Mouthfeel and The Unified Theory of Deliciousness.

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.

mouthfeel

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.

Poor Valley Witch: Gold Ring

It’s time for Part VI of Poor Valley Witch! For Part V, click here. To start at the beginning, click here. For Part VII, click here.

Landon gazed at the collection of things, of childhood memories, in the nest below him. He was alone, now, in the dry attic, with nothing but a whisper of carrion-scent to remind him who his latest companions were. He hesitated, unsure of what to do, when his grandmother called up from the bottom of the stairs.

stairs

“Landon?” She sounded frightened. He spread out the old sweatshirt and piled his things inside, folding it up to make a bundle before scooting away from the nest and struggling to stand. As he did, a small tink-tink-tink sounded at his feet. He shifted his armload to the side and peered down, hunched under the sloped roof. Something small glinted on the floor, dangerously close to a crack between dusty boards. He picked it up and squinted at it: a small, gold ring, engraved crudely–scratched, more like. It must have fallen out of the sweatshirt pocket, he thought. He absently put it on his finger so he would not lose it.

“Where are the birds? Are they gone?” Mamaw asked when he came down the steps. He nodded and held out the things that had been in the nest.

“They showed me these things,” he said. “They were in a nest.” He was at a loss, then, and shrugged his shoulders: Why?

She passed her hand over her forehead in the same gesture she’d made earlier, in the kitchen. “It’s your things,” she said. “Your things.” And she slumped to the floor in a faint.

***

She came to a few minutes later, when Landon laid her on her bed. She surprised him by bursting into tears.

“I thought it was for me, all this time,” she choked. “I saw the first one weeks ago, circling around and around above the house. I knew what it meant, even before it came back with its…friends. I threw away all my things. All my clothes. I’ve been buying them down at the Dollar General. I wear them until they smell bad, and then I burn them…I even gave all my valuables to your father to keep!” She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.

Landon tried to keep up with her. “You…didn’t want the vultures to take your things?” She shook her head, still covering her eyes with her hands. “So that’s why the attic was empty,” he muttered.

“They are ambassadors of the witch,” she said, finally. “The vultures. And when they take your things, she…she comes for you.”

“So, what? She’s coming for me, now?” He was too bewildered to be worried. Mamaw took her hands away from her face and looked blearily up at her grandson. She started to turn away, shuddering, when her eye caught on the gold ring on his finger. Her hand snaked out before he knew what she was doing and caught his with a grip like a manacle.

“Where did you find that ring?” she demanded.

“It fell out of my sweatshirt,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before today.”

She bared her teeth in a predator’s grin. “Maybe we have an ally.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means…you might not have to be sacrificed, after all.”

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Get Out of Your Own Way: Part I

This week, under my “Misadventures in Self Publishing” category, I’ll be discussing Failure, one of the ways we cripple ourselves, and my methods to overcome. Next week I’ll continue the Get Our of Your Own Way topic with this nugget: Hey, maybe you’re not so awesome! Sound intriguing? Sound like just the kind of slap-you-with-a-psht-sound-effect, tough-love coaching you like? Well, your tastes in self-help may be questionable, but I’ll oblige.

For now, let’s talk about the ultimate F-bomb for writers the world over: Failure. Everybody ever, no matter how kick-ass a person has become (or used to be!) has experienced this ovary-punching, toenail-kicking, cystic zit on the face of your life. The question is not if you have failed, or if you will fail, but what the hell do you do with it?

We have a tendency to partition our lives into eras, or categories like home, parenting, work, and even further: legitimate, paid work, hobby work, side hustle. It’s helpful for our mental clutter to think this way. It’s also sometimes helpful to get over things in this way; it’s easier to let pain go when we relegate it to the past. But we are, at least partly, made up of the sum of our experiences, and our reactions to them.

I’ve failed. I’ve failed a lot. I didn’t make the basketball team in middle school. I didn’t get the job, got dumped, fell down (a lot!), lost opportunities, got rejection letters or worse: I was met with the forlorn sound of indifference, the vast digital equivalent of crickets chirping as I put my work out again and again, where it was fated to sit, waiting for the series of commands to activate, illuminating my story on the screen of some blessed reader with a silent choir calling out: “aaah-aaah-AAAH!”

