Writing is not about the “me,” it’s about the “not me.”
This is always true, even in personal essay and memoir.
~~ Michael Ruhlman
Something seems wrong these days with food writing in America. And, to be honest, not just food writing.
What is the problem? You’re probably getting ready to hit DELETE. But hold on, hold on, please.
The other day, trying to come to grips with some rather negative feelings about being a writer and the way the writing’s been going and all that “What am I doing here?” kind of stuff, I stumbled upon an article by Alexander Nazaryan for Slate.com, where he bluntly skewers American writers and explains why the Nobel judges ignore American writers year after year. Toni Morrison, the last American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, walked off the stage in Stockholm in 1993 lugging a medal for Beloved:
“You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before. Can you honestly say that about Oates’ ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’?
Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner,’ putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave.”
Note the words: stay interior.
I know what you’re thinking. At first glance, M. F. K. Fisher’s work seems extremely interior. She uses “I” a lot. She talks a lot about herself.
Lest you imagine that M. F. K. Fisher wrote the only food-laden books worth reading, that’s not the case. But I understand why you might think that that’s what I meant when I pontificated on standards in food writing. Standards, like all rules, lie there, just waiting to be challenged, broken, and tossed out, the sandy residue that remains after scrubbing newly gathered clams.
I’d like to tell you that M. F. K. Fisher’s writing could be considered the prototype for all food writing.
But why is that? Why does her writing rattle around in my head for so long? In the heads of other readers?
As Kate Christensen confesses:
“Some of her anecdotes are so memorable, I recall them as if they were my own memories … ”
Fisher captures a sense of place and people with such sharpness, in ways similar to that managed by the best caricaturist, for whom a single line says it all. Or Stephen King, whom I consider a great writer, even if most of his work scares me so much that I can’t sleep at night. A single word often suffices for both of these writers. Take Fisher’s “Moment of Wisdom,” a meditation on emotion spurred by a traveling Bible salesman:
“But the tiny old man, dry as a ditch weed, was past all that … “
Ditch weed, what do you see when you read that?**
Fisher describes a reality about life that resonates on many levels with readers. That she uses the prism of food and hunger to tell her stories in no way detracts from the impact.
There you have it: the kind of food writing that nourishes usually reads like a novel, where characters love and hate and storm out of rooms. Conflict abounds and, in this type of profound writing, the reader bonds with the writer. The writing speaks to the reader’s interiority, as well as the writer’s.
Food serves as a symbol of something larger in Fisher’s case: her hunger for love and belonging, something that all humans long for, unless they are incredibly damaged. John O’Donohue dug deep into that well, the one where that longing lies, in Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (2000), saying:
“The longing within us always draws us towards belonging and gains towards new forms of belonging when we have outgrown the old ones.”
I like to think that something larger is “existential angst.” And angst, or longing, looms over Fisher’s work. It’s the human condition, honed to a spiny point.
Remember the title of Fisher’s last book? Stay Me, Comfort Me – she took the words from the Song of Solomon 2:5:
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
Who hasn’t been sick of (or with) love at some time in their life?
Probably no one. It’s universal.
That, I tell you, makes all the difference when it comes to reading. Much less writing.
*From The Gastronomical Me
**Although modern terminology seems to identify “ditch weed” as marijuana, I do not think that’s what Fisher meant. Perhaps “sagebrush” better fits her description.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen