Friday, January 15, 2016

Start the Story by Sauteeing the Onions

 When you were in your mid teens and early twenties, already indebted to the style and language of Mark Twain, you were indeed ready for the man who is famous for the observation that all modern literature began with Huckleberry Finn. Your interest was less in actual theme than choice of words, narrative pace, and the ability to convey a sense of movement through a narrative without becoming bogged down in detail the way so many of his contemporaries were.


Among the more meaningful things you heard--through his writing--Ernest Hemingway say was "Write drunk, edit sober."  At first, this gave you an excuse to do what you'd been doing quite a bit of, which was drinking enough to believe you were communicating with the world about you rather than what you were in fact doing which was taking enough of  the restraints off your behavior to allow you to express late teen and early twenties impatience, insolence, and arrogance.

Writing after more than one or two drinks grew old fast.  Either that or one of the things you learned worth remembering was that the material you wrote under such circumstances had little worth keeping.  The metaphor of writing drunk and editing sober was something you could open yourself to without the need for drinking.  The metaphor meant to you the need to get as much of the sensory material down as possible for early drafts, then remove as much of it as you could in the hope of a final result that would evoke the sensory presence.

At about the time you were arriving at this conclusion, your life with the carnival was beginning, meaning that much of your writing has the presence of onions being sautéed--if that is not too refined a word for it--on a large grill.  

When the various units of the carnival arrived at a new city, found the plot allotted them, and began the task of setting up shop, another activity began within the cookhouse.  Bags of diced onions would be spread on the grill, sprinkled with cooking oil.  The propane tanks were attached, lit up to a medium flame.  Soon the morning and mid afternoon air was alive with the waft of onion.  Your own hunger would have been more than aroused by then.

After your own booth was set up, you made your way to the cook house, where you wolfed your way through at least two, sometimes three hamburgers, washed down by coffee you would not have tolerated anywhere else.  This sensual memory of grilled onions and the brewing of coffee tied directly into another smell recalled from your home life.  Your father's parents were both born in Hungary, the part where dishes made with cabbage flourished.  Aware that your mother was, at the time, no cook, your paternal grandmother reminded her of your father's comfort food, stuffed cabbage, a sour cabbage soup, filled with short ribs, and your father's absolute favorite desert, cabbage strudel.

Onions, cabbage, and the often piquant aroma of roasting chicken or brisket found their way into your early drafts.  When a few editors, thinking to take on your earlier stories, began x-ing out these appetizing odors, you began to catch on, being as specific and descriptive as possible in order to provide atmosphere for you, before they were set aside.  When one editor noted on a manuscript of yours, "Interesting how your stories come to life in and around kitchens," you were on your way to a discovery you needed years to be able to articulate.

Write for yourself in the early drafts.  Write until you are there, smelling the smells, seeing the anomalies in your characters physical presence and the pathos in their secret desires.  At one point, you even had a strip of paper with a list of your characters, on which you noted not only their immediate goals but their secret, hidden goals.

Whatever you can say about Hemingway, his short stories left you aware of smells, fears, areas in which they chose to have no discussions with anyone until they'd had a drink or two or perhaps even more.  Then you began to understand why the things you'd written after a julep or two were not the sophisticated things you thought them to be at the time, rather instead demonstrations of your impatience, anger, frustration, all of which were leading you to be mean spirited.  Hemingway was able to deal with these things in  ways you'd still require ages to learn.

Reading other writers of the time was a help in getting you to understand that in addition to the scent of the onions, which let people know the carnival had come to town, you also had to have the equivalent awareness for every character who came on board.  No matter what they may have done, awake, dreaming, or in dreamless sleep, you had to respect them.

True enough, the cook house only used fresh onions on the first day, to let people know we were there.  Of equal truth, food in such places seems better than it is.  Most places, things, and people are not what they seem, but it is up to us to invest them with the sense that they have meaning for us.

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