In fact, I’m so used to failure that I have wrung two gifts from it: vast gratefulness when my particular talents are seen and enjoyed, and an ever-strengthening supply of patience.

Sometimes, my optimism dries up and my patience scuttles away before a storm of despair. In case you don’t know naturally optimistic people, let me explain this: when we are down, we go DOWN. It’s a deep pit, full of the ooze of worthlessness.

pit of despair!

But I promised you a discussion on how I handle getting hung up on failure. Before I can do this, I have to describe a failure of a wholly nonprofessional kind. Please understand that the story I’m about to tell is in no way a declaration of how I believe other people should think, or feel, or act, in any way. It is an insight into my views, and mine alone.

I wanted a homebirth for my first baby. I wanted it desperately, but I was afraid of failure, afraid of pain, afraid that I was going to be a horrible mother. You might guess what comes next: I failed in homebirth. My boy, although a brilliantly healthy child, was born via emergency c-section. I could go into all the messy details for how and why, but it doesn’t matter for this discussion. I did not accomplish my desire. I hit bottom physically and emotionally.

Then, despite the additional rock pile of more sad things: death of a beloved family member, choosing to leave behind my burgeoning business, feeling totally unmoored…I came back up. I loved my family, I’m naturally an optimistic person, and I made dozens of small choices toward happiness every day. Then, I discovered I was pregnant again. Again, I opted for a homebirth.

Here’s the thing: when I was pregnant with my boy, I could never visualize birthing him. I had no idea how that immense a thing could happen. I had no concept that I could actually do it. But with my girl, I knew. I knew I could. I had failed, had felt the deep, keening sting of failing in what I percieved to be my first real act of motherhood, and I was still alive. I was still there, and my boy was there, too, happy and healthy. Somehow in the dungeon of failure I found the strength I needed.

I rocked my second homebirth. I ripped my heart open and let my failure fly out of me, because there isn’t room in one person for a suitcase full of FAILED and a sweet, buoyant “I f-ing did it!” It was not easy getting my baby girl out of my body. It hurt, a lot, and in birth you have to embrace the pain like a lover. You have to accept it. You can’t say “No, I need a break, make it stop a while.” Well, you can, but then your midwife, your uterus and the forthcoming little person will make you understand in no uncertain terms that it ain’t happening. I was rent when my daughter came into this world. I was struck by lightning and ripped apart, and the failure I felt in birthing my son was exorcised from me.

So, when my writing is rejected…I mostly can accept that. Nobody is everybody’s cup of tea. And, there are plenty of people who say “yes, please.” But when I fall into despair, I embrace it, just like the pain of childbirth, because I know it will end. I let it take me down, make my eyes dark, show me all my shortcomings. And then, when it’s all over, I sigh, and think to myself, “I f-ing wrote that book. I accomplished it. That’s really something.” And I’m still here.

the summit

Here’s something important: we can change our reactions to our past experiences. Maybe we can’t change what we said or did at the time, but we can choose how to embrace or let go of the event today. And when you do, when you sew your badge of sadness as a valuable life experience on the back of your jacket and then forget about it, you’ll discover something badass: you’re a better writer, now. Go write!

 

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Poor Valley Witch: Vulture Ambassadors

Here is Part V of Poor Valley Witch,  short story I’m serializing weekly. For Part I, click here. And here are Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

With the demonstrating parishioners in retreat and the boombox off, a quiet settled over the kitchen. Landon turned to his grandmother, intending to get a little enlightenment. He was preempted, knocked back a bit, even, by the depth of a sound that he felt as much as heard. A menacing clunk-slide that dropped on him like an unexpected winter coat. Mamaw felt it, too; she turned her gaze up toward the ceiling.

“They’re in the attic,” she said. The vultures.

“Did the witch send them?” asked Landon. It was the noise; it was too palpable, like the knocking of the plywood door in its frame at her house had been. The witch’s house in Poor Valley. Mamaw nodded her reply before passing her hand over her brow. It was a curiously frail movement. She’d been old as long as Landon could remember, but she’d never seemed fragile.

