February 10, 2007
I’ve been writing, a lot. An unaccustomed energy (especially for this time of year) has seized me, resulting in an almost preternatural focus on my fiction work. I’ve applied to three residency programs. Last week I sent a short story to a well-known literary magazine, and on Monday I worked more than four hours on the next section of my novel-in-progress. And between some time Wednesday and this morning, I finished a short story (to 4000 words) that had existed as a 1000-word opening scene for at least three years. That is extraordinary productiveness for me.
Wait. Wait. Why is this report of my scribble scribble career in the weight loss section of this journal? Shouldn’t it be over in the books part?
There is an eating scene in every piece of fiction I write, whether there needs to be or not. That is, even if the food is not a plot element or the characters don’t actually eat together, there is some reference to food somewhere in the story. I don’t do this consciously. I don’t say to myself, where can I put in the food? It just happens.
The present manuscript involves a young man and a young woman who are headed into a weekend that they must spend with the young man’s five younger half-brothers, his negligent father, and the father’s latest female companion. They have a pressing personal problem that needs to be resolved, or at least discussed. The opening scene takes place on the Friday afternoon trip to round up the half-brothers. That’s the part that has taken up space in my fiction file for three years.
For reasons I cannot now recall, I opened that file on Wednesday. I read the stuff one more time, remembering the incident that had given rise to the idea. I felt the usual fear of making the fall into fiction, so I got up and did something else. I probably ate something. And then I began to write.
Suddenly the young woman character was preparing dinner for everyone. I pictured her in the cramped kitchen of a two-bedroom double-wide in a run-down trailer park. The kitchen looked a lot like the cramped space that served the shoebox-shaped apartment I lived in my senior year in college. And what did she choose to make?
Cowboy stew, a concoction of ground beef, cream of celery soup, and chow mein noodles, was the specialty of my roommate Nancy. A Google search for such a dish turned up recipes that called for canned corn, or black beans, or even stewed tomatoes. Way too complicated. Just brown the ground beef, pour off the fat, dump in the undiluted soup, smush it around, and serve it with the chow mein noodles sprinkled on the top. Nancy recalled that her mother made this for her and her sisters, back in the day when Saturday morning television gave us Tales of the Texas Rangers, The Roy Rogers Show, and Fury, the Story of a Horse and the Boy Who Loves Him. You could eat your cowboy stew at the table in your city row house and pretend that right after lunch you were going to go outside, jump on your horse, and ride off into adventure.
My fiction work tends to serve more as self-analysis than it does as literary entertainment for others (possibly because not a lot of people get to read my fiction!). I have to spend some time thinking about why this particular character, who is in a crisis, should turn to cowboy stew, a meal I enjoyed frequently during one of the happiest times in my life, but one which I haven’t made in many years.
Maybe soon. A one-cup serving would have 5 to 7 Weight Watchers points. I can do that.
(And, for those keeping track, I am down another .6 pounds this week. Hey! There’s a turtle in that story too!)