Creation vs. Organization: A Writing Malady

There’s this book I started writing when I was 13. There have been times when I’ve thought, Gosh, it’s been five years since I started, I better finish this thing! Or ten years. Or fifteen. Now I’m up to 22. It’s not like I haven’t been working on it. To the contrary: my current draft is 165,000 words long, give or take, and it’s been through two gut rehabs. I’m in the middle of the third.

This time  for the first time  I’ve brought in professional help. My problem (one of them, ha) is that I’ve always simply written. I feel inspired, or depressed, or committed of an evening, and I pop out 5,000 words. I have never written to an outline. I’ve hardly written to even a vague idea of plot. I’m not saying this to be charmingly self-deprecating, get you to ask to read my MS, and hear you say, “Wow, it’s actually got great structure, what are you talking about, you crazy next-best-seller you?” No. This book is a hot mess. Let me tell you why.

For all the hundreds of thousands of words I have written in my life, and for all the Ivy League writing classes I’ve taken, until a couple months ago I had literally never spent time with the bare bones of narrative structure for fiction. I got the technical details for playwriting (not my milieu) and poetry (for serious not my milieu), but somehow, all of my fiction writing classes were built around peer review and a general sense of enthusiasm for Your Unique and Special Inner Voice. Turns out that knowing narrative structure really helps structure a good narrative!

Up until this point in my writing life, whatever movement a story had, it had because I’ve read so much that I’ve got some mute instincts for the shape of a story. Story is something I feel. Arguably, story is something you must feel, but being able to top-down critique or shape my own work is opening up whole new worlds of possibility for me. I know. Pity me. I’m in my mid-thirties and just figuring this out.

For me, this structural work is powerful not least because I have some native aversion to conflict. The inestimable Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a workshop book for writers; one of the voice exercises asks you to imagine you are an on island. What do you do? What do you see? Wallowing in the luxury of simply writing a scene for the pure sound of it, I didn’t put any pressure on myself to shape it. Here is what happened. I wrote a scene in which literally nothing happened. My narrator walks over the island, to the highest point of it, and looks out at the ocean. The end. Meets no boars in the brush. Begs food from no one’s campfire. Hears no voices, no distant gunfire, no rising storm over the water. This insulated, conflict-avoidance mentality which seems to be my comfort zone for writing makes for terrible stories. I mean, awful stories. The very nature of story is conflict.

Pulling back and doing this structural analysis of my hot mess of a novel has been empowering. And exciting. And overwhelming. Helping me keep such cool as I have and make progress towards my goal of one day not hating my own book is a friend of mine with tremendous powers of organization. She has broken my goal down into sensible, manageable, truly bite-sized mini-goals, and when I’m having trouble she seems to know exactly what I need to hear to keep going. (She does this professionally, by the bye. If this sort of personal project management sounds like manna from heaven to you, as it did to me, comment or message me and I will give you more info.)

So I’ve got professional help and I’ve got friends and family cheering me on and I’ve finally got the tools I never knew I needed to fix some of the gaping holes in this sprawling, under-engineered work. My goal is to have done with the gut rehab by my thirty-sixth birthday this summer. Since I finished my first early draft of this when I was 16, achieving this goal would have taken a cool twenty years.

Still  it’s better than thirty. Wish me luck, would you?

The Friday Fave: Uprooted

Friday Faves are an Internet fashion I’m particularly fond of, so this will be a regular feature for me. A few years ago I started a habit of beginning each journal entry (when I wrote in my journal, which was by no means every day) with something I loved and/or was grateful for, as an effort to pull myself out of or stave off bouts of depression. I haven’t touched my journal since my mother’s death, although I mean to resume the habit soon, but the habit of focusing on things I love, even the most trivial, has helped me work through the anxiety attacks I’ve been struggling with over the last year. Also, anyone who knows me knows my compulsion to rabbit on about any current enthusiasm I’m possessed by. Friday Faves posts will be a means of channeling that.


This week’s Friday Fave is the novel Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. This was one of the two best novels I read last year (I’ll discuss the other sometime soon). When I was a teenager I would be so enraptured by some books that I would start them over again as soon as I’d finished them. My last year as an undergraduate beat that out of me—having to get through the likes of Pamela, Joseph Andrews, The Latecomers, and all the attendant critical essays in the space of a week didn’t leave much time for re-reading anything. This novel brought that habit back to me; I read it straight through twice, and bought the audiobook (which was unfortunately a poor performance). I’ve re-read it again since. If you have any liking for fantasy at all, I can’t recommend this enough. It seems to have been marketed as a YA novel, which I can’t really understand; not that I wouldn’t recommend it to an older teen, but in no way did it strike me as a specifically teen-oriented book—it is just that the narrator is a girl in her late teens. (I would question giving it to anyone younger than maybe 16, but then I’m not in charge of anyone’s child, and knowing my own history it’s the sort of thing I was reading by 11 years old.)

In Stores Now: UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

Tabbouleh Season

I eat greens-based salads all year round, but I’ve always reserved cold salads such as tabbouleh for the Spring and Summer–as far as I’m concerned they must contain fresh tomatoes, and tomatoes grown over the winter in hothouses are pale, scentless, and tasteless. But now it is Spring (at least where I am), and the tomatoes are starting to have some flavour again, so I made tabbouleh for lunch–bulgar wheat, feta, garlic-stuffed green olives (courtesy of Trader Joe’s, I do not have the patience to do such things myself), red bell peppers, tomatoes, and a Meyer lemon Greek vinaigrette left over from a different salad. It was yummy.

