So, I know, I’m past-due writing the next installment of Poor Valley Witch. I’m also remiss in putting out part II of my (very) short advice segment, titled something like “You’re not that awesome!” (Encouraging, I promise.) But…I just read this great article that embodies exactly how I think about writing, art, and being an artist, and I thought…that’s what I need to write about this time.
It’s this article. It’s called “The Unified Theory of Delicousness” in Wired Magazine, by David Chang. And if you clicked the link and checked it out, you’ll notice it’s about food.
While I do think some chefs are artists, and food can be very powerful (which is discussed in the article), that’s not what I’m on about here. Human beings react viscerally to food. (Yes, there’s a double entendre there.) Taste and smell deeply root into our most powerful memories, the stuff that we don’t even recognize as memories. The stuff that we might think of as preferences or measurements for what’s comforting, what’s satisfying. What’s terrifying. Breaking food down, or, more accurately, breaking down the elements of a successful dish, is about more than just the perfect combo of ingredients.
As Chef David Chang elaborates, the perfect seasoning can have the opposite effect from satisfaction. He would know; he’s an expert. He advises you to try the salt water experiment:
Set out a few glasses of water with varying amounts of salt in them. As you taste them, think hard about whether there is too much or too little salt. If you keep experimenting, you’ll eventually hit this sweet spot. You’ll think that it’s too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you’ll suddenly find it tastes too salty. It teeters.
As soon as I read this, it hit me that I’ve read books exactly like this. As soon as I decide the premise was too sweet, I realize that’s just the surface and underneath was really this complex reality driving it and the characters were actually reacting in this other way…and then I know. I know I just read something good. It doesn’t settle easily into a groove in my mind; it teeters.
…But under the surface, the saltiness paradox has a very powerful effect, because it makes you very aware of what you’re eating and your own reaction to it. It nags at you, and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious.
I’ve thought about the element of “something brand new” many times in my writing career. Writers get discouraged because their idea is not new…it’s been done before, it’s not original. I’ve fallen into the trap myself.
People fall in love, struggle to make a life for themselves and their families, play out dramas of grief and happiness. They discover things, lose things, make something new. When you break it all down like that, then, yeah. It’s all been written, by better artists than I’ll ever be! But that’s not going to stop me.
It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats a fancy version of the titular dish and gets whisked back to the elemental version of his childhood. The easiest way to accomplish this is just to cook something that people have eaten a million times. But it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar—to hold those base patterns constant while completely changing the context.
I think that sense of wonder that comes with reading a great book doesn’t come because it’s totally, mind-blowingly brand new. It’s because it’s something familiar, something archetypal that tugs on the essential-human part of your brain, but it’s told in new ingredients: a different voice, a new perspective. I’m not talking about something gimmicky. I’m not talking sriracha donuts. It’s not about a shock factor. It’s about this question: How do you create a basic element of the story with a different ingredient?
Chang talks about mouthfeel–a word I love, by the way. Get the creamy mouthfeel of milk by adding whipped tofu, for example. The flavor’s different. The way those little food molecules fit into their spots on your taste buds is not anything like milk. But it feels silky, evoking memories of what milk is like in your mouth, layering that impression on the new flavor of the tofu…and you have a brand new story going on.
There’s one more thing that resonated with the writer in me: don’t beat your audience over the head with it, whatever your point is supposed to be.
This is something that still bothers me about our ceci e pepe dish. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t call it that—I’d name it something like chickpeas with buttered noodles. Ceci e pepe is too explicit. It’s telling diners what to think instead of letting them draw their own conclusions. The element of surprise is part of the magic.
Once you write your story, all for just you, then polish it up for the rest of the world to see, it’s not yours anymore. People will see things in your work you were sure you never put there. But that’s part of the magic, too.