“I’ll go look,” he offered, turning to go. She didn’t answer. He made his way down the hall and up the steps to the cramped second story of the house. When he was a little boy he’d loved it up here. The steep slope of the ceiling, the faintly papery-dry smell. There was a landing/hallway at the top of the stair, and the door to his father’s childhood bedroom. Landon slept there when he stayed with his grandmother. Now, though, he was more interested in the small door at the other end of the landing. He unlatched the slide-lock and pushed it open. It was small; he had to crouch down, peering through the gloom pent up in the attic.

He smelled the faint, sickly-sweet stench of the vultures. It might have been his imagination, knowing they were carrion-eaters, but he didn’t think so. It didn’t really matter, anyway. He went through the door, half-squatting, carefully feeling the rough wood floor with the soles of his shoes. His eyes adjusted to the dim light creeping in through a dusty bank of small windows. There was nothing up here, Landon was surprised to see. He’d last been here as a boy, and there had been old toys, books, trunks of memorabilia and moth-eaten winter clothes. Now there was nothing, except…yes, there it was, another gentle clunk-slide-scrape. Not as loud as it had been before, in the kitchen. Not as heavy.

Landon peered down the length of the attic to a shadowy group of shapes at the far end. He stayed where he was, still in a crouch, unable to stand completely lest he crack his head on a beam, a rib of the sloped roof. What should he do? The birds were down there, solemnly swaying and shuffling together, four or five of them. Their talons scraped the floor, their feathers ruffled and brushed each other. If he tried to startle them away, they’d probably panic, or, worse, attack him. He didn’t want that in such a confined space. How’d they get in, anyway? There, one of the small windows at the far end was broken out. It was just big enough to admit the largest bird.

One of them moved aside, and then the bird to its right did the same. What…? They were making a space for him, and in case he wasn’t quite getting the picture, the two who had shuffled aside opened a wing each like two butlers extending a blackly clad, welcoming arm to an honored guest. All the birds looked at him, beady eyes gleaming in the semi-dark, shuffling slowly back and forth, foot to foot, feathers rustling, all in a circle around…what? He was afraid to find out. Landon recalled running away from the cobbled-together house in Poor Valley. The woman had laughed at him.”You didn’t even go in!” she’d cackled. He steeled his resolve. This time, he went, feet shuffling across the floorboards, hand patting at the beams overhead. He tried to stop his imagination from offering up suggestions as to what he might find there, watched over by eaters of dead and rotting things.

He made it to the birds, still swaying, shuffling, rustling, and he saw what it was they gathered ’round. It was a huge nest, thickly woven with twigs and small branches, ribbons, scraps of cloth. It would have been pretty, if not for the eerie sentries surrounding it in their faint miasma of carrion-rot. One of the birds chuffed, as if in response to Landon’s thoughts. It cocked its head toward the nest, inviting a closer look.

nest

A vulture is communicating with me, thought Landon. Completely off-kilter, he extended his left hand slightly toward the nest, palm up, as though confirming what the bird had indicated. Should I look in? The bird inclined its head in affirmation. Landon let out a sigh, unaware he’d been holding his breath. He shuffled forward the last inches to the nest and looked into it.

At first he could not make out any of its shadowy contents, but as he gazed they solidified into objects that were all so familiar he softly cried out. There was his Magic 8 ball, lost years ago, its black plastic hide nestled up to an old baseball team sweatshirt. His coach had been pissed when he’d lost that, when, in the eighth grade? And there was his favorite hemp necklace from high school, his nudie magazine he’d thought his grandmother had found and confiscated, even an old love letter from grade school. Lost, all lost things glazed in a patina of childhood memories. He gasped when he saw a picture of his mother. She was sitting on a swing at the park, holding him tight in her lap. He was only three.

“Where did this stuff come from?” He asked, looking at the vulture to his right. It only looked back, its black eyes utterly unreadable. A bird on the other side of the nest turned and shuffled its way to the broken window, clutching the jagged, shard-studded frame of it in its talon-ed feet before thrusting its huge, black body out into the sunshine and beating its wings, hard, to launch out and away. One by one the birds followed suit. Landon sat back on his haunches, watching with incredulity.