Carrot Cake



I made a carrot cake. It was epic, at least for me. I’ve done one cake that involved more effort, a coconut cake with a complicated icing, but I’m quite proud of this one anyway. I grated the carrots by hand and everything.
I used this recipe ( with a few alterations. I don’t have three cake pans of the required size—I only own two cake tins of any sort, and knowing me disaster would ensue if I had tried to take one of the cakes out, clean the pan up, and cook the third layer separately. It would have come out too thin, or burnt, or something. I have a genius for such cock-ups. I also used half fancy olive oil and half canola, instead of all canola oil, and switched out one of the cups of white sugar for brown sugar. I strongly recommend the olive oil (find a good one with an intense flavour—Trader Joe’s Sicilian Olive Oil is a decent price), as it gave a nice depth of flavour to the sweetness.


The bake took exactly as long as instructed, for once. They did sink a little in the middle, but not enough to make me regret using two pans rather than three. This could have been the result of my switching things out in the recipe, but the same thing seems to have happened to the cake in the original illustration, so it could just be how heavy the batter is with all the raisins and carrots and whatnot. (Possibly? This is where it would help to be a better chemist.) I had to trim a little from the sides when they were cooled, but there was no spilling over the edge of the pan, which is what I was most concerned about.

Cake 3

The final product came out pretty much exactly as I was hoping for—I don’t think I’ll ever buy a carrot cake again. Next time I’ll work on avoiding the sinkage, and get a better picture where you can see the icing between the layers (it is there, just as it should be, but is completely obscured by cake crumbs in the last picture).



An Ode to Bread

Comfort food. In American pop culture, we interpret this as: fatty, salty, sugary, bad for you. Something you shouldn’t have, but when you’ve had a bad day, well damn it, you’ve earned it. But what about actual comfort? What food makes you feel better when you have it? Not guilty, not stuffed, not drowsy, but — good?

Comfort food for me is bread. I’m a starch-driven machine even on my best days. Buckets of pasta. Chips. Pretzels. Almost literally endless quantities of popcorn. Good bread is the high-octane version of my simple carbohydrate primary fuel.

Good bread is fresh bread. I prefer it with texture, with rich scents, warm, with butter. I grew up in a household where my father was the (excellent) cook. My mother could technically feed us in his absence but it wasn’t pretty. However. She baked. The sticky feel of dough slowly turning into the smooth miracle of a shaped loaf is an experience so deep and early that only my hands remember it.

Good bread, while it is baking and for a while afterwards, fills your space with a smell that in itself is nourishing. Any yeasted bread will produce this smell but I am fond of using sesame oil during the last rise, when a sheen over the surface of the dough will keep it from drying and cracking as it rests before baking, and it adds a dimensionality to the fresh bread aroma that might be described as exotic or heady or but however you phrase it you will never want to stop smelling it.

Good bread is a baguette from a market vendor in Barcelona, crisp-shelled with a tender, chewy crumb, eaten in chunks with salami and a blood orange while you sit on the quay with your friend and look out at the busy port and feel drowsy and lucky and sunned.

Good bread is sandwich bread from the store stacked around thick slices of cheddar, eaten with grimy hands on top of a flat rock in the middle of your hike that’s taking longer than you thought. You’re saving the apple for later.

Good bread is the champagne bubbles of sourdough popping under your fingers as you work flour into the sponge.

Good bread is a slice from yesterday’s loaf, nutty and chewy, folded around a still-hot piece of bacon and taken like the sacrament as you walk to work in chilly pre-dawn light.

Comfort food. I love that phrase, which sounds like what a friend might bring to your house when you’re sick. Bread in particular comforts not just with taste and texture but with the act of its creation. It is no exaggeration when people describe kneading dough as “grounding”: you are gently reaching, again and again and again, through the medium of one of humanity’s oldest nourishing substances, with your hands, to the earth.

Introduction: Margaret

Hi! I quit my job for this.

Okay. Not just for this. But I went from security to Who Knows because I had one of those moments where you realize this is the only life you get. What was I doing, futzing about with writing for an hour here or there? Who was I kidding? I’ve been making up stories since I could talk. It’s what I love.

Writing — and food. Eating it, making it, talking about it, eyeing it lovingly at farmers’ markets, thinking about how its cultivation and distribution is at the heart of a sustainable future for humanity. But mostly eating it.

Because we both love reading and writing and food and reading and writing about food, my dear friend Ashley and I decided to start a blog that would be a home for all that. She’s much better read than I am. I take many, many more useless macro shots of fresh produce. So you see we both have our place in the order of things.

What an extraordinary piece of luck to be at this point in life, to be able to do this, to have this space. Thank you for sharing it, even if just for a little while. Come back soon.

organic apples in a bowl

Hello, world!

As a first post this will leave something to be desired, but we thought it best to bite the bullet and get this out there. This will be a place for writing about writing; writing about food; for pictures of food, and probably also of kittens; and for working through our offline writing, and occasionally, our lives. Some sweet, some bitter, and hopefully much to savor.

Welcome to Salt Sweet Bitter.