Welcome to the blog series, PROCESS. In this series I ask artists of various mediums about their artistic processes. I’ve decided to open the door to visual artists and composers of music alongside our writerly types because as artists, I think we are most similar in our approach to process—how we do the work. Whether it’s an outline of your daily schedule, ruminations on a brainy process, the tape and scissors approach, the need to wear pajamas to work, I want to know anything about your artistic process, even if it’s the work you do to sit your body at the desk.
-Lauren Capone, Associate Editor
For me, writing a short story starts with heart. As a southerner, I believe the heart and the stomach are essentially the same organ. So perhaps it’s best to talk about my process of writing stories in terms of food and grocery.
Dessert is obviously the best meal, so I eat it first, write the ending. John Irving has an essay on why he likes endings first. Generally speaking, it’s a plan of attack. And besides, I really love chocolate. Also, cupcakes.
I used to have terrible panic attacks about what would be for dessert. A bad dessert or no dessert or too much dessert can really ruin a good meal. Having it first, I can cut the crap and concentrate on other things. My logic: this paella climax may be soggy, but that chocolate epiphany is worth anticipating.
Breakfast is the best next meal because it could technically be categorized as dessert: pancakes, waffles, fruit parfait.
I have the first and last four pages. I hate lunch. And dinner. The whinny bitches of all meals. I never know what I’m in the mood for how to shop for them. Sometimes I have meltdowns desperately clinging to chocolate that I may not have earned. I fear there is too much sugar in my diet.
I’m kind of hungry, maybe I’ll take a break.
I don’t shop as much as I should, but at its best, I do enjoy grocery shopping. Ideally at a grungy health food store. Yet, I consistently have a problem: I always pick up a basket when I really need a cart. A terrible habit of mine. I start picking up all these things, avocados, these new apricot fruit bars—they look so cool—Duke’s Mayo, chocolate, tofu, a can of black beans, that weird pepper with a name I cannot pronounce. Eight dollar juice that I obviously place in the basket for its color. I mean, it’s blue. I debate over soup. Soup again? I get sucked in by the Concord grape samples laid out on a cafeteria tray, and so I put a bag in the basket too. It seems like such a good idea.
I reach this critical point where I must decide, how I will continue lugging around this basket with now milk which is crushing the tofu? How do all the components—plot, images, character development, epiphany—work together? Some do not. Eliminate. What am I really going to do with blue juice?
The handle of the basket leaves wormy indentations on my arms. It is onerous. It is not attractive. I have to seriously dodge the grocery stocker giving me bitch face. Yes, I admit it. I’m guilty of abandoning the milk with the recycled toilet paper. I just stupidly thought that it would blend in. Reassurance: Amy Hempel says it’s the attempt at a note that’s more moving than perfection. Not sure this is what she meant. I’ll just linger back to those grapes. They were so good, and maybe if I concentrate on the grapes, I can set down this basket and sort things out.
The real question, though, is what the hell am I going to eat for nourishment? What the hell was the point of this grungy grocery store visit? This is not a meal. This does not even remotely sound appetizing. Oh the doubt I face when I do not know what I am doing. John Cage called it glory. The grapes in my basket look back at me and say, You don’t eat grapes, you idiot. You just like free samples.
Then, behold: the grocery shopper elite. Praise the Lord for this babe of grocery encounters who can offer me some perspective. I look in her cart. BBQ Chicken Tuesday, fancy vitamins, side of potato salad. Finishing off chicken Wednesday, this time with a really cool kale slaw dish. Her cart is a damn color wheel of nutrition. The grocery shopper elite says, “You could totally make black bean burgers if you got some buns.”
Of course, buns. Why didn’t I think of that?
“Avocados,” she says. “I hadn’t thought of using them before. But the whole thing sounds delicious.”
Right. Will it be delicious? When I get home I’m going to face first into that chocolate.
Later that week, though, I look into my fridge and snoop around in the yellow fuzzy light, nudging the milk, picking out a few prune-y grapes. A little distance makes the heart grow fonder, or hungry.
“These were some good groceries,” I say.
Amy Sauber is a writer, editor, and teacher living in New Hampshire. She is from the Carolinas.