This is Your Brain on Too Many of the Kind of Books You’re Supposed to Be Writing

I find that food is a bit of an anchor. In this turbulent time of course planning, insecurity about the quality of my teaching (and planning), and the in-between phase where I have new and beautiful plans for healthier living and for a writing routine, a phase where those plans can’t quite flesh themselves out just yet (have to plan my courses first, after all!), I find food is an anchor.

Full fridge = happy.

My roommates and I, in an effort to live healthier, are calling a cease and desist on last semester’s pattern of ordering take-out. We’ve been cooking actual meals, snacking on vegetables, and my roommate Heather went to the grocery store earlier this week, and then came home and worked this organizational magic on our fridge. I happened upon her (and the fridge) as she was standing back and admiring the beauty of our full fridge.

A full fridge says to me that we’re safe. We’re going to be healthy. We are provided for, and now we can focus on other things. It anchors us. It tells us that it’s there when we need it. And a fridge full of delicious fresh fruit and vegetables and quality meat? Even better. My grandfather once told me a story that whenever he used to go grocery shopping, he’d buy the small can of black pepper. And then one day, he reached for the big can. And that’s how he knew he wasn’t poor anymore. He could afford the larger bottle, and that’s what he got. A full fridge makes me feel the same way; we’re okay. We’re not struggling, not right now, and that feels fantastic.

That anchor is good because this semester, I’m trying hard to take control of certain aspects of my life. Last semester, I let work take over. And that’s okay; I was teaching four classes, doing freelance work, working part-time as a food editor/writer, and I was a contractor for a law firm. What the what? That was too much. And because it was so much, I didn’t write my own stuff. I mean, really, how could I?

I sometimes worry because I haven’t written fiction in a year and a half. I worry that I have forgotten how. I build it up in my head and get all freaked out. The problem with the adjunct system is that you can’t progress on to a better job unless you’re publishing and doing conference proposals and what not. But you can’t publish or go to conferences because you can’t climb out from under the massive amount of grading you have to do. It’s a vicious cycle.

Instead of letting that cycle beat me, though, I’m working on beating the cycle. I’m keeping myself on a stricter schedule. I’m not letting the teaching take over. I’m taking back some of my time. And I’m going to start writing again.

Part of my goal is to begin actual work on a book. I don’t want to talk about that in blog format because I feel like it’s tantamount to leaving a bag of bread open on the counter; it just gets stale. I don’t want my fervor for that project to lose steam before it even gets started.

Books, books, books, books, books...

But the other part of my goal, I’m really excited about. Partly because it seems easier than actually writing a book. This year, I want to immerse myself in food writing and begin doing scholarship – I want to write conference proposals and submit them rather than just taking a stab at them and then dreaming about them and then forgetting. Or deciding my ideas are stupid.

Today, I bought two new food novels, and I’ve now got quite the working pile of books to read (in addition to general fiction!). These are the people who are doing what I want to do. They’re the people I’d want to sit on panels with me at AWP. My friend Leslie wrote a very Jane Austen story awhile back (that I hope to see published someday!), and in preparation, she immersed herself not only in Austen, but in Austen fan fiction. I feel that the time has come for me to do some similar immersion:  to see what the contemporaries are doing, but to guard my imagination from becoming too steeped in other people’s stories. The goal is to write my own, and that has to take precedent. Surely you know the heartache of beginning to brew a cup of tea, then forgetting. You come back an hour later to find your cup filled with dark, undrinkable, tannic water, chilly and not at all what you wanted. That’s what I imagine happening if I don’t carefully balance the reading and the writing. Like a poster:  this is your brain on too many of the kind of novels you’re supposed to be writing. The result is soggy, tannic, undrinkable heartache. No bueno.

I wrote in a previous post that I seek out swagger. I was speaking specifically of my performance as a teacher, and I still want it. But I also want writer swagger. I want to quit talking myself out of writing. I want to stop being scared. I want the pressure valve to release, I want to quit being, as my friend Mary says, so precious about the whole blasted enterprise, and just do it. And in the meantime, I’ll just splash around in some lovely Italian food novels. Don’t mind if I do.

2 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Too Many of the Kind of Books You’re Supposed to Be Writing

  1. I related to this so much. I worry, too, that I’ve somehow forgotten how to write fiction… in between the times I’m worrying that I never really learned how. I love what you wrote about the prospect of bread going stale, or tea going cold. I have that feeling a lot lately, too. That urge to get things out and going before whatever is good in them turns or sours, I guess. What I’m saying is — I hear you, buddy. I feel you. So glad to have you, and your blog. Keep swimming.

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