Writer's life

Level Thinking: The Joy of Writing

I learned to cook from my mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, the 1946 edition, with the blue and white lattice cover.

Rombauer wrote the book to have a conversation about cooking, and to slay the drudgery of food preparation. In a time before fast foods, mixes, and a deli in every grocery store, she had a dream that women would find joy in preparing wholesome foods such as homemade butterscotch pudding, creamette dishes, or ham sandwich spread, or that they would confidently experiment with elaborate company food: chicken à la king, shrimp wiggle, oysters in grapefruit, and pastry snails.

Joy is a gorgeous word. It’s a toe-tapping, bottom-wiggling, dancing around the kitchen, waving a cooking spoon kind of word. Though having made homemade butterscotch pudding, I warn you not get too carried away with all that tapping, wiggling, and spoon waving, or you’ll end up with a scorched mess and golden brown splatters all over the walls.

There’s joy inherent in writing, too. There has to be. Even if, as Paul Bishop said, “Writers are the only people who can spend all day in their pajamas playing with imaginary friends,” without the occasional transcendent joyous moment we would all, one day, run shrieking from our word processors and require heavy sedation or at least large helpings of macaroni and industrial-strength cheese sauce.

There’s the sheer pleasure of character building, a God-like activity if there ever was one. You create a person out of a blank page and a few facts like birth date, hair color, and the line she will not cross. Except, even as you’re typing in that uncrossable line, you’re chuckling to yourself. From this moment forward, you are committed to drag your character—by whatever means you can find—to that line. When you get there, you will shove her over with all your strength, and rub your hands joyfully as you watch the fall out. She’s going to hate you for this. Fortunately, maybe the readers will love you.

Do you have a clue how hard it is to share the joy of a perfectly-crafted sentence? I mean, who really cares that you cooked up a sublime subject-verb-object combination and garnished it with the most perfect adjective and gerund? Can you explain to your significant other how good dialog feels like breakers rolling back and forth over a beach? Each succeeding line builds toward a climax that might just mimic sexual release. Well, okay, more like a bowl of homemade butterscotch pudding release.

Then there is that glorious moment you realize that the main plot and a sub-plot have just ricocheted off one another and are now careening in totally unexpected directions. So what if this blows holes in your carefully outlined last third of the book? There’s energy happening here that you never knew this book would have, so hang on tight and ride it out.

Joy keeps us going. We live in hope of those wonderful, bright moments when wordsmithing and plot crafting come together and we feel like dancing around and wiggling our bottoms, with or without spoon in hand.

Anyone remember creamettes? It was James T. Williams’ brand name for the first quick-cooking elbow macaroni, which he invented in 1912. Shrimp wiggle? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my mother’s cook book, but I think this was shrimp cooked in a white sauce, with green peas added. As for oysters in grapefruit, we just aren’t going to go there.