Sensory Soup

Yeah, so I found myself in Lake Charles, Louisiana about two weeks ago. Long story why, won’t go into that here. It’s not the most exciting town around, but they do have some good gumbo, like the bowl I ate (shown in pic) from KD’s Diner.

You don’t fall asleep while you’re eating gumbo. It’s alive with an intricate blend of taste sensations that’s a bit different wherever you go. There’s a kick, yes, but also a darkness (from the roux) that seems like it’s coming from somewhere deep underground.

We should make the most of our senses because it makes our lives spicier, and this goes double for the writers in the room, who are responsible for stirring the world around us into a soup of words. 

Here’s Fred Plotkin, author of books on opera and Italian cuisine:

Most humans have been given the remarkable gift of five senses, but few use them to their fullest potential. I try to activate all of them all the time and, in so doing, make myself open to sensations and memories most people miss. I listen rather than hear. I savor rather than eat or smell. I look rather than see. I feel rather than touch.

You can translate sensory experience in a simple manner, like this line from Rick Rojas’s NY Times article about the recent heat in Louisiana:

Cool air swirled through the devil-red metal box of a building.

Or you can get fancier with it, like this night-sky description from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

Sight is key, but cook with the other four senses as well, even blending them. My colleague Kelly Caldwell wrote about the sense of touch here.

Check out this from Elizabeth McCracken’s short story “It’s Not You”:

The Bloody Mary had some spice in it that sent a tickle through my palate into my nose. A prickle, a yearning, an itch: a gathering sneezish sensation.

Aren’t you feeling that?

And check out this from Tommy Orange’s novel There There:

I watch my shadow grow long then flatten on the highway as a car flies by without slowing or seeming to notice me. Not that I want slowing or notice. I kick a rock and hear it ding against a can or some hollow thing in the grass. I pick up my pace and as I do a hot gust of air and the smell of gas blow by with the passing of a big truck.

When you read this, you’re standing on that highway right beside this character. What did you experience, sensorially, today or yesterday? Write it up.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Never Finished, Only Abandoned

Teresa Wong, fellow Gotham teacher, did me the huge favor of dropping in on my memoir class recently to talk about her graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet, and the graphic memoir she’s working on now, All Our Ordinary Stories, which will come out next year.
And she said something about Dear Scarlet that really surprised me: “I am a little bit embarrassed at some of my drawings in my book.”
Why should this surprise me? Authors talk constantly about how they open their published books and find sentences, paragraphs, chapters they want to take another run at. Every writer I know can quote Leonardo Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
To me, a reader, Teresa’s book seemed as though it must be exactly what she intended: A heartfelt and moving story about her experience with post-partum depression.
But no story is ever what the writer first envisioned.
“The pictures in my head are much more beautiful and well rendered than the ones I can actually draw,” Teresa said. “That’s a creative phenomenon that everyone has. It’s always going to be better in your head.
“But then you have to realize that if it’s beautiful in your head, it doesn’t really mean anything. Because no one else can see it.”
And that’s the salient point. It’s wonderful, really, to love a story in your mind. To love the idea, or how it might move people, how it might sound, or look, or feel.
As long as you don’t get too hung up on that perfect story that doesn’t actually exist. Yet.
That’s a kind of perfectionism that’s especially self-defeating. Unchecked, it can feed a writer’s imposter syndrome, and paralyze you even further.
Author Athena Dixon, whose memoir The Loneliness Files is forthcoming this fall, has written and spoken extensively about imposter syndrome, and says that kind of perfectionism can warp your own perceptions of your work.

“Any small mistake makes [perfectionists] question their competence,” Dixon wrote in the anthology Getting to the Truth. But, if “you can give yourself credit for what you are doing well, it will make what you have to ‘fix’ less overwhelming.”
If you’re asking whether the version of the story you write (or the picture you draw) is as good as the one you envisioned, you’re asking the wrong questions.
“It’s better to ask, does it communicate? Does it reach people?” Teresa said. “As long as you communicate, you’re golden.”
If you do get that sinking feeling when you’re writing, that this story will never be what you’d hoped, remember that most likely, what you were picturing was a story that would move people. Other people. Who don’t live in your head. And for it to do that, you have to let go, let it out, and let it be what it’s going to be.
“To exist, it has to be a little bit flawed,” Teresa said. “But then at least it can be shared, right?”

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Shakespeare’s Wife

By chance this summer, I saw the Broadway musical &Juliet at the same time I was reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet. In both stories, Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, plays a major role.
Hamnet alternates between two time frames: 1) the courtship and early days of marriage between Will and Anne, and 2) Anne coping with the illness and eventual death of their 11-year old son, Hamnet, from the plague while Will is off in London doing his theatre thing.
&Juliet is a jukebox musical, using pop songs to tell a radical new version of Romeo and Juliet. Anne doesn’t like that Juliet kills herself after finding the dead Romeo, so she convinces Will to let Juliet live and run off to a life of adventure in Paris.
In both stories, Anne is as fascinating (if not more) than her famous husband, and they are seen to be a dynamic couple with all the push-pull that you’ll find in most marriages. With scant historical record about these folks, it’s mostly speculation—but you walk away feeling closer to this page of literary history.
If you’re ever looking for a story idea—and we writers usually are—history presents a vast tapestry of colorful characters and events from which you can pluck something to use. Chances are there’s already a place or personage that’s captured your attention.
Taking a peripheral character from history, like Shakespeare’s wife, is an intriguing way to go. Peter Shaffer’s play and film Amadeus tell the story of Salieri, a composer who’s a contemporary of Mozart who believes God has placed Mozart in Vienna to taunt him about his own mediocrity. Salieri will have his revenge.
Or take someone pulled unwittingly into history. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten unmercifully by four police officers, an event caught on a video; when the policemen were acquitted in court, a massive riot exploded on the streets of LA. Tracey Rose Peyton’s short story “The Last Days of Rodney” depicts the final day in Rodney’s life, 21 years later.
Sure, you can take a well-known figure. Stories about Abraham Lincoln are as wildly diverse as the Spielberg film Lincoln, George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the action film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Gotham teacher Rita Chang-Eppig certainly heard the call to raid history. Her novel Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea tells the story of Shek Yeung, a woman who led thousands of pirates in the South China Sea in the early 19th century while also managing the role of wife and mother. (You can read an excerpt in this very newsletter.)
I’ll leave you now to ponder our past.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President