“What the hell,” he murmured. He was alone in the attic, with a cache of lost childhood things nestled before him. A welcome breeze drifted through the broken window, eddying the vulture-smell around him.

Hiring a Freelance Editor

I am occasionally asked my advice about self-publishing. The writing part of it is universal: you have to put one keystroke down after the other, over and over, until you have a digital pile of words equaling a story. Or, if you have an analogue soul, you bleed out pens or bang out lettered shapes from the typewriter ribbon (if you don’t understand this part, you are too young. Work on that.) Use whatever metaphor you like, you have to write the damn story before you can do anything else.

pen and paper

Then you have to edit it. And edit it again. I’ve tried to edit as I go, with almost always disastrous results. Just don’t do that. Yes, you’ll have a jumbled mess after you pound out the last period of your narrative, but it will retain much, much more clarity if you take that tangled skein as a whole pile and then work at smoothing it all out. (BTW, I’m on a roll with imagery today!)

And then, here’s the thing: hire an editor. But…you’re a good editor, and you can just do it yourself and…nope. Hire one. Here’s why: you are too close. Stephen King says to kill your darlings, and this guy says “I’m just too close to love you,” and they are both right. You live with all these people, the villains and heroes and quirky neighbors who just show up for comic relief. They don’t want you to kill them, and, frankly, you don’t want to either. You need an impartial judge, one you pay to analyze and dissect the story, and then hold up a surgical tray laid out with quivering organs. Fix it, they tell you. Or throw it out.

But…your budget only allows for a killer digital book cover by this cool artist…well, yes, that’s important, too, but if you put a pretty cover on a shoddy story, it’s still shoddy.

An editor is the only thing I’ve spent money on in my self-publishing adventures. Mostly because I’m a broke artist, and I’ve had to prioritize ruthlessly. You can judge the quality of my book covers and marketing endeavors on your own time, but for now focus on the topic at hand. For my second book, I used Karen C. Armstrong, and I searched diligently to find her. Here’s why I chose Karen:

  • She likes fantasy
  • She has an excellent web presence
  • Her rates were within my budget

Here’s why I recommend her for other independent writers:

  • She’s professional and concise
  • She’s fast
  • See the first three bullet points

You’ll notice I placed her enjoyment of fantasy first. That’s not arbitrary; I put out a Craigslist ad for a freelance editor. I asked candidates to tell me whether they like fantasy (the ad stated outright that the work was an independent fantasy novella), and most responded with “meh.” One even told me outright they did not like fantasy, but would be willing to tolerate it. (!?) There is no greater crusher of creativity than “meh.” You need an editor who actually likes what you are writing about, one who will be in your fan camp solidly if your work is any good…and, if you get a good editor, it will be much closer.

 

Poor Valley Witch: To Grandmother’s House

If you are just tuning in, here is the next installment to my serial story: Poor Valley Witch. To start at the beginning, click here.

Part IV of Poor Valley Witch: To Grandmother’s House!

vultures

Landon made it out of Poor Valley; he guessed it was done with him for today. He pulled into the gas station, where Leesdale Road spit him out in town. He turned off the car and shook his head, trying to get oriented. When you were down there, in the shadows of the two ridges that rose like sentinels above the hollow, it was like being somewhere else completely. Not in folksy, rural East Tennessee. It was not even like the underbelly of the town, where folks smiled, but then pinched their lips together in disapproval at the backs of “foreigners”–which really meant anyone not born and raised here.

No, down in the Valley it was like you went through a time-warp, a culture-warp, some kind of veil that sifted out the outside world. I mean, what was that girl–that woman–wearing? he thought. It was a flowered sundress, and it seemed almost modern. Almost, except for the length. It had come down to her ankles. And the buttons were too old-fashioned.

When the feeling of the Valley had mostly lifted from Landon, a few minutes later, he drove down the state highway once more and turned right, away from Poor Valley. It was finally time to visit his Mamaw.

She was out in the yard when he drove in, dancing around with a broom raised high above her head, shouting to the sky. He parked and got out, disturbed. She always did just what she pleased, Mamaw, which led to some eccentric behavior. But dancing with a broom in the yard was either crazy or too close to some of the weirdness he’d left behind in Poor Valley. It set him on edge.

“Git! Git on out, you sons-of-bitches!” she cawed, brandishing the broom. It had a metal handle, sheathed in red, peeling plastic that showed glints of aluminum. He stepped out of her reach before craning his head back to see what she was yelling at. Three vultures flapped lazily overhead, just out of reach of her broom. One jetted a stream of crap that painted the hood of Landon’s car. That’s great, he thought. Well, at least the old lady isn’t crazy.

“Bird problems, Mamaw?” he asked, moving to hug her now that she’d lowered her weapon.

“Damn things keep shitting all over my furniture,” she growled, before stepping back to point at her patio. Prolific spatterings of bird crap almost covered her wicker chairs and table.

“Aw, Mamaw,” he said, starting to laugh. “That’s shitty.” She swatted him with her hand, though whether for laughing at her or for the bad joke, he was unsure. Maybe it was both.

She’d tied old CDs all over the furniture with baling twine in an effort to keep the hulking birds away. They twinkled and spun in the breeze. Landon heard the faint strains of bluegrass music; a station out of Knoxville, he thought. She’d set an old boombox in the open kitchen window, hoping the noise would do what the hanging, twirling CDs could not. If her behavior with the broom was any indication, these measures weren’t working. He tried to suppress a smile.

Mamaw stumped toward the house, stopping to graciously sweep one arm toward her be-shitted patio chairs. “Care for a seat?” she asked in mock welcome. He laughed aloud and, this time, she laughed with him. He walked past her to open the door to the house, letting her go before him before following.

They fixed two glasses of iced tea in a ritual of activity almost as old as Landon was: he got out two old jam jars from the cupboard, the kind that had the Tazmanian Devil and Bugs Bunny on them. She took a glass pitcher of brown tea from the fridge. They sat together at the small kitchen table before she poured from the pitcher into both glasses. Her tea was sweet and always pretty, with round slices of lemon inside. He felt the last vestiges of eeriness ease away with this familiar, comforting act of drinking tea with his grandmother.

“You been down to Poor Valley,” said his grandmother. Landon nodded assent. He was not surprised she knew; he’d predicted to himself that one of her friends would call to tell her.

He hesitated before saying, “I met a woman there. Didn’t tell me her name, but she said to tell you hello.” Mamaw’s eyes were unreadable.

“Those damned birds showed up yesterday,” she said. He blinked at her sudden change of subject. Before he could open his mouth to ask what the birds had to do with anything, the sound of voices in the yard clashed with the cheerful banjos and mandolins coming from the boombox.

“Someone is singing,” he said, and got up to look out the window. There, in the yard, stood a group of people. He recognized most of them from church that morning. Sheila was there, front and center. Her baby was absent. Landon’s unease came back, full force. He pushed the button to silence the boom box, to better hear what they sang:

“God is righteous in His doings,
He is perfect in His ways;
Just is He in all His actions,
And He well deserves our praise.
Righteous was His condemnation,
Righteous His requirement;
For the law had deemed us sinners,
And for judgment we were meant…”

He looked back at his grandmother, still sitting in her chair, calmly drinking her tea. She shrugged, as though to say, What can I do about it? Landon looked back out at the congregation on the lawn just in time to see three black shadows sweeping over their heads. A few of them looked up in time to see white streams of vulture feces falling toward them, and one or two even had the presence of mind to break from the crowd and run for it.

The birds apparently thought this was another gambit to get rid of them, and were responding. They had remarkably good coverage, as Mamaw’s patio furniture testified. The people scattered, shrieking. Sheila pointed toward the house, yelling unintelligibly, before jumping into the backseat of one of the cars that had pulled in behind Landon’s.

“Mamaw,” he said as the parishioners scrambled into their cars and drove away, back to wherever this ill-planned demonstration had begun, “This is probably the weirdest day of my entire life.”

***

Click here for Part V of Poor Valley Witch.

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