 1 ear corn
- tomatoes (1 large tomato or 1 punnet cherry tomatoes. I like sun golds.)
- 1 cucumber
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup (20 grams) chives
- 1 cup (12 grams) basil
- 1/2 teaspoon flake salt
- 10-15 cracks black pepper
- Set out a large mixing bowl. Mince the garlic and thinly slice the red onion; move them to the bowl. Add the lemon juice and zest and both vinegars. Spoon the liquid over the onion and garlic to coat, so that their harshness starts to mellow.
- Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a vigorous simmer. Remove the husk from the corn. Boil the corn for 1-3 minutes, depending on how deep you are into corn season. (Very fresh corn barely needs to be cooked at all.) Remove the corn from the water, and run it briefly under the tap, until it is cool enough to handle. Cut the kernels from the cob, and scoop them into the mixing bowl.
- Dice the tomato, or cut the cherry tomatoes into halves. Cut the cucumber into thin half moons. Add both to the bowl. Pour in the olive oil. Mince the chives and chiffonade the basil and then add those, too. Finish by adding the salt and black pepper. Give everything a generous stir, and then allow the salad to sit for 5 minutes; taste it, and add more olive oil, salt, and pepper if needed. If you have time, allow the salad to sit for another 20-30 minutes. Serve with plenty of good bread, to mop up all the juices.