Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing by Recipe, Cooking by Formula

The most logical and thematic places to begin this exploration are with your mother's cooking.
She did not come to it through the normal means of cooking at her mother's side or through courses in what might have at that time been called home economics.

Annie came to cooking with an ardent desire to please Jake and a fear in equal intensity of displeasing her mother-in-law who, Annie's stories often revealed, would appear first empty handed, questioning what she was going to prepare for Jake's dinner that night, then, later, with huge pots brimming with things to serve, "just in case."

Although Annie consulted recipes and an occasional cook book (you still have one of her early ones), she was not a recipe hoarder.  Neither was Grandma Lizzie, who more or less taught Annie how to cook by feel rather than recipe or formula.  Long after you'd come into the picture and showed a persistent interest in things culinary to the point where Annie would offer instruction, she'd speak openly of her own approaches, admitting which were Grandma Lizzie's, then adding her own discoveries.

 When making cornbread, for instance, you were instructed to "bring the milk to the cornmeal, then add the eggs."  From time to time, she'd admit, "many of my friends like to bring the cornmeal to the eggs and milk, and it probably doesn't matter in the long run which is brought to the other,but cooking, if it is to be any good at all, has to reflect the feelings of the cook."

As such things often happen, many of Annie's closest friends were excellent cooks, providing you with samples from the closest of them, and setting up the reason for introducing your mother's cooking style in the first place.  Being asked for a recipe from one of her friends was a compliment, but it always brought the disclaimer that there were no exact amounts, only a sense of what the outcome should be and an understanding of the process by which the outcome was achieved.

Your father, from you inherited many attitudes and traits, was wont to suspect a tad of false modesty from his wife, confiding in you more than once, "Your mother always knows  what she's doing."  As time progressed, he'd confide in you, "Your mother.  Even when she doesn't know what she's doing, always knows what she's doing."

Your father introduced the worm into the apple by which means your mother, when asked for a recipe, either left out an entire ingredient or substituted a generic name when she, in fact, had a preference for a specific brand or quality.  Both you and your father were cheerful in your acceptance of the fact that her preferences were often subjective--quite subjective.  Thus when she spoke of using cream cheese in a recipe, she knew most of her friends would take that to mean Philadelphia brand cream cheese, of the small, foil wrapping, while to her such cheese was bought at the downtown Grand Central Market on South Broadway.

Depending on her whim, your mother would purchase hoop cheese or, in the dairy sections run by Latino dairies, requeson, literally re-cheesed or churned.  Mayonnaise meant only one brand.  Ditto mustard.  And for baking flour, your mother wrinkled her nose at Gold Medal; for her there was only one baking flour, Swan's Down

But there is in effect the tradition and culture you came from in your growing attempts to do with stories what your mother did with cooking and, oh, the baking.

You were at the outset more attracted to what was then called formula fiction, later becoming genre fiction, and by the time you had dealings with New York and indeed worked for a New York publisher, category fiction.

How easy it was to equate formula with recipe, particularly in the days where most publications were buying five-thousand-word stories (twenty double-spaced pages) where you were instructed to bring your formula for complication, conflict, and resolution along in about four-page segments.  Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.  Hero has weakness by page four. And so it went until the denouement, beginning somewhere on pay seventeen.

To this day, your mind boggles at how you ever "sold" anything, writing that way, and how hard you tried to make those formulas as significant to your dramatic muscle memory as yeast is to bread dough (or hoop cheese is to cheese cake).

You do want to get the story going as quickly as possible, which means introducing a charter in some sort of quandary within the opening paragraph, an ideal way for the formula story being
 the lead character was already trying to escape from having caused some buzz and now, seeming to come from nowhere, a complication that could well become life threatening.

No argument on this approach, except for the number of those who want to put in back story in the opening pages for their vision of story, but not you and not your vision of story.

For your recipe, story has to begin in such a way that the reader will not be sure if this is to be a plot-driven story or some existential mash-up, driven by character, surprise, Transcendentalism, and notional, steroidal side effects.

You hold a good deal of envy for the writer you knew and now are acquainted with who have the equivalent of The Settlement Cook Book your mother so preferred.  Around September or October of last year, you recalled one such "recipe" book, Writing Magazine Fiction, which not only spoke of the ingredients but of where to add them and more or less at what temperature.  Add to that the fact of the book being published by a respected University Press and it was no longer an accident that sent you skittering off for years, analyzing, studying.

Imagine your surprise then, years later, when you agreed to water a friend's garden and his wife's house plants, feed the cat, while he and his wife were going off to a vacation-family reunion. There in his work area was a copy of a recent novel of yours, outlined with colored pencils, representing elements from the text books, elements you did not realize were there while you were writing or revising the novel.

There is a world of difference between your mother's cooking (in particular the baking) and your fiction or narrative, but where they cross paths is in the notional choices of ingredients, thus for each of you, the outcome was the goal, the armature about which the ingredients are wrapped and coiled and braided.

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