In his book On Writing, Stephen King throws this out:
“On the other hand…there is Harper Lee, who wrote only one book (the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird). Any number of others, including James Agee, Malcolm Lowry, and Thomas Harris (so far), wrote under five. Which is okay, but I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do the rest of their time? Knit afghans? Organize church bazaars? Deify plums? I’m probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?” (p. 147)
I’m not sure you can appreciate, without reading King’s quote in context, how funny this came off. Funny and dead on. Sure, he sounds flip. But I believe him. The author of (now) over 50 books and more than 200 short stories is having a hard time understanding what the holdup could possibly be.
He’s right, of course. He questions them as a means of questioning us. What are you, writer, doing with your time?
Well, I’m writing. Not enough. Not quickly – fast writing ain’t inside the fence for me. But I’m sitting down every day to compose something. I type and delete a lot and the sluggish pace makes me want to carve an obscenity into the desk, but I keep at it.
I wish I peeled language the way I do a Russet potato, the skin slipping off in one long strip after another, the tuber washed, creamy and clean, underneath the faucet. But that’s not the case and if swiftness of word is not some inborn agility, it’s a skill that takes a long time to develop.
My brain is cluttered with King-ish sticky notes* this week so when I checked the sauerkraut yesterday it became, of course, a writing analogy. Which is contrived. But it also helps me flesh out this bit about Harper Lee and the nature of creativity. Because my kind of writing is like making sauerkraut. All those educated guesses and worlds of chopping. Measure, salt, and force it down until the brine starts to pool. Maybe Harper Lee was knitting afghans or flyering for some beneficent cause. I don’t know. But if she was, is it any of our business whether her actions were in service to her art or not? Shoot. Someday soon I’m going to have a dog to walk in the mornings. Maybe those times will become as important to my writing process as a clean desk or the switch that silences my phone.
My writing usually ends up about where the current batch of kraut did. It’s alright, you know. Serviceable. I don’t think anyone is going to die from eating it. There are beautiful bits – the carrots look like I sliced them ten minutes ago – but smell it (what is that?) and taste it and you’ll see it’s far from perfect.
Six weeks is a long time to wait to discover that fermented fennel isn’t my favorite (at least, I think that’s the problem). And twelve jars of the stuff will remind me, for months, that I don’t have it down quite yet. But I’m going to make another batch to take us into spring and I’m assuming that one will be a little better.
For this batch I combined two very large heads of cabbage with nine carrots, two fennel bulbs, one head of Napa cabbage, four or five sweet onions and whole cloves from two heads of garlic. I added salt as directed in Wild Fermentation and Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home.
* It’s the story, not the plot; Don’t use the passive voice, it’s exhausting; Leave out the boring parts; Kill your darlings and, while you’re at it, your adverbs, too.