Friday, October 26, 2012

on editing: what is this piece about?

In my day-job as a science/fundraising writer, my favorite part is editing. I didn’t expect this, since I really didn’t know how to do it well before I started. My boss is a terrific editor with a keen eye, and smart as a whip. She asks me questions, states facts (even if they hurt) and tells me what’s missing. When we look at my projects together, I end up feeling a little stupid (why didn’t I see that?) and also schooled, but in a good way. When I finish the revisions, my projects read so much stronger. It’s incredibly satisfying, if also humbling.

I try my hand at editing, too, and am steadily getting better at it. It’s a skill that can be learned by asking simple questions of the piece (mostly, what is the writer trying to say? Does the piece accomplish that? And does each part, as well as the tone, work for it?). Basically, question everything.

Essentially, editing is shaping a piece with a certain goal in mind. I’ve been musing on this idea because in my writing class, I’ve been — almost subconsciously — editing my pieces to fit a certain expectation. Now I’m not talking about the same helpful, strengthening editing my boss has taught me. This kind weakens writing, waters it down like a weak cup of coffee that practically puts you to sleep. It fails on all accounts.

When I was just starting the class, I wrote that I wanted to be daring in my writing. The piece I referenced written by a Mormon woman has stayed with me because she wrote so fearlessly about her faith and how it’s impacted her decisions. Sometimes I hesitate to say that I’m a Christian, or to share that part of my life, in writing to a broader audience because I’m afraid that readers will see that one word as bigger and more important than all the other ones I’m writing, the ones that make up the real story. And yet, in a way, it is bigger, because my love for God, and His for me, really does determine all of my choices. I know a weakness of mine is that my stories lack emotion. While there are probably a few reasons for this, I know that one is because I shy away from exposing my true motivations, feelings, and experiences because I fear being misunderstood. The alternative, however, is being unread, which isn’t very exciting at all.

So back to the questions that editors ask: What is the writer trying to say? Or you could also ask, what is this piece about? People who stand out in their vocation do so because they put themselves into it. They allow who they are to influence the way they wait tables, make art, manage employees, mother children, assist an executive, teach children — and write. I suppose that anybody, then, could ask these questions of themselves as a practice in editing. Take out what’s not important, add what is, make everything work toward what you’re trying to accomplish.

Monday, October 22, 2012

making soup

Last week, when the high temperature was still reaching ninety degrees, the forecast for Sunday showed clouds, rain, and a temperature twenty degrees cooler. I deemed it soup weather and determined to make chipotle chicken tortilla soup. This one is a staple in my cold-weather rotation. I first came across it a few years ago when Gourmet was still alive and breathing, and hushing me with its inspiring beauty. I admired all of the recipes I saw in that magazine, but few got a corner bend to lead me back to it when I was in my kitchen, not on my couch. This was one of them. 

At that point, I don’t think I’d ever made a stock myself before, but I hated the idea of buying it in a can or box. This recipe had you simmering chicken and veggies for a few hours to create the broth, then cutting up the chicken to add back in. Though it takes a while, very little of it is hands-on time, especially once you’ve made it once or twice. And the tasks it does give you are meditative ones: chopping potatoes, taking chicken from bones, whirring some onions, broth and spices in a blender to make a puree that gets added to the stock for some extra character and heat. The whole time, that homey scent of chicken broth is in the air, which makes you want to stay close to the kitchen anyway. (My mother made chicken noodle soup on Christmas Eve, so the smell holds that extra comfort of memory for me.) 

As with all food, the best part is eating it. Just before you dig in, remember the extras: a squeeze of lime adds some brightness, a slice of avocado brings down the heat just a bit, and some tostados give it a satisfying crunch.

The only thing that made the soup better last night was that two unexpected visitors showed up for dinner. The young one in our household was quiet for the beginning of the meal, always a good sign. Small jars of wine-colored mums sat between the soup pot and fixings. The house was warm with company and a busy kitchen, but when we opened the French doors, cool air seeped in and reminded us that seasons do in fact change, but at their own pace. All we can do is make soup, hope and wait.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

baking banana bread

Baking banana bread is an act of patience for me. The people I live with like to eat their bananas more green than yellow, so we buy them that way and they disappear fast. We rarely have browning, saggy sad bananas to reincarnate into baked goods around here.

That means I have to plan ahead. I buy already-yellowed bananas for the sole purpose of baking, keep them away from my housemates, and wait at least a week for them to turn. I know some people deem them fit for baking the moment brown spots appear, but my mom always waited really long, dangerously long, so that they were brown inside and out. That meant soft, sweet bread with flecks of black speckling each piece. I rarely wait that long, partly because my roommates are ready to throw them out, and partly because I just can't.

And then there's the actual making. You have to actually mush the things. One time, in a hurry, or maybe I was distracted, I used bananas that weren't actually very ripe, and I didn't mush them enough. Big chunks of soft banana hung out in the slightly spicy, slightly chemical-tasting bread (this was a mix, when I first went gluten free). Though I was so glad to have some form of bread to eat, I almost threw the thing away. This was not banana bread. So my point is, you really have to mush them. When you think you're done, keep mushing.

I suppose the rest of the process is standard - mix the dry, mix the wet, mix them together. But I swear, those last 45 minutes when the loaf is baking feels just as long as the weeks it took for the bananas to ripen. I try to distract myself, this time by writing about it, which is only helping a little bit, since I'm still thinking about that loaf that's baking, full of mini chocolate chips and with some very ripe bananas in there. I'm gonna go check the timer...

Monday, October 15, 2012

letters of note

When I was growing up, I had a pen-pal for a year or two. Her name was Grace. She lived in California and sent me a photo of herself with two braids and wrote about how much she loved Hotel California by the Eagles. I had never listened to that song voluntarily and decided she might not appreciate my love for Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson. So we stuck to other middle-school things, like boys, our friends, school and our involvement in church.

The letters I remember the most are the ones my mom sent me while I was at camp during the summer. The camp secretary stood up every night after dinner with a big pile of mail in her hands and went through the whole thing, calling out our names if there was one for us (and multiple times if we got more than one). I don't think the whole group of us was as quiet as during mail call. It was usually the middle of the week when mom's came, and it never really said much: Did the thunderstorms keep you inside much? I picked and froze corn with Nana today. Your sisters are keeping busy without you... or something like that. I'm sure it was the anticipation and the comforting familiarity of my mother's handwriting that implants them in my memory. (I still love to see that handwriting on an envelope, it makes me feel like I'm 10 again.)

Through my paid-work as a writer, I've developed a real love for letters. When I worked at a college, each year I read hundreds of thank you letters that students wrote to people who had funded their scholarships. I read each one to make sure it was appropriate for our donors to read. Secretly, I loved that season. I'd get a stack of letters from the financial aid office, steep a cup of tea, and I'm sure at least once I put my feet up on the chair next to my desk. College students are about as idealistic as they come, and students at this particular school really think they will change the world. So in the course of giving thanks, they tell incredible stories of how they got to college, where their studies are taking them, and of their high hopes for the future.

Now, I write letters, and while most of them stay pretty standard and sometimes even sterile, every once in a while I get to play. I think what I love about letters is that you know, or are getting to know, your audience, and it is very specific (usually one person). For me, that helps to narrow down what it is that I really want to say. And, it helps the act of writing to not be so self-absorbed, which can happen easily (for me, anyway) when I'm writing to some abstract audience who will apparently read my writing, someday.

A blog I love is called Letters of Note. They've curated letters of famous people, writers and non-writers alike, to give us a glimpse into a specific situation or relationship in their lives (and also, I think, the prove that just about anyone can write a beautiful, heartfelt - or biting or intelligent or poignant - letter if they put their mind and pen to it. Some of my favorites so far are today's from Harper Lee to Oprah about her love for reading, this one from John Steinbeck to his son about love, and this letter that Ronald Reagan wrote to his son a few days before his wedding. If you have time, poke around for yourself! Maybe you'll be inspired to write a letter of your own.

Friday, October 12, 2012

be open to where the story is going to take you

I have a thing for articulate, intellectual nerds. Find me a man who won't shut up about really interesting ideas, and I'm smitten. Usually these guys have a quirky sense of humor, too, which only seals the deal.

Which is why I basically want to marry Junot Diaz (except that he has a bit of a potty mouth, which I have to admit is a turn off for me). Currently I'm stalking him in lieu of dropping $20 on his new book, which I hope to get from the library once all the commotion over his genius dies down.

Here's a snippet from a talk he gave to journalism fellows at Harvard, emphasis mine. I like his connection between play, control, and what is human.
Most (failed writing) that I see, the reason the shit doesn’t work is because there is no play in it. There is nothing in it that we would call the human. There’s no play. There’s too much control. You’ve eliminated the story because instead of listening to what the story is, you put your own wishes and your own dreams on it... There is the story and you’ve kind of got to be open to where the story is going to take you.
Find more insights and cursing here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

a white girl and white rice

Growing up, I didn’t eat much rice. If I did, it was fluffed into pilaf or doused with cream of chicken soup. (Is it shameful to admit that was one of my favorite meals?) White rice was completely off my radar until my older sister went away to overnight camp. When I was preparing to go for my first time, she told a story about how they served white rice one night, and since they strongly encourage children to try everything, even if it’s new to them, she had some. I was terrified by the white rice story. Would they make me eat it too? Would I gag, or worse, vomit? I even had a nightmare the night before I went away (ok, it was probably really about more than just rice, but that’s how it came out). My mom reassured me that I didn’t have to eat it if I didn’t want to. I stuck with bread and potatoes to fill my white-food quota that week.

I didn’t really begin to like white rice until I realized it was never meant to be served solo (was it?) or with variations on the chicken and creamed soup theme. Two of my housemates come from cultures that serve it under rich and spicy curries, in pockets steamed with meats, and with tasty stir fries, so it’s a staple in our household. Their daughter, who is almost 18 months old, repeats the word desperately before each dinner, like it is what she’s been dreaming about since before she was born. And maybe she was. She nods, points and tries to grab when she sees it. Once it’s cooled and on her tray, she takes it by fistfuls and shoves it into her mouth. What doesn’t make it in covers her face, hands and arms, and I wonder if she isn’t more satisfied by the idea of being completely covered in it (if only her skin could absorb it!). I don’t get quite as excited about it as that little girl, but it has its place.

Ironically enough, one of my most enduring and poignant arguments with roommates to date was over  a rice cooker. I found it soon after I moved to LA in a thrift store for $9. It was in decent shape, and it was large enough to hold rice that would feed a crowd. The lid was on a hinge and clicked into a locked position, so that very little steam could escape while it cooked. One roommate and I would keep warmed rice in it for days. (I questioned the sanitation of this habit at first, but then googled it: you can keep it in there for up to 72 hours, my friends.) A few years (and different roommates) later, after a trip away, I pulled the rice cooker from the cabinet to make some rice and found that it wasn’t working. When I mentioned it to my roommates, they said it had broken while I was away and they didn’t know what to do, so they prayed for it and put it away. One even admitted that she didn’t care about my rice cooker. At that time I was horrified — my precious, lid-hinging-and-locking rice cooker! How could anyone not care about it (or at lease care that I cared)? By chance, a woman at our church offered us hers for free, since she never used it. The thing had a removable glass lid that nervously jumped when the steam got going, and the first time we made rice it burned (how do you burn rice in a rice cooker?). It just wasn’t the same. 

We worked through it, but it took some time (again, the situation revealed much more than disappointment about or disinterest in a rice cooker). We still all know what we mean when we say, “remember the rice cooker?”

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except that I had some rice with pumpkin curry for lunch today and as I shoveled every last grain into my mouth, I thought, I love rice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

writing essays

Last week I started another writing class. This one is on writing personal essays, so if you notice a huge improvement (and increase) in my writing here, you know why. You have UCLA extension to thank for saving you from only posts of NPR links and books I'm reading.

I've learned a bit and read some good writing already, so I know this will be a good one. Typically I'm fresh, ready and excited at the beginning of something - endings are a different story for me. But for one reason or another, the beginning of this class came faster than I expected and I felt caught off guard by it. I feel like I'm playing emotional catch up during this first week, trying to rev myself up.

So I thought I'd list a few goals and hopes here. If you're lucky, I might even follow up and let you know how it played out (but don't get your hopes up, promises aren't always kept on this blog!).

Make it count - I want to take the class seriously. I know I may not have a ton of time for each assignment, but I want each one to count as much as I can make it.

Remember to play - At the same time, I don't want to take myself too seriously, or feel the need for each assignment to be perfect. I will also resist my urge to qualify submissions, especially more experimental ones. This is a horrible habit of mine. The other day a friend, looking at the unsliced cake she'd baked, warned how horrible it would be, and I told her that no baker should qualify her creation. She looked at me with her you've-got-to-be-kidding-me look and said, "you do it all the time."

Be daring - I read two pieces today (here and here) that struck me as incredibly daring. The writers revealed potentially shameful stories - and yet there was a lot of power in them, and personally, there were aspects of each I could relate to, so I was drawn in, curious, reminded and moved. I think readers are most affected by stories that touch the edges of their own experiences - those icky places where we often feel alone, strange and uncomfortable. Daring essays help us to know we're not alone and give us the courage to live those icky places through.

Learn the craft of story - I think this is a weakness in my writing, so it's where I'm focusing my learning in this class. Good personal essays show a transformation, however small. I want to learn how to take a reader through these shifts in a way that helps them live it through, and re-live or recall their own again emotionally (is this what you would call relating?).

My first essay is almost done, and though it's an older story I've told many times, I took some chances in how I told it this time. I plan on submitting it tonight. Fingers crossed that classmates get it and have some constructive feedback